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Joan E. Dowlin Headshot

The Healer in Chief

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We need to embrace what our President says. While it can be argued that both Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University and Police Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department overacted in the case of Gates getting arrested in his own home on July 16th after a suspected break-in and the President may have misspoken before knowing all the facts, we can learn from this case.

As President Obama stated, there is a disproportionate amount of blacks and Latinos in jail as opposed to whites and racial profiling does exist in this country. It is easy to see why Gates became angry when Officer Crowley did not believe that it was his own home. One can wonder if that would have happened if he were white. But then, a white man would not have claimed racism which obviously was at issue here.

Just as Obama gave a provocative speech on race relations in Philadelphia during the campaign, and spoke about abortion at Notre Dame's commencement, and talked about responsibility of fathers on Father's Day, and addressed the Muslim world in Cairo, Egypt about how we are not their enemy, let this next conversation be about racial profiling.

The thing that makes me scratch my head is why the radio right wing pundits (Mike Gallagher, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh etc.) have gotten so worked up over Obama's position on this issue. Of course not all police officers are racist (and from what I've read, not Sergeant Crowley). But they are not all saints either. Our police force has been used more often than not to oppress people of color. Profiling does exist and it is a natural response for an African American to question incidents such as this one.

Perhaps the President should not have used the word "stupidly" to describe how the Officer Crowley responded but it was a gut reaction. Let's look at the history of blacks and police in our nation in this century.

According to the "African People's Solidarity Committee" in St. Petersburg, Florida, the police killings of black teenagers TyRon Lewis (1996), Marquell McCullough (2004), Jarrell Walker (2005), and Javon Dawson (2008) are "part of a policy targeting the African community with violence and cover-ups."

The case of Jarrell Walker comes to my mind because I was living in St. Petersburg, FL at the time. On April 12, 2005 in an apparent drug raid, a flash bang grenade was used by deputies to break down Walker's door and enter his house. Jarrell was shot in the back by Deputy Christopher Taylor while he lay sleeping on the couch. Taylor said Walker had a gun under the couch but no weapon was ever found.

To date no officers or deputies have ever been charged or held accountable in any way for these violations. In reference to the four teenagers mentioned above, to quote "the African People's Solidarity Committee":

With their whole lives still in front of them, each teenager was unarmed and in a vulnerable position. Two were shot in the back, one as he was allegedly running away. Another was shot in the side and one with his hands up, as countless witnesses verified.

In every case the victim was black while the shooter was white. Not one victim was in the process of "crime." In every instance the murders were ruled "justifiable" following questionable investigations by State Attorney Bernie McCabe.

And who can forget the incident in 1999 where Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old immigrant from West Africa was shot 41 times by white New York police officers in the vestibule of his apartment while he reached for his ID? The officers thought he was going for a gun (no weapon was found). It was a case of mistaken identity where they thought he was a serial rapist.

In 2006, bridegroom Sean Bell was shot 50 times in his car by police outside the club where he was having his bachelor party the night before his wedding. The plains clothes officers never identified themselves and when ordered to raise his hands Bell, possibly thinking it was a burglary, accelerated the car running into an unmarked police minivan. The officers opened fire. Again no weapon was found on Bell.

In each of these cases the officers were acquitted. They were doing their duty we were told.

Just as they did their duty to Rodney King in LA, CA (1993) and Thomas Jones in Philadelphia, PA (2004) and countless other examples of police brutality.

The story is always familiar. The police say they are protecting lives and the community. Why is there such a culture of fear that officers (and sometimes ordinary citizens) shoot first and ask questions later when it comes to African Americans (particularly young blacks.)?

Why is there such a disproportionate number of blacks jailed? Do they deserve it or is there some discrimination here?

This latest incident between Gates and Crowley seems relatively mild considering this country's history of racial tensions between police and citizens of color. What Obama said about each man being a good person and getting the two men together with him for a beer is a start.

We have to seize this moment and realize what an historical shift it is. Never before has the President of the United States taken such a personal stand against a long tolerated prejudiced practice by some of our men and women in blue. It must be comforting and empowering for African Americans to have a leader that stands up for them in our ongoing changing social dialogue.

Although it is clear we have a long way to go, this is, as President Obama has said, a "teachable moment", just like our conversations on race, abortion, fatherhood, and Islam. Hail to the Healer in Chief!