Saturday, July 25, 2009

Henry Louis Gates vs. the Cops -- and Me in the Same Situation

I’m in DC today and thus once more in a position to give advice to Obama, if he’s reading the blog (my apologies to him and others for still tending to do one long entry per day instead of the multiple short ones per day, which is the rhythm I’m still moving toward). My advice this week would be to apologize to the Boston-area cops who arrested Harvard prof Henry Louis Gates.

I suspected from the get-go that Gates had brought the whole thing on himself by overreacting — if a cop had simply walked away without doing any questioning after getting a call about an intruder, then we’d all say the cops were stupid. But it wasn’t so much the details of the procedure that made me suspect Gates was in the wrong — cops can be very stupid and corrupt, after all — nor, despite what Jesse Jackson and other opportunists would likely think, was it simply that I distrust the black guy in any dispute. Rather, I distrust Ivy League professors steeped in poststructuralist theory. Those guys thought I was an oppressor, from what they said in their lectures, back when I was at Brown. Of course they’re going to freak out and think they’re being oppressed when an actual cop comes in the door.

And let it not be said that I am simply too far removed from crime to appreciate the whole situation. True, I’m living in America’s safest large city (that Starbucks bombing notwithstanding), but I was here back in the early 1990s before Giuliani worked his magic as well, and I remember moments such as the time I was at my apartment front door, returning, just like Gates, exhausted after a long trip, and had to desperately pry at a big, fat column of accumulated mail in my mailbox, making it look for all the world as if I was using some big crowbar on the front door — while wearing black, I might add. Sure enough, a cop car shined a powerful spotlight on me, and unlike Gates, who may well think cops’ brains are wholly unlike his own, I immediately imagined the situation from the cops’ perspective, realized how bad it must look…

…and employed my acting skills to look as innocent and baffled and unconcealed as possible, staring straight into the light even though it was blinding, tilting my head around like “Huh?” and letting a whole bunch of mail slide out of my mailbox before turning back with a sigh to sift through it unhurriedly. Luckily, I was not shot. I will leave it to the deconstructionists to decide whether I partook of the white hegemony-thing.


Gerard said...

Heather MacDonald wrote an entire piece on this subject for NRO-which you’ve probably read-which was pretty edifying. I never understood the reasoning behind black “civil rights” advocates’ stance that you should go out of your way to escalate personal confrontations with police officers.

Yes, from a technical standpoint they’re correct when they say that you’re constitutionally allowed to argue with the premises behind the officer’s decision to question you. On the other hand, I don’t see how that really helps the presumably innocent black man under suspicion.

Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that trying to cross-examine a cop who’s decided to issue a summons to you is not the best course of action.

Brain said...

Gerard said:

“Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that trying to cross-examine a cop who’s decided to issue a summons to you is not the best course of action. ”

- You can’t leave it at that. Do be specific, or at least tell me the story next Lolita Bar debate.


Todd Seavey said...

But you two behave yourselves.

Christopher said...

Now that the 911 call transcript has been released it’s clear that the arresting officer lied about what the woman who called said. Specifically, he added the part about her saying the individuals were black. Also, he apparently lied about talking to her outside the home to confirm what she saw. She claims she never spoke a word with him.

I’m not sure this has any relevance to your thoughts on what Gates should have done, but it does confirm what I myself have observed many times: cops are liars and one should NEVER assume they are telling the truth about anything.

Scott said...

I can’t be the only one to see the incredible similarity between Gates’ behavior and that of Samuel L. Jackson’s character at the beginning of Die Hard 3. It’s almost as if Gates was consciously trying to *be* Jackson’s character in this unfortunate episode — someone who has made it his life’s work to find things to be pissed off at the white man about and to nurse his grievances as close to the surface as possible so that even the most minor confrontation will set them off.

For me, the phrase that made this clear came from Gates himself in his answer to the cop’s statement that he was there to investigate a report of a break-in: “Why? Because I’m a black man in America?” Bravo, sir! A lesser intellect might only have said, “Why? Because I’m black?” But Gates was right there with the full “black man in America” construction, the better to remove any doubt that he sees everything and everyone in the world through the lenses of professional victimhood.

More embarrassing is his faux-thuggish “I’ll speak with your mama outside.” Oh, dear, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Oh, dear. I’ve heard Swedish tweens in Starbucks who sounded more street than that.

Christopher said...

Well, Scott, I think he actually said “yo mama” (though this IS funny, I’m not kidding. A couple of stories actually had “yo” in there). I believe the full quote was “I’ll talk yo mama outside, ’cause bitch’s ass too fat to get through the door!”

The Swedish teens inevitably give themselves away with disparaging remark about “yor mather” smelling like herring, having herring scales between her teeth, etc. or calling her a “long-haired Bjorn Borg-beard lookin’ mother fucker.”

Todd Seavey said...

[...] The comments thread under my Saturday blog entry, about Henry Louis Gates’ overreaction to the police, contained a couple jokes about Starbucks as a place of ethnic blending — and that’s fitting, of course, since even in other parts of the world, American-style franchise restaurants (much as the cultural-protectionists of both left and right, not to mention that recent Starbucks bomber near me, may hate to hear this) often become a sort of calming, neutral safe haven for people needing a little escape from all the local culture.  (Or as a friend of mine from a rural background once put it: sure, small towns have rich local cultures — that’s why so many people want to get away from them.) [...]