And this piece about how Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested for mouthing off to a Cambridge cop who came to investigate a complaint that Louis Gates was breaking into his own home.
Granted the cop needed to come down and check things out once a neighbor had phoned in a suspected break in. Some years ago, I set off my own burglar alarm, the cops showed up and I needed to show them some id. They also wanted to come into the house since I had been packing for a camping trip and therefore had a whole bunch of stuff loaded in the car. It ended after a few minutes.
But I also have tremendous sympathy for Gates and his totally flipping out about this. Can you imagine a more humiliating thing? You are a well-known scholar at one of the nation's most prestigious institutions, you have just come back from a research trip to China, you have clearly "made it" by any objective standard. And without warning, a cop shows up on your doorstep wanting to see ID because a neighbor called and claimed that you were breaking into your own home. Good God! If there was ever an insult designed to trigger a man, that should be it.
Finally, I have to say that this police officer showed remarkably poor judgment. Elderly looking professor is shouting and calling you names, but is clearly not a physical threat. Would it kill you to just leave? Anyone who has done phone solicitation or any other customer service profession has invariably encountered the embarrassing and often emotionally upsetting experience of unexpectedly triggering an emotional outburst from some stranger. But us normal folk don't get to arrest people for mouthing off to us. We expect our children to walk away when confronted by a verbal but non-physical confrontation. I have similar expectations that a police officer can just say "sorry sir" and walk away -- even if he or she feels they are getting a totally unfair verbal assault for just doing his or her job. We call that "maturity."
Was it racism? As is so frequently the case in America, it is no easy question. A neighbor sees someone struggling with a door in mid-day. Did the neighbor know that Dr. Gates was away, making it more likely that it was a break in rather than Gates returning and struggling with his own door in summer heat and humidity? Was the neighbor more likely to assume that it was a break in because it was two black men carrying a shoulder bag? Was it Gates being "over sensitive" to a policeman responding a call? Do we just ignore what it would mean to someone like Louis Gates, after a long trip abroad, confronting what must inevitably seem the outrage of being suspected for no good reason of breaking into his own home. Did the policeman answering the call act politely? Suspiciously? And how should he have reacted on being called about a potential break in to discover that the "suspect" was an elderly looking black man who answered the door promptly and responded with considerable outrage at being questioned?
These are not matters to be lightly discarded or dismissed. They have the delicate nuance and bouquet of a complex and aged vintage, which must be fully savored and appreciated from all sides. Although I would start by advising the police that -- when confronted by an irate elderly looking homeowner hurling insults who is neither involved in the commission of a crime nor presenting a threat of actual physical harm -- that they should remember that Constitution protects the right of people to say what they will in their own homes and that arresting someone because they have failed to -- in the immortal words of Eric Cartman -- "respect your authoritah"is an abuse of the trust given you by the people you are sworn to preserve and protect.