Thursday, July 30, 2009

Debate on the Gates incident

I'm leery of the argument that the Gates incident is a distraction for More Important Things like health care. Because, for one thing, the political process, the media and we as citizens need to be able to process thoughts about more than one political issue in the space of a week or a month. For another, that's the same argument that opponents of prosecuting the torture perpetrators use to justify a reluctance to pursue investigations and prosecutions that the law requires the Justice Department to conduct.

It's painfully obvious that Republicans and "respectable" conservatives like David "Bobo" Brooks are flogging this incident to posture as taking the side of a regular white working-class guy (the arresting officer Crowley) against an arrogant, African-American Harvard professor (Gates). Because the Republicans care so much about the good of working-class people.

Which reminds me, what is it that only Republicans seem to use the phrase "working-class". And then only when they're trying to demagogue something?

I've posted three times on this now, here, here and here. Paying attention to this story hasn't stopped me from being concerned about other current issues like health care reform and prosecuting torturers. I try to pay attention to race-related issues that become national news stories. Because race is a real issue and problem in the United States.


Some Democrats, or at least liberal-minded writers, seem to be recoiling in fear from the whole issue. Gene Lyons wrote a piece on the case in which I find myself uncharacteristically not approving of his approach, Black men, white cops and media mind readers Salon 07/30/09. He argues:

Was it necessary to arrest Gates? Well, it's not a crime to act like a jackass, but cops can't have crowds seeing them cowered by a loudmouth. Everybody with any sense understands about black men and white cops. But racism's a two-way street. Being a Harvard professor ought to imply a degree of self-control. Had he not acted, yes, so "stupidly," Gates could have avoided embarrassment.

Meanwhile, President Obama should learn to finesse touchy questions when he doesn't know what he's talking about.
Lyons also gives his readers some questionable advice, "Anyway, when the police come to your door, always step outside. It puts everybody more at ease." Why? I would think it would be advisable to at least ask them why. In fact, if a policeman has come to your door and you open it and step towards him, I would think that might have the opposite effect of putting him at ease these days.

Gene stops short of saying the arrest was justified, but I would guess from his column that he basically does.

Bob Somerby has been following the press coverage of this issue closely. But he also expresses concern about the political implications about how some voters may react to what he perceives - and not without reason - as being poor commentary on the incident by liberal pundits:

Two things can be true at one time: 1) The arrest may have been unwise, and 2) The cop may have been treated like an ass.

Why couldn’t both things be “relevant?”

A guess: Most American voters will have a different reaction to this event. They will care about how the cop was treated. As we said: For decades, liberals have signaled to American voters that we don’t care very much about cops—or about a range of other working-class people (examples below). When voters see that attitude on the part of liberals, they may vote the other way. ...

Understand well: When liberals make a point of telling the world that it doesn’t matter how cops get treated, we are begging, pleading with voters to vote for the GOP. We might as well hire a tow plane to drag a sign overhead at the beach. Just a guess: Most voters don’t want people getting arrested for bogus reasons. They also don’t want police officers getting sassed, trashed and disrespected. That was the scenario [columnist Eugene] Robinson envisioned. Even then, the mailer didn’t think it was “relevant.”

That’s how Democrats lose. In part, it’s how Nixon reached the White House, long ago. This week, it may be costing Obama points. [my emphasis]
My comments on what I think is important in the case probably does look different than much of the liberal commentary on the issue. My take basically comes down to this:

  • The most important issue is whether the arrest was legal and appropriate; based mostly on the police incident reports and the decision of the Cambridge City and PD to immediately ask that charges not be pursued, the arrest was not legally justified and therefor not appropriate.
  • I don't see this as an example of "racial profiling". That phrase has normally been understood to mean picking a person of color as a possible suspect in circumstances where a Caucasian would not have been picked. In this case, Sgt. Crowley was responding to a report of a possible burglary.
  • Nothing I've heard about Crowley or this particular case makes me think he's a racist in any meaningful sense of the word.
  • Gates does not strike me as a particularly sympathetic individual; but being annoying or obnoxious is not grounds for an arrest.
  • The information from the woman who made the burglary call as Crowley described on his incident report did not conform to the tape of the 911 call: the caller had not identified the two men she saw as black; she also had said she saw suitcases on the porch. This is not necessarily Crowley's fault. The dispatcher's message to him may be what is reflected on the incident report, though the report says he talked to the 911 caller at the scene. [This bullet-point has been corrected since it was posted.]
  • Evidence of racism on the part of an individual is unlikely to emerge from an incident like this unless it's very clear that he expressed an overt racial motive or used language generally understood to be racist. Such was not the case in anything I've seen reported on Crowley or this incident.
  • Whites generally have a different consciousness about the behavior of police than do members of black and Latino communities largely because their communities have had different experiences with the police and the criminal justice system. Good, bad or neither, that's just a fact of life. At a minimum, whites are more likely to assume they will receive respectful and legal treatment from the police.
Whatever those vaguely-defined white voters out there who might vote Republican because they think liberals are arrogant twits, I think the way both Lyons and Somerby focus on the attitudes expressed by the two men as well as the class narrative is more than a little problematic. Whatever Sgt. Crowley's personal class background or present reality - for all I know, he's a trust fund baby who graduate from Yale who works as a cop because he's committed to public service - when he's acting in his capacity as a police officer he's acting as an agent of the state. And he's required to obey the law. Getting back to my first point of my own view of this incident, that's what really decisive. Did the police officer acting as he was as an agent of the state have legal grounds to arrest that guy? The answer to me is clearly no. If somebody reads this and suddenly wants to vote for Republicans and all the preventive wars and torture policies and efforts to abolish Social Security that comes along with doing so, go head on. Because the law matters, for police officers and for arrogant self-righteous professors. And for respectable lawyers and Republican bigwigs who plan and implement a criminal program of torture. The law does matter.

I can't help but think here that both Lyons and Somerby are over-learning a lesson from the Nixon years, the way in which Nixon and his crooked Vice President Spiro Agnew demagogued the race issue with some success among white working-class voters.

My reaction to their concerns is two-fold. One is that the Republicans have been running against black people since at least 1964, the Goldwater Presidential campaign that had special appeal to Southern segregationists. The primary issues in that Presidential campaign were civil rights (Goldwater was against them) and the Vietnam War (Goldwater favored a rapid escalation). They will keep appealing to white racism until they decide it does them more harm than good electorally.

Secondly, I don't really think it does anyone any good to pretend that white racism doesn't exist. Or that it only existed in the segregation days. Or that it only manifests itself by saying "n****r" or other overtly racist words. I don't have a citation ready at hand. But in the Presidential election last year, there was a worry that white working-class voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio who voted for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries would vote for McCain in the general election because of Obama's race. But this didn't happen to any significant extent because labor unions ran a concerted campaign to counteract any such effect.

The lesson I draw from this is that if the Democrats want to counter Republican racial demagoguery among white workers, the most obvious way to do that is to promote the spread of unions. Like by passing the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). And by doing all they can to encourage people to join unions.

Trying to avoid discussions about racially-charged situations like the Gates incident isn't going to cut it.

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