After gathering the pertinent facts surrounding last week's arrest of distinguished Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates -- reading the police report, reviewing Massachusetts' disorderly conduct statute, and watching the Cambridge police's press conference -- I'm confident in my assessment. Sergeant Crowley acted stupidly.
Leave it up to Professor Gates -- noted scholar and documentarian -- to unknowingly stoke the fires of a national conversation about race and our criminal justice system. As we looked at the pictures of Professor Gates being carried out of his house in handcuffs, regardless of race, many of us could relate to his sense of indignation. After all, our home is our castle. Sgt. Crowley practically admitted that Professor Gates was not a threat when he wrote in his police report, "While I was led to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence, I was quite surprised and confused with the behavior he exhibited toward me." However, he still decided to charge Professor Gates with the same statute that applies to a "common night walker," "brawlers," and "persons guilty of indecent exposure." The only threat Professor Gates presented was a threat to Sgt. Crowley's ego.
America needed someone like Professor Gates to "overreact" to Sgt. Crowley. The pictures that captured Professor Gates with his mouth wide open and handcuffed, captured his rage as a member of a privileged intellectual class. In sharp contrast to the no-named men and women who have kowtowed to the police to avoid bogus arrest charges, Professor Gates got loud with his arresting officer. Professor Gates' prestige and stature brought a spotlight to the uglier side of police culture.
We live in a country where some police officers have gone wild and act like adrenaline cowboys. For instance, earlier this year, we watched the video of a Dallas police officer detain a distressed NFL player in a hospital parking lot as he pled to see a dying family member. Two years ago, we felt for Melissa Langston as a Tampa police officer slammed her to the trunk of her car and arrested her as she tried to explain that she was speeding to see her father who had just suffered a heart attack. For anyone who has ever felt disrespected by a nasty cop, Professor Gates is giving you the national voice that you never had.
Our country also needed to hear President Obama's visceral response to the Cambridge police department. While some believe that the president should not have gotten involved in such a local issue, the reality is that the Gates arrest was not a news story until President Obama entered the scene. Who else could get our media obsessed with the issues of race and our criminal justice system? Who else could make this a teachable moment? Over the next few weeks, we are bound to have more community forums about the police and their relationship with the communities that are supposed to protect and serve. Given the opportunity for improved police-community relations, it's actually a good thing that Sgt. Crowley didn't know who he was "messing" with.
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