Wednesday, July 22, 2009
The more I listen to the debate over the Henry Louis Gates/Cambridge Police incident, the more I'm thinking we mighta misread this one initially. At first, when I heard the facts, and read the police report, I thought "damn, we're still having to deal with this nonsense in 09'?" But upon further review, I remembered a few of things. 1) I have a family member (AverageMiddleBrother) who was a faculty member at Harvard for about 3 years. 2) I've been to Cambridge and Boston myself more times than I can count. 3) I'm also a black man.
That said, here are my random observations, in no particular order.
The Neighbor Was Right. Sorta. - Let's face it, this entire ordeal could have been short-circuited had the nosey assed neighbor just asked Gates if he needed some help, rather than overreacting and calling the cops. The area where Gates lives is affluent, very close to campus, and many of the homes there are leased to faculty (as Gates' was, he was on the phone with property management when the cop arrived) by the University. It's not a stretch to assume that he, a nearly 60 year old man with a walking cane and sedan service, just might be a faculty member himself. On the flipside, had some random Negro broken in Gates' house and this very same neighbor stood by and said nothing, Gates woulda been extra pissed upon return. As a guy who's had this sh*t broken into while apathetic neighbors more or less stood by and watched, without bothering to call police, I somewhat admire this woman's sense of community. She just went about it the entirely wrong way.
The Policeman Was Right. Sorta. - The cop was simply doing his job, responding to a report of a shady character trying to barge his way into a house. He shows up, sees Gates inside the house, asks for ID, and upon identifying Gates as a member of faculty, "appears" (based on the police report) to have been trying to leave the scene. Did this cop overreact by eventually arresting Gates after he proved residence? Perhaps. But again, is it such a stretch to ask a person for ID? No assault occurred, Gates didn't get his head busted. He was simply asked to verify his residence. What's really so wrong about that?
Gates Was Right. Sorta. - Here's the thing: Every sensible Black man knows by age 21 that there is a proper way to respond when confronted by the cops. Some of us are taught by our fathers, some of us learn by trial and error, but all of us should know that the man with the gun is going to win 99% of the time. I'd never, ever, ever condone not standing up for yourself when accused of something you didn't do, but that's not exactly the point of contention here. Smart money says to comply with what the cops ask of you, get the badge number (or something that can be used to identify the person), and report them after the fact if they were out of pocket. It's better to live and be wronged than be dead right. It's not fair, but life seldom is. Gates, an academic who's made a living of studying race relations, should definitely have known better. You don't hit a cop with the infamous "do you know who I am?" unless your name is Michael Jordan. You certainly don't help the situation by wailing out "This is happening because I'm a Black Man In America!" Duh, that's obviously true, but it means jack squat to the policeman. Gates should be happy he got away with the minor charge (since dropped) he did, rather than a bullet to the dome. That's usually how these things end.
Cambridge Ain't Boston. - I've read a lot of comments lumping Cambridge in with nearby Boston when it comes to general racial climate. Not true. If there's any such thing as a bastion of elitist liberal America (other than San Fran), it's Cambridge. The small city is extremely ethnically diverse, has a large native black population, a large immigrant population, a black female mayor, and has had several black police commissioners in the past. Anyone who's spent any amount of time knows it's just one river, but several worlds separated from Boston, which is legitimately one of the most offputting and hostile places I've ever personally visited. My brother, who did his postdoctoral studies at there, told me Cambridge (not to be confused with the campus of Harvard, which is yet another world of its own) is one of the most welcoming places he's ever lived. On the same note, he can count on one hand the number of times he ventured into Boston while living there.
Gates Isn't THAT Famous. - There's also a general feeling out there that the neighbor, as well as the policeman, should have known who Gates was, a sentiment echoed by Gates himself. This has to be the most ridiculous comment evar. How well do you actually know all the folks on your block? Do you guys realize that Harvard is literally the Pro Bowl of American academia? Every professor at Harvard is likely world renowned in his/her field. Saying Gates should be recognizable and well known to the general populace in Cambridge is like saying a casual basketball fan should easily be able to point out Michael Redd while watching the NBA All-Star game. Michael Redd is a nice player, but he's hardly the only star in his field. To the neighbor, Gates was probably just some guy she's passed once or twice on the quad. To the cop, Gates was little more than a suspect. Sorry, but this just how it is.
What We Can All Learn From This. - Reality is, in 2009, yes, police brutality still exists. Black men get their heads busted (or worse) erryday. But this case clearly isn't police brutality, and had Gates just exercised a bit more constraint, this whole thing might have been totally avoided. Just a note to anyone pulled over, or otherwise confronted by cops: if you ain't do nothin' wrong, you have nothing to worry about. Shut up, comply, get the badge number, and handle it the reasonable way. Better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6.
The Bottom Line - Everyone here overreacted. The neighbor should have asked questions rather than made assumptions. The policeman should have perhaps been more sensitive to the situation and let cooler heads prevail. And Gates definitely shouldn't have pulled the infamous "Do you know who I am?" card. The obvious problem here is that only one of these overreactors could have lost his/her life as a result of this situation. I'll let you all guess who that might have been.
Question: Am I waaaay outta bounds with this, or did Gates perhaps overplay the situation?