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If Obama tried to break into the White House, he’d get shot

Last week, Harvard professor Henry ‘Skip’ Gates (who is black) was arrested after he broke into his own home in Cambridge Mass., even after he had shown ID that this was his home. Last night at his press conference Obama was asked about the incident, and joked that if he had tried to jimmy his way into his current home (the White House) “Here, I’d get shot.”

But this incident raises multiple issues: Apparently, Gates was angry that he was accused of breaking into his own home. The police officer says that Gates accused him of being a racist, of racial profiling, and that Gates was “speaking about my mother.”Arrest of Henry Louis Gates The police officer arrested Gates for “disorderly conduct” (the charges were later dropped). How would this situation have played out if Gates had not been black? Did Gates, who is known as a fairly vocal person, overreact? Could this be used as a teachable moment?

Unfortunately, as usual the media is trying to gin up this incident, trying to goad the police officer into saying that Obama owes him an apology for saying that the police “acted stupidly”. They are also trying to prove that the officer is not a racist. However, other black professors at Harvard have complained about racist treatment by the Cambridge police, and the governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, said he was “troubled” by the situation.

So what’s it going to be? Will this be an opportunity for us to calmly discuss issues around race? Or will this just lead to more polarization and politics?

UPDATE: There are some discrepancies in the police report filed by Sergeant Crowley that bring into question his version of what happened.

UPDATE 2: Gates was arrested for “disorderly conduct” but Massachusetts law is very clear that yelling at a police officer is not grounds for disorderly conduct. Therefore, when Gates was arrested (as Obama said) the police “acted stupidly”. They may even be guilty of making a false arrest.

UPDATE 3: Colin Powell on the arrest of Gates and racial profiling. Very interesting.



  1. Richard wrote:

    You got your facts wrong. Gates did not forget his keys, he was attempting to push in the stuck front door. He then used his keys to get in the house through the back door. The officer found him in the house, asked him for ID and (this is disputed) he refused to provide it being shocked that the officer didn’t know who he was.

    Gates could have ended this in 10 seconds by giving ID and putting himself in the officer’s place: responding to a 911 call of a break in.

    If I broke into my house and my neighbors heard it but didn’t know it was me, I’d hope they’d call 911 (they would) and if the police came, how would they know it was my house until I provided enough ID to prove that it was? I’d provide ID quickly and politely and would understand the assumption of break in given the call.

    It seems that jet lag and bad judgement pushed Gates to claim this incident as one of profiling. No doubt profiling happens but this is not a clean case of it because Gates created more of a problem than there was initially.

    Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 3:52 pm | Permalink
  2. Richard wrote:

    I’m a big fan of Barack Obama but I think it wass highly unfortunate that he added the line about Cambridge Police being stupid to his comment on this at the press conference. The sequence of events are disputed and as a lawyer Obama should know better.

    Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  3. Iron Knee wrote:

    I saw mixed reports about why Gates was breaking into his own home — your version is the third one I’ve read. I fixed this by removing the comment about his forgetting his keys. Not really important to the story.

    Gates may have overreacted, but as far as I know he did nothing illegal, and certainly nothing that should have gotten him arrested. And you have your facts wrong — Gates did provide both his driver’s license and his Harvard ID.

    Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  4. Richard wrote:

    Sorry, he provided his ID only after being asked numerous times. The disputed piece is when he provided the ID. It seems likely that Gates resented being asked for ID in his own home but without it there was no was the officer could have known he was in his own home. Also, Gates may have assumed that the officer knew who he was but in fact, the officer didn’t.

    What he did to get him arrested was argue with the officer throughout the entire process including calling him names out on the porch which the other officers and neighbors witnessed.

    Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 7:38 pm | Permalink
  5. starluna wrote:

    I’ve been waiting for a public statement from the witnesses. I understand that they generally support the police version of the events, but either they aren’t talking or the local media haven’t been asking. I only know because a friend of mine works for the mayor.

    My personal belief is that there is plenty of blame to go around. He shouldn’t have been arrested, but his arrest is totally predictable. If you are belligerent to a cop, you get arrested. Whether that is right or good is a separate question. But we all know it happens. And honestly, who isn’t rooting for the cop when there is an asshole in the room? If the original police report, which has been removed from the web for some reason, is even remotely accurate, Gates acted like a entitled jerk.

    I’ve seen Gates myself get a little out of hand when his authority on a subject is questioned. To me this is a classic clash of machismo. And predictably, everyone loses.

    What ticks me off is that if it comes out that Gates is not the pristine innocent he claims to be, it will make it that much harder for real cases of racial profiling and discrimination to be taken seriously.

    Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 8:48 pm | Permalink
  6. Iron Knee wrote:

    Thank you Starluna! I’ve been waiting for someone to make the point that maybe this isn’t just about racial profiling.

    Yes, Gates probably could have defused the whole thing by acting apologetic, but this brings up two important points: first, that the policeman also could have defused the situation by acting apologetic. In other words, he could have said something like “I’m sorry I entered your home without your permission, but we had a report of a burglary and I needed to investigate. I’m sure you would have been happy to have me investigate if there really had been a burglary in progress.” And he could have just walked away if Gates was being rude (since there was no burglary, there was no longer any reason for him to be there).

    And second, my biggest problem with Gates is his sense of entitlement; the whole “do you know who I am” thing. Gates is probably used to getting away with being rude because he is somewhat of a celebrity. Gates keeps repeating that he is angry that this happened to *him*. Like racial profiling is acceptable if it happens to someone else (the “little people”).

    Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 10:40 pm | Permalink
  7. Iron Knee wrote:

    Dave Lindorff makes this point much better than I can.

    Friday, July 24, 2009 at 2:01 am | Permalink
  8. Richard wrote:

    “I’ve seen Gates myself get a little out of hand when his authority on a subject is questioned. To me this is a classic clash of machismo.”

    “Gates is probably used to getting away with being rude because he is somewhat of a celebrity”

    That nails my discomfort with this situation turning into an clean example of racial profiling.

    My discomfort with Gates comes from years of watching him on PBS and feeling like he was talking to his audience in a patronizing way.

    It doesn’t excuse police misconduct but I can easily see how taking that attitude (I have an endowed chair at Harvard, you’re a dumb white cop) when things need to be calmed down might escalate the situation.

    I also know what it’s like to get off a plane from China (disorienting, pun intended) and no doubt Gates’ rational thinking process was a bit impaired.

    Amazingly, this seeming tidbit (negative reaction to using class to demean the officer) may be more powerful in forming negative opinions about Gates than stereotypes about race.

    I just don’t feel like this incident gives Gates the best platform and I don’t think he’s the best spokesperson to talk about racial profiling in America.

    Friday, July 24, 2009 at 5:42 am | Permalink
  9. Richard wrote:

    Sorry Starluna, this is the money quote of yours I meant to post:

    “And honestly, who isn’t rooting for the cop when there is an asshole in the room?”

    Tough to tease “clean” racial profiling out of this.

    Friday, July 24, 2009 at 5:46 am | Permalink
  10. Iron Knee wrote:

    More information on this:

    “A black police officer who was at Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s home when the black Harvard scholar was arrested says he fully supports how his white fellow officer handled the situation.”

    Friday, July 24, 2009 at 12:36 pm | Permalink
  11. starluna wrote:

    Your link is not working. Try this one instead:

    Friday, July 24, 2009 at 1:59 pm | Permalink
  12. Richard wrote:

    I think Obama put did an excellent job of turning down the volume on this issue today:

    Friday, July 24, 2009 at 3:13 pm | Permalink
  13. singingwater wrote:

    What everyone seems to be missing is the issue of CLASS, in this conflict.

    Being working-class, and originally from Boston/Cambridge, and knowing these kinds of police officers intimately,having one of them in my family, I can tell you that there is a tremendous amount rage just waiting to be directed at anyone from Harvard, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

    And I am very sure that when Officer Crowley was told to go to Harvard Square to answer the police call, this was activated. This is why he has been adamant about NEVER apologizing. For Boston people it is a matter of pride.

    “Townies” resent these academics (and college kids) regardless of race. They feel colonized by them. These types are seen as looking down on the police and locals- who are asked to babysit for them and service them. They are seen as rude and privileged brats who take the best jobs and living spaces and never leave.

    The layer of racism was added to this. I can just imagine both parties “mouthing off”. In Boston/Cambridge- this is always an accident waiting to happen.

    After this incident, I am sure Obama will be seen as defending “one of his own”. Mainly because Obama went to Harvard and protects this intelligensia, regardless of his working-class roots. And he has brought so many of them into his administration. It is a club, that the Crowleys will never be part of. Even if he has a beer with Obama (and Gates).

    There is a class war going on in Boston/Cambridge, regardless of its liberal reputation. This is the real city, that most people are not aware of and are afraid of.

    Sunday, July 26, 2009 at 3:25 pm | Permalink
  14. Iron Knee wrote:

    Thanks for your comment, Singingwater. That’s an interesting perspective on the problem, and explains some of the things that didn’t make sense to me. Like why the city would apologize for the arrest, but the officer would *categorically* refuse.

    Sunday, July 26, 2009 at 4:15 pm | Permalink
  15. starluna wrote:

    I agree with Singingwater. It’s a class issue on both sides. Gates expects that everyone will recognize him and treat him as the well-respected Harvard professor that he generally is. He’s not exactly the nice old man seen in the PBS documentaries or IBM commercials, and that comes out when he is challenged, or perceives that he is challenged. And all police officers expect deference, whether they deserve it or not. Crowley is no different, not matter how sensitive he is to racial profiling.

    It is a race issue too though. Both men responded to each other with a specific, racially informed, expectation. Gates’ expected deference and when he didn’t get it, explained it through a racial lens. Crowley expected deference and when he didn’t get it, was not sensitive to the fact that Gates’ response was probably as racially informed as his white academy students. With the focus so much on white behavior (which is legitimate) we forget that people of color also see the world through our own racial lenses.

    As an academic myself, I expect more from Gates though. I don’t expect police officers, even really good ones, to be critical of their own ideas. They have a job to do, it’s dangerous, and there is a lot of protocol to follow to protect oneself, fellow officers, and the public. I don’t expect cops to respond to a B&E call contemplating their feelings and ideas. But those of us who teach about, write about, and do research on sensitive issues, like race, should be held to higher expectations of self-reflection. Particularly those of us who are supposed to be “renowned” scholars.

    Monday, July 27, 2009 at 7:20 am | Permalink

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  1. Political Irony › Profiles in Profiling on Monday, July 27, 2009 at 11:59 am

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