I hope we make the most of the national discussion and debate generated by the July 16th arrest of Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts by Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge police.
If you've been under a rock for the past 10 days, here's the quick version: Gates returned to his house at noon after an overnight flight from China, with his driver, to find he couldn't get into his house. His white neighbor called the police and reported that two men were trying to break into the home. Crowley responds, and the police report is here. Gates tells his side of the story here.
While so much of the debate pretends that the key question is what Gates said to Crowley, it's actually not illegal to yell at a police officer in Massachusetts:
In several cases, the courts in Massachusetts have considered whether a person is guilty of disorderly conduct for verbally abusing a police officer. In Commonwealth v. Lopiano, a 2004 decision, an appeals court held it was not disorderly conduct for a person who angrily yelled at an officer that his civil rights were being violated. In Commonwealth v. Mallahan, a decision rendered last year, an appeals court held that a person who launched into an angry, profanity-laced tirade against a police officer in front of spectators could not be convicted of disorderly conduct.
So Massachusetts law clearly provides that Gates did not commit disorderly conduct.
So Gates appears to have been guilty of nothing illegal, but is
there any doubt that he is being judged in the court of public opinion for his
alleged statements to the officer? You can bet that a large percentage of white Americans find it easy to believe in the falsehood that Gates's verbal challenges or resistance justified his arrest. This belief--that this black man or anyone else is obligated to be submissive to police officers in speech--should be called out and rejected.
It's human nature for an employee to consider taking a customer's behavior into account when deciding what kind of service to give to them. Professionals do a good job of ignoring insults or slights, but no one is immune from the temptation. For police, though, the bar has to be higher. Too much rides on the outcome. To begin to change the dynamics at the heart of racial profiling and the distrust that many minorities feel toward the police, the training that officers receive has to meaningfully recognize the negative experiences that most minorities in our country share.
In his recent column in the New York Times, Charles Blow cites a NYT/CBS poll from July 2008 that asked this question:
“Have you ever felt you were stopped by the police just because of your race or ethnic background?”
66 percent of black men said yes, compared to 9 percent of white men. That's a shocking statistic, but to really try to absorb what this means, you have to think about what really happens on some of these stops.
Blow tells the story of being stopped in Louisiana when he was 18, the president of his college freshmen class, in a car with his friend Andre:
Andre insisted on knowing why we had been stopped. The officer gave a reason. It wasn’t true. Then he said something I will never forget: that if he wanted to, he could make us lie down in the middle of the road and shoot us in the back of the head and no one would say anything about it. Then he walked to his car and drove away.
I was raised to treat police officers with respect, and have always figured it was in my interest to do so. I can think of three times when I was stopped for speeding and let go with a warning, and guessed that the 'yes sirs' and 'no sirs' didn't hurt my cause. But being deferential has never implied for me that I needed to swallow a sense of profound injustice. I've never thought for a second that I was or might be threatened, arrested or even shot just because I'm a white guy. Our experiences are so different, we might as well be living in different countries.
It's clear that the experience of prejudice at the hands of the police is all too common for black men and other minorities in the United States. It's asking too much to insist that someone show respect to an institution that has treated them unfairly. It's asking someone to accept a diminished or tarnished standing in the eyes of an entity that has the power to take away their freedom or even their life. For that respect to come, it's going to have to continue to be earned.
It seems certain that submission or deference is sometimes used by police officers as a litmus test for whether they will make an arrest or issue a citation, even when the expectation of submission goes beyond the legal obligations of a citizen in interacting with a police officer. This emphasis on submission and compliance no doubt has some of its roots in attempting to ensure the safety of our police officers, who must be prepared for any possibility. But when race and ego are injected into the mix, an expectation of "submission or consequences"is unacceptable as standard operating procedure for police officers-- even, or perhaps especially, when people are upset and saying so.