The Henry Gates arrest: A different perspective
July 22, 2009
I was an auxiliary police officer for 20 years, 11 in Michigan where a wise chief told us never, under any circumstances, were we to arrest someone for disorderly conduct. He said that if we couldn’t find a more serious charge it was up to us to calm the person down. Otherwise he told us that using this charge was just an easy way to end a situation with a disruptive citizen without using the skill we were supposed to have to de-escalate.
I’m not going to try an in depth analysis of Gate’s indignant anger and the possible racial animus coming from the police except to suggest that it is just as likely the police reaction was fueled by classism as racism. It was quite possibly a combination of the two.
Critics of Gates’ behavior may say he was trying to play the "race card" and maybe, at least to some extent, he was.
In Cambridge, a city dominated by two universities, you see the well known town vs. gown phenomenon
. Police, even those with college degrees, resent it when people play the "I’m a university professor" status card. In this case the card was literally a card.
The card that may have riled the police up the most might have been Gates’ Harvard I.D. Maybe things would have turned out differently if he showed them another form of identification.
As I read about the Gates encounter with the police I think they took the easy way out. I was convinced that the sole charge of disturbing the peace charge would be thrown out as it generally is.
Whose peace was disturbed anyway?
Was it half dozen or more police officers who were standing around?
People become police officers in part because they like having their peaceful days doing what can sometimes be a boring job interrupted by some action. They aren’t supposed to arrest someone for disturbing their peace.
If a person is out of control to the point of endangering the officers, other citizens, or themselves, there are other more serious charges to arrest them on.
Was Gates disturbing the peace of the few neighbors standing around on their lawn?
I doubt it. They were probably entertained. Even if he was, did any of them make a complaint? If they were smart they should have run and gotten their cameras.
As far as I’m concerned the police should have used their skills to de-escalate. This is part of their training.
Instead it became the proverbial "pissing match" between the police and an irate defiant citizen. I’ve seen that first hand many times when issuing traffic tickets.
In those cases the police always win because all they have to do is say "yes sir" or ‘yes mam" and patiently wait until the person has finished venting. Then they ticket them and the person drives away steaming without knowing the original intention was to give them a warning.
What I think happened was that the only way the police could win in this particular pissing match was by finding an excuse to humiliate Gates. This was by taking him away in cuffs using the only charge they had.
They may have done Gates a favor.
They provided him with the experience of being cuffed and locked in a cage in the back of a police car, having his mug shot taken (see police booking report here
) and later being locked in a holding area at the police station. Now he doesn’t have to use his empathy to understand how so many black people feel when their freedom is taken away by police rightly, and especially wrongly, exercising their power.
He’s had the first hand experience.