Another take on the ongoing controversy of The Professor, The Policeman, and the President: (And, I hope, the last). I believe Eugene Robinson's take on the power dynamics that were in place in this confrontation is correct.
A friend noted that even the Chief of Police and the mayor of Cambridge realized there was an overreaction to the incident on the part of Sgt. Crowley--and how do we know this? All. Charges. Were. Dropped:
"In a joint statement, Cambridge and the police department said they made the recommendation to the Middlesex County district attorney and the district attorney's office "has agreed to enter a nolle prosequi in this matter," meaning that it will not be pursued."
Also, apparently Sgt. Crowley misremembered what the woman who called in the report of the alleged break-in said:
"Police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, released the 911 phone call Monday. In the call, Lucia Whalen reports seeing "two larger men, one looked kind of Hispanic, but I'm not really sure, and the other one entered, and I didn't see what he looked like at all."
"I just saw it from a distance, and this older woman was worried, thinking somebody's breaking in someone's house and they've been barging in," Whalen says. "She interrupted me, and that's when I noticed. Otherwise, I probably wouldn't have noticed it at all, to be honest with you. So I was just calling because she was a concerned neighbor, I guess." Listen to the entire 911 call »
Attorney Wendy Murphy, who represents Whalen, also categorically rejected part of the police report that said Whalen talked with Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer, at the scene.
"Let me be clear: She never had a conversation with Sgt. Crowley at the scene," Murphy told CNN by phone. "And she never said to any police officer or to anybody 'two black men.' She never used the word 'black.' Period."
Robinson's entire column is here.
But for the sake of argument, let's assume that Crowley's version of the incident is true -- that Gates, from the outset, was accusatory, aggressive and even obnoxious, addressing the officer with an air of highhanded superiority. Let's assume he really recited the Big Cheese mantra: "You have no idea who you're messing with."
I lived in Cambridge for a year, and I can attest that meeting a famous Harvard professor who happens to be arrogant is like meeting a famous basketball player who happens to be tall. It's not exactly a surprise. Crowley wouldn't have lasted a week on the force, much less made sergeant, if he had tried to arrest every member of the Harvard community who treated him as if he belonged to an inferior species. Yet instead of walking away, Crowley arrested Gates as he stepped onto the front porch of his own house.
Apparently, there was something about the power relationship involved -- uppity, jet-setting black professor vs. regular-guy, working-class white cop -- that Crowley couldn't abide. Judging by the overheated commentary that followed, that same something, whatever it might be, also makes conservatives forget that they believe in individual rights and oppose intrusive state power.
There was a similar case of collective amnesia at the Sotomayor hearings. Republican senators, faced with a judge who follows precedent and eschews making new law from the bench, forgot that this is the judicial philosophy they advocate. The odd and inappropriate line of questioning by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) about Sotomayor's temperament was widely seen as sexist, and indeed it was. But I suspect the racial or ethnic power equation was also a factor -- the idea of a sharp-tongued "wise Latina" making nervous attorneys, some of them white male attorneys, fumble and squirm.
Is a man of Gates's station entitled to puff himself up and remind a police officer that he's dealing with someone who has juice? Is a woman of Sotomayor's accomplishment entitled to humiliate a lawyer who came to court unprepared? No more and no less entitled, surely, than all the Big Cheeses who came before them.
Yet Gates's fit of pique somehow became cause for arrest. I can't prove that if the Big Cheese in question had been a famous, brilliant Harvard professor who happened to be white -- say, presidential adviser Larry Summers, who's on leave from the university -- the outcome would have been different. I'd put money on it, though. Anybody wanna bet?