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Gates, Crowley and Historical Baggage

24 July, 2009

I have resisted chiming in on the case of Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley.  Both PhillyChief and Chappie have their take on the unfortunate event.  I tried to comment, but quickly went from comment to essay.  Still, I resisted writing about it.  Until now.  Because now I think that I have something to say which, to my knowledge, has not yet been said.  Before I get into that, though, I need to explain, quickly, the surface causals in the incident:

First:  Professor Gates is one of the great minds in modern America.  He is a success story which shows what is possible:  from a small West Virginia town to Yale, Clare College Cambridge, Cornell, Duke and, finally, Harvard.  He also appears to have over reacted, possibly (and I am not trying to make an excuse for his behaviour, but I am trying to show how this could have happened) because he was tired after spending a long time in an airplane.

Second:  Sergeant Crowley is widely described as an honourable and professional police officer.  He grew up in a mixed neighborhood and friends and co-workers gently laugh at the idea that he is racist.  He also appears to have overreacted to the actual situation, possibly (and I am not trying to make an excuse for his behaviour, but I am trying to show how the could have happened) because he was entering a reported breaking and entering, finding an open door with one person visible inside.  His adrenaline was elevated as he mentally and physically prepared for what he thought was a possible life-and-death situation.

Third:  Both Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley appear to have played an unintentional ‘game’ of uproar.  Uproar happens, unintentionally, when two (or more) people escalate a situation well past the level it deserves, usually through stress, anger, or a host of unresolved issues between the two, conscious or unconscious.  Either one, or both, could have de-stressed the situation.  Between Gates’ exhaustion and Crowley’s fight or flight adrenaline level, I am not surprised that two intelligent and professional men allowed this to happen and appear to have played into the increasing confrontation.  I do not see this as a hate crime.  I do not see either man as a racist.

That said, I think that both Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley are, at a secondary level, victims of racism.  Here’s why:

Minorities in America have, historically, had a very good reason to distrust police officers. 

Up until very recently, police officers were not civil servants.  Oh, they met the definition of a civil servant in that they were paid by a government agency to perform a function as a representative of the government.   However, police officers protected property and the propertied. 

Police were used to break up union meetings and rallies to ‘preserve the peace.’  They routinely arrested the poor and minorities on charges which would never have been brought against middle- or upper-class whites.  If the prison did not have enough men for the chain gangs, the police rounded up ‘vagrants’ to fill them out.  The southern law enforcement response to the civil rights movement was violent and, in some cases, deadly as the local and state police tried to protect the status quo.   Even the National Park Service was not immune to the misuse of law enforcement, using maintenance workers equipped with axe handles to clear a camp ground in Yosemite of ‘hippies’.  Even in very recent history, relations between law enforcement officers and the minority community have been strained — Rodney King, in Los Angeles comes to mind, as does Tenaha, Texas.

Professor Gates carries with him the baggage of generations of abuse by authority figures.  Tired from a long flight, he viewed the necessary actions of a police officer — making sure that there was no one else in the house, checking identification, clearing the scene — through the lens of racism and reacted in an unprofessional manner.

Sergeant Crowley, however, carries his own baggage based on historical racism.

With the rise of the civil rights movement, blatant racism on the part of government officers has become less and less acceptable.  Today, an accusation of racism made against an officer of the law can create massive legal bills, can damage careers and, in some cases, put the officer’s job and pension on the line.  Officers in almost all police departments are taught to be sensitive to any possibility of racism. 

Yet they are also taught to profile.  A white man cruising in a nice car through a run down neighborhood should raise questions — drugs or prostitution?  A black man appearing to jimmy a door in a wealthy neighborhood (apparently the door was jammed) should raise questions.

Responding to a breaking and entering complaint, Sergeant Crowley entered a house expecting the unexpected.  He, and his partner, did not know, could not know, what to expect.  When they encountered Professor Gates, and met with his angry accusations or insinuations of racism, that threat changed from one of a possible physical confrontation to one in which Sergeant Crowley’s career was being threatened.  The threat changes but his response to a threat, through years of training and experience, does not.

I have no idea what went through the mind of either man during the incident.  I will never know.  All I can do is point out that every single one of us carries with us historical baggage.  This historical baggage colours our reactions in myriad situations.  I strongly suspect that, due to extenuating circumstances, both men allowed their historical baggage to escalate a tense situation into a full-blown confrontation.

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20 comments

  1. I experienced similar treatment with the same police force. I am a colored person and I had just pulled my car over to a valid parking meter to take a phone call (near MIT). While I was in the car talking on the phone, the police officer walked over and issued a parking ticket while I was still present in my car.
    Moreover, the same officer passed by without issuing a ticket to a white woman who ran to put coin the meter.
    To add insult to the injury, appeal does not work no matter what proof you present!


  2. AB: Thanks for stopping by. Today, events such as the one you describe are no longer ‘normal.’ Which is not to say they don’t happen. Again, the historical baggage exists in all directions.


  3. Thanks for posting this. You filled out, with lots of data specific to this case, what I alluded to generally in the final paragraph of my post. All of us, no matter how sensitive and aware we try to be of ourselves and others, have absorbed – whether willingly or not – cultural influences, both good and bad. I did not intend to intimate that either Gates or Crowley was intentionally behaving in a racist manner. They may have been acting, however, on the basis of influences and attitudes that they were not even aware were at play in their interaction. There are a lot of lessons that many of us can learn from this unfortunate event.


  4. Well done, (((Billy))) It’s too bad things turned ugly but all things considered, you can see how it could go that way. I know I’ve been mean to plenty of people I probably shouldn’t have when I’m frustrated & stressed… who the hell hasn’t? The “historical baggage” just serves to make a bad situation worse. Unfortunate, that.


  5. Well done. Probably the most even-handed discussion I’ve seen yet.


  6. Chappie: As I said to Philly on his post, I don’t disagree with you, I just needed to put it into a larger context so that I could wrap my mind around it. I don’t think either one was intentionally reacist either, though I do think that historic racism contributed to both the misunderstanding and the escalation.

    Rox: Thanks for stopping by. Yeah, I think all of us have reacted in a manner we regret while under the influence of fear or stress. Luckily, in this case, no alcohol was involved.

    Nan: Thanks. I don’t think either was right, but I have a hard condemning either of them.


  7. No. No historical bagage involved. Here’s proof:

    The crime of disorderly conduct, beloved by cops who get into arguments with citizens, requires that the public be involved. Here’s the relevant law from the Massachusetts Appeals Court, with citations and quotations omitted:

    The statute authorizing prosecutions for disorderly conduct, G.L. c. 272, § 53, has been saved from constitutional infirmity by incorporating the definition of “disorderly” contained in § 250.2(1)(a) and (c) of the Model Penal Code. The resulting definition of “disorderly” includes only those individuals who, “with purpose to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof … (a) engage in fighting or threatening, or in violent or tumultuous behavior; or … (c) create a hazardous or physically offensive condition by any act which serves no legitimate purpose of the actor.’ “Public” is defined as affecting or likely to affect persons in a place to which the public or a substantial group has access.

    The lesson most cops understand (apart from the importance of using the word “tumultuous,” which features prominently in Crowley’s report) is that a person cannot violate 272/53 by yelling in his own home.

    Read Crowley’s report and stop on page two when he admits seeing Gates’s Harvard photo ID. I don’t care what Gates had said to him up until then, Crowley was obligated to leave. He had identified Gates. Any further investigation of Gates’ right to be present in the house could have been done elsewhere. His decision to call HUPD seems disproportionate, but we could give him points for thoroughness if he had made that call from his car while keeping an eye on the house. Had a citizen refused to leave Gates’ home after being told to, the cops could have made an arrest for trespass.

    But for the sake of education, let’s watch while Crowley makes it worse. Read on. He’s staying put in Gates’ home, having been asked to leave, and Gates is demanding his identification. What does Crowley do? He suggests that if Gates wants his name and badge number, he’ll have to come outside to get it. What? Crowley may be forgiven for the initial approach and questioning, but surely he should understand that a citizen will be miffed at being questioned about his right to be in his own home. Perhaps Crowley could commit the following sentences to memory: “I’m sorry for disturbing you,” and “I’m glad you’re all right.”

    Spoiling for a fight, Crowley refuses to repeat his name and badge number. Most of us would hand over a business card or write the information on a scrap of paper. No, Crowley is upset and he’s mad at Gates. He’s been accused of racism. Nobody likes that, but if a cop can’t take an insult without retaliating, he’s in the wrong job. When a person is given a gun and a badge, we better make sure he’s got a firm grasp on his temper. If Crowley had called Gates a name, I’d be disappointed in him, but Crowley did something much worse. He set Gates up for a criminal charge to punish Gates for his own embarrassment.

    By telling Gates to come outside, Crowley establishes that he has lost all semblance of professionalism. It has now become personal and he wants to create a violation of 272/53. He gets Gates out onto the porch because a crowd has gathered providing onlookers who could experience alarm. Note his careful recitation (tumultuous behavior outside the residence in view of the public). And please do not overlook Crowley’s final act of provocation. He tells an angry citizen to calm down while producing handcuffs. The only plausible question for the chief to ask about that little detail is: “Are you stupid, or do you think I’m stupid?” Crowley produced those handcuffs to provoke Gates and then arrested him. The decision to arrest is telling. If Crowley believed the charge was valid, he could have issued a summons. An arrest under these circumstances shows his true intent: to humiliate Gates.

    From C&L.

    Please get your ‘facts’ right before you blog about something you have no knowledge about.


  8. The C&L quote argues that Crowley inappropriately retaliated. Retaliated to what? “I don’t care what Gates had said to him up until then.” Well that’s convenient to ignore at least half the story. Why was Gates an asshole? Who knows? The “historical baggage” may be a possibility. Personally, I think he immediately saw the incident as a way to exploit it.

    In any event, I see no reason for the Lurker’s objection and I certainly don’t see his claim of no historical baggage involved as warranted, so I would advice the Lurker to both gain some knowledge of what “proof” is, or at least spend some more time reading posts to understand what the subject of that post is so that when presenting facts as proof of something, that something is both pertinent to the subject of the post and the subject of his/her own comment.

    At best, the quote from C&L serves to discredit the possibility that historical baggage played a role in Crowley’s actions.


  9. Lurker: If anything, that quote would seem to reinforce my contention that the reactions of both men (in the case of your quote, the police officer) were, at least in part, predicated on the personal and cultural history of the individual. His defense against a verbal accusation of racism is just that, defensive. And he uses the slightly under-the-table tools to deal with it in a particular manner. By playing uproar, he gains the additional level of justification that the civilian was out of control. It is, within the milieu of police culture, an understandable, if not ethical, reaction.

    Philly: Long quotes without comment don’t always work, do they? And I have to disagree with you — as stated above, the narrative quoted fits in quite understandably with the historical baggage hypotheosis.


  10. to protect and serve…who was he protecting, or serving, when he arrested a man in his own home for disorderly conduct?

    Better arrest somebody, show ’em who’s boss. No big deal right? The charges will get dropped, and your buddies will all have your back. Man who pissed you off gets put in his place.


  11. Quixotic: The only logical reason I can think of for the arrest was control. Law enforcement officers are trained to take control of situations. Even if it is the wrong decision, making one puts the officer in control of the situation. Faced with a situation in which the officer is not in control, the officer has choices.

    One choice (a piss-poor one) is to continue to allow the verbal exchange to escalate. The officer would then run the risk of allowing the situation to make the transition to a physical confrontation.

    Another choice is to just walk away (which is the choice many seem to think Sergeant Crowley should have made). This, however, runs counter to every bit of training a law enforcement officer has had. You do not walk away from a confrontation and leave an out of control situation behind you. Whether the civilian has a reason to be upset or not, that upset person has now become a possible threat, if not to the officer than to others (and I stress possible).

    The third way is to take control of the situation in a way that short-circuits further escalation through formalizing the contact. Formalizing the contact generally means arrest or detainment. This removes the possibility of the confrontation escalating to the physical level. Once the person is in handcuffs, it becomes safe for the officer to relax.

    Often civilians are put under arrest for the admittedly bogus charge of disorderly conduct in order to prevent the situation becoming physical and allow the officer to gain control of an out-of-control situation. Even if the officer creates the situation through a verbal miss step, even if the officer knows that the charge will not stick, placing the civilian under arrest may be, in some situations, the best choice.

    Do officers abuse this choice? Yes. Is is sometimes necessary? Yes. Is it the least bad choice of a whole string of bad choices? Sometimes.

    The point is, the law enforcement officer is trained to take control of any situation. Sometimes this leads to dissorderly conduct arrests to allow the officer to take charge.

    I am not a law enforcement officer. I do perform in a level 2 law enforcement capacity while at forest fires. I have experienced some uncomfortable situations. I have had to break up fights in fire camps. I have exercised authority I did not have in order to gain control of situations. Again, sometimes it is the least bad choice.

    Did both Gates and Crowley show bad judgement? From my understanding, yes. Did Gates pull a stupid stunt? Again, from my understanding, yes. Was Crowley stupid? At the beginning of the confrontation,yes. Towards the end, he was looking for a way to gain control of a chaotic situation. Arrest may have been his least bad choice.

    Does that make sense, Quixotic?


  12. I honestly appriciate the reply. Yes, it does make sense, and i sort of agree. An officer should be able to take controll of any situation, and the ability to arrest someone for disorderly conduct is one of the tools they use. So is a tazer. So is de-escalation. They should use disorderly conduct to confine an individual if they fully intend to charge that person with a crime. I dont think any time an officer does not feel he is in complete controll of a situation, he should start arresting people. How far do we take this? If an officer is not complying with my wish for him to leave my home, and keeps asking me questions, and i call him an asshole, he shouldnt then arrest me. Yes he is not in controll of the situation. Thats because he is in my house.

    I have had a police officer knock on my door. i walked out to the porch, and began to talk with him. He started to ask me questions about what my little sister had been doing the night before. I had no idea, but instead of telling him that and getting grilled for a half hour anyway, I politely asked him to leave. I could have told him to F” off and go get a warrant, but either way, he lost controll. How should he have responded?

    I would like to note, i have been an avid reader of your blog for a long time, and am a big fan. Not trying to cause trouble here, or seem hostile. i just strongly question the need to arrest that man. I know, I can question it up and down, it doesnt matter. The police officer did what he decided needed to be done, and we need the officer to have that ability.


  13. Hi:
    Well first and most importantly this is a great post. Like you said we all react to things based on “what we don’t know we know.” What we don’t know we know takes over–We are our history. Thanks for making this point so clearly.

    Signifyin’ Monkey
    signifyinmonkey@blackvoices.com


  14. Quixotic: I don’t approve of the method Crowley used to gain control of the situation, but I can understand it. The thing is, it worked. It stopped the confrontation becoming physical. Once a police officer gets involved, he (or she) is not supposed to leave until the situation is under control. If, for whatever reason, someone is not under control, the situation has not been resolved.

    Signifyin’ Monkey: Thanks for stopping by. There really is no way to avoid our past and our percieved history. The best we can do is be aware of our prejudged attitudes and make adjustments.


  15. It did not stop the confrontation from becoming physical. He physically restrained a man in his 50’s, on his own porch, for no reason other than to be in controll. I think a police officer should leave a situation that has not been resolved, if that situation is that i’m calling him an asshole, or a racist, or a wife beater, or whatever the hell i want, in my own home. I wonder how many people have been arrested under bogus disorderly conduct charges, and didnt have the charges dropped. Hell, in a small town, it doesnt matter if you are convicted. Your name is in the paper next to disorderly conduct. That can do a lot to tarnish an innocent man’s reputation. But at least the officer was in controll.


  16. Also thank you again for responding to my post. Especially if you did so on your vacation.


  17. Further, i just caught your advice that i speak to a police officer. I assume you are done with this topic, and so i shall say no more.


  18. Quixotic: If Professor Gates had, in his anger, shoved Seargant Crowley, Gates would have been brought up on charges of aggravated assault against a police officer, carrying (not sure about MA, but in PA) 12 to 72 months in prison. In that respect, handcuffing Gates and holding him on a ‘bogus’ charge did keep things from escalating further.


  19. Billy,

    I understand the police do cuff for safety’s stake. Not just when someone has commited a crime, but when they are in need of controll, or more information. This, in my understanding, is referred to as investigative detention. But i feel the officer should be, and in most cases is MORE than just careful to tell the handcuffed person that they are in investigative detention and NOT under arrest.

    People put in investigative detention may be near arrest and for some reason or another generally the police are determining if they are going to arrest the individual, or there is a safety issue. Not everyone “goes downtown” but often many people involved in a situation are put into investigative detention.

    So fine, Mr. Gates had been impeding a pending investigation, and the officer decided to put him in custodial detention. From my understanding, Mr. Gates did not resist being detained, otherwise i beleive he would have been charged with resisting arrest and possibly aggrivated assault. So what’s with the bogus disorderly conduct charge? Was that for controll, or to justify the handcuffing?

    I believe the bogus disorderly conduct charge was used to justify the embarassing and time consuming arrest procedure, that Crowley wanted to put Gates through. Seems to me when it comes down to it, this arrests was un called for and apparently all about showing the angry man who’s boss.

    I would like to note that the reason i continue to post in this thread is not to “get the last word in”. This issue has lit a fire under my ass, as it were, and i have found this blog an enjoyable bucket of icewater(if that makes sense). I am honestly enjoying the exchange. I am not hoping for some sort of concession on your part here, and i thank you for your time.


  20. Like I said before: Both screwed up. Both reacted in ways which personal and cultural history possibly influenced. Why he charged him with disorderly conduct I do not know. What more do you want me to say? I’ve given my view. You think I am wrong. Fine. So be it. Disagreements are common on the internet. Tell me what you want me to say and I’ll think about it.



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