Saturday, July 25, 2009


A very interesting take on the current story of the Professor and the Cop.

Gotcha! Henry Gates, Jr. arrested by the victim of a tarnished myth

By Bob Sommer, Kansas City Star Midwest Voices panelist

Taking on the police in the post-9/11 era means dealing with a lot more than Frank Serpico faced 35 years ago when he took down a heavily-corrupted New York City police department. At great personal risk Serpico faced the unwavering fraternal code of police loyalty, “Thou shalt not rat out a fellow police officer”—that and a lot of self-interest. But in the 1970s, police departments didn’t have the popular image they do now, when uniforms and flags and New York’s “singing cop,” Daniel Rodriguez, evoke tears almost at their mention. Last week, however, we all had a chance to witness the reserves of mythology that police can now call upon when their behavior is questioned.

Traveling to and from Boston during the week, I witnessed the coverage of Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s arrest on local TV, as well as the reaction of travelers in several airports and squeezed into a few airplanes. With the help of highly solicitous and cooperative local and national media outlets, the Cambridge police department quickly ordered its narrative, made sure Sgt. Crowley could recite it, and kicked into gear. Reporters almost slobbered on their shoes as the scripted lines were recounted, and they reliably presented the desired imagery as it was presented to them.

Officers lined up square-shouldered and grimly serious for press conferences. Their image as infallible--as heroes--had been tarnished by an insult. Flags and seals and lapel pins and starched uniforms, the armament of the myth, were drawn into a defensive posture. All of the symbols which ever since 2001 are certain to evoke the unexpected tear, the sudden quake of emotion, as well as unquestioning respect and acceptance, were on display to win the publicity battle, for despite what anyone may say about “learning moments” or “conversations” or even “investigations,” this issue would heard and decided in a few short days in the court of public opinion; and the Cambridge police department, and now all of the police departments that have come to their aid with no more information than President Obama at least admitted he had, knows this.

And it worked. I watched at airport gates as the TV monitors ran endless loops about the incident—watched the response all around me. People stopped, watched for just a few moments, and shook their heads skeptically, cynically. What’s the world come to that this police officer, “just doing his job,” should be subjected to this?! I saw and even caught looks and stray comments from other white people affirming the righteousness of the now-victimized cop and his actions when he arrested Gates, because whatever he and his police chief and all police officers said happened is what happened.

Gates failed to cooperate as a black man should, as Sidney Poitier’s character did when he was arrested in The Heat of the Night, showing respect and deference. If this hadn’t been the most pre-eminent scholar of African-American Studies in the country, we never would have known about this incident—but that was partly Gates’s point. Absent his notoriety, a middle-aged black man would have been taken from his own home for no other offense than claiming his right to be where he was—and saying so in a tone to which tone Crowley took offense. No law was broken. But a cop took umbrage. Yet we’re more inclined, even eager, to believe the word of a unknown cop than that of a respected professor.

Gates was hired at Duke University about 25 years ago, when I was near the end of my graduate work there. In today’s New York Times, Prof. Stanley Fish, who as the English department chair hired Gates, recounts his experience at Duke, when the pre-eminent historian John Hope Franklin was also on the Duke faculty, just one flight down from the English department. I never met Gates (though I did meet Fish), but I did read his work and had occasion later in my career to assign his 1987 textbook The Classic Slave Narratives. To say it wasn’t a hard call to give Gates the benefit of the doubt when his arrest first became public is an understatement. For most of those who shook their heads in sympathy with Sgt. Crowley’s victimhood, I just wonder what would be their response to being arrested and handcuffed as they tried to unjam a swollen door in their own homes. Perhaps the neighbor who called in the incident can shed some light here.

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