Whatever ultimate effect President Obama's "stupid" remark may have on his popularity, whatever long-term impact it will have on Professor Gates, Sgt. Jim Crowley, the Cambridge Police Department, or aggrieved cops across the land, it has certainly set us to talking. (Or SCREAMING, to judge by the multitudes of uppercase ranters who believe Obama really, really blew it.)
I didn't care for the "s" word (either as adjective or adverb), but had the president selected a more measured, politically palatable word ("questionable," "imprudent," "unfortunate," "regrettable") his take on the professor's arrest would have been buried on A-19, if reported at all. Instead, the whole country's abuzz over a hornet's nest of an issue we've conveniently neglected as a nation, for decades.
Historically, police have been experienced by black communities across the land as biased and brutal, oppressive as well as dismissive and neglectful.
There's been progress, for sure. But, whether you're a 22-year-old laborer or a 58-year-old Harvard scholar, if your skin is black your history with the police is likely to have been spotty at best.
Families and friends tell stories. They forge "truths" about the institutions that affect them. They pass along their views from one generation to the next. We all do it.
So, if you're a white middle class suburbanite whose local cops have recovered your stolen Audi, convinced the boomer next door to turn down their Steppenwolf at two in the morning, or pulled a loved one from a burning wreck you're like to have a positive attitude about the police, telling uplifting stories about them. And siding with them, automatically, when their behavior gets questioned or criticized.
But if you're a struggling black mom, for example, whose husband is serving a long prison term for simple possession of pot (when, under identical circumstances, more affluent offenders, disproportionately white, walk), and whose well-behaved male teens have been stopped and frisked repeatedly, called names and/or had guns drawn on them, you're not so likely to have warm and fuzzy feelings toward the local PD.
Facts? Intentions? "Reality"? They matter, but they don't count. What counts is perception, and belief. After all, the consequences of what we perceive and believe are always real.
So, what do we do about this deep, destructive divide between (not all) white cops and (not all) black citizens?
Two things, I think. First we insist on rigorous standards of police conduct. There can be no room for racism, sexism, homophobia or any other brand of bigotry within the ranks.
For the record, I did not label Sgt. James Crowley a racist. I did offer my opinion that had Gates been white he would not have been arrested. This belief was reinforced when Sgt. Leon Lasher, the imposing black officer pictured standing with Crowley and the small handcuffed prisoner on the porch of that cheery yellow home, answered a reporter's question. Yes, he said, the outcome likely would have been different had he handled the contact with Gates. This from a man who supports his white colleague's actions "100 percent."
The second thing we must do is strengthen police competence, and come up with a better definition of what it means to play "by the book."
See, Crowley may in fact have "followed protocol," as Lasher maintains. But I take issue with the all-too-common practice of police officers baiting a citizen into committing an act of disorderly conduct so that he or she can arrest that citizen for... disorderly conduct. However offended Crowley may have been by Gates's conduct inside his own home, that behavior was not a crime. But to coax the man outside, where a crowd might well gather, and where a continuation of the professor's tirade would (disputably) justify an arrest? (Then writing in his report of poor kitchen "acoustics"? Please.) Can you say "contempt of cop"?
I think the officer perhaps didn't know how to handle a "real American": a person who believes in the law and in the sanctity of his home, who has a healthy skepticism of authority, and who demands of those who wield it that they abide by the rules. Yes, it's possible to hold these views and still behave rashly, or "overreact," as I now firmly believe Gates did.
As George Thompson of Verbal Judo fame might put it, any cop can handle nice guys and wimps; give me the cop who can deal effectively with a real American, a cop who can skillfully defuse rather than escalate a conflict. I'm just saying.
The president, wounded by a wave of criticism, hounded by police union demands for an apology and struggling to get the country's focus back on health care, did a very smart thing. He phoned Sgt. Crowley (later describing him as a good man and an outstanding police officer), and suggested they meet, with Gates, over a beer.
The Cop, The Professor, and The President sitting down over brews in the White House is mind-boggling symbolism. And yet altogether "American."
Perhaps, instead of shouting at one another the rest of us can take a cue from these guys and sit down over a Bud or an ice tea and talk police work, and how to make it better.