Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Reflections on Gates and Crowley

This past week has held much interest for me as the Gates incident continued to unfold, and all of the blogosphere and most media outlets had something to say about it.

It occurred to me, while considering the opinion that the President shouldn't enter into local police matters, that nothing really happens, in the view of most of the American public, unless it happens to a celebrity.

Imagine if Gates had been an obscure plumber, computer tech, or office worker. He arrives home, encounters his stuck door and takes the same steps he did in his real life. Imagine that pretty much everything happened in the way that we think it happened. Crowley arrives, there are words, Gates presents ID, proving himself the homeowner and events continue down the path to arrest and dropped charges.

I am certain of a few things in the above scenario.

1. We would never hear about it. There would be no bloggers frothing at the mouth to present their views on the subject. Obscure Gates would be arrested and it would be on his public record forever, with no opportunity to present his side of the situation. Obscure Gates wouldn't have the privilege of his celebrity to make his voice heard, no matter how unfairly he had been, or felt he had been, treated. He would have to suck it up, go home seething, vent to his friends and maybe try to approach his local paper to highlight the situation. The paper might choose to ignore him.

2. Crowley would never have to answer for any of his actions, words, or attitudes. Obscure Gates would be seen as a crank and promptly ignored by the police force and the city of Cambridge.

3. There would be no dialogue about race, the use of police power, and the consequences of our words and attitudes on others.

One could argue that Gates' celebrity is the primary cause of the incident. What some see as his sense of entitlement, and indignation that he should be put upon by Officer Crowley, seems to have given the situation its impetus and momentum. Saying,"You don't know who you're messing with," is not exactly an invitation to polite disagreement.

I'm not willing to grant the incident as Gates' fault, because as the evidence has trickled in it has made me more suspicious of Crowley than it has of Gates. We knew from the outset that Gates was yelling, upset and might have acted in a way that wasn't the best. With Crowley, little pieces have emerged, after the fact, which highlight cracks in the portrayal of him as completely faultless; his misrepresentation of his conversation with the 911 caller, his former boss unwittingly letting it slip that Crowley was leaving after Gates had proven his identity, and told Gates to come outside if he wanted to keep talking--something that seems to me to be a set-up to get Gates out of his house, in public view, so that Crowley can have an excuse to arrest him on disorderly charges.

I tend to see the whole thing as a power play by Crowley to show Gates who is in charge. Whether his motivation was racial, or simply a result of being ticked off at Gates, I won't venture to say. It could be either.

Is the whole thing a tempest in a teapot? A mountain out of a molehill? If Gates wasn't famous, and specifically hadn't spent his entire career documenting and speaking about the history of black people in the United States, would anyone care?


There are certainly people who think that it's not worth caring about the power play that took place between two men on a summer afternoon in Cambridge.

However, what was an unfortunate event for both Gates and Crowley, has become a Rorschach test for the nation, and at the very least has created some interesting conversations in real life, and online. By no means will racial attitudes and assumptions from either point of view suddenly change and spawn a new era of peace, love and unicorns. Yet, there will be some change in some people. There will be people who at least consider the other side of the issue, even if they ultimately disagree about what it all means.

Hopefully, more than anything, it has made people think more about how they perceive things, and how others perceive things. The heart of this story is not ultimately about race, but about how wrong things can go when we are unwilling to extend the benefit of the doubt to people and let our emotions make our decisions for us rather than thinking things through.

This story is a human story. So much of what happened is connected to how events unfolded, how someone said something, and what sort of impression the other person had of what was happening.

It's interpersonal conflict in its purest form....something that most of us can relate to. The public has involved itself with the story because it can see itself in the various characters, understanding what Gates, or Crowley, might have been thinking.

We have more technological ways of communicating with each other than people 100 years ago could have imagined, but we still have a difficult time understanding each other in the midst of all our self-expression. Other people can be an enigma to us, and what makes other people tick can be as impenetrable as the mysteries of the universe.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think you have begged the question. Misrepresentation of the 911 caller is a strong word. Accounts differ. Happens all the time. It's why attorneys defending guilty people love eyewitnesses, and those defending innocent people hate them. I'm not just saying that - it's part of the job I do.

That Crowley was trying to bait or inveigle Gates into coming out so he could nab him is also an interpretation. There are other interpretations which fit the facts, which I have written elsewhere and won't clutter up your comments section with.

The key question is whether Gates's disruption rose to the threshold for an arrest. It may not have. But there is simply no evidence that there was anything racial about the incident, other than what Gates injected into it. That it might be racial is plausible, but we simply don't have any reason to choose that narrative over others.

I agree that we would not have had a conversation about race or profiling if Gates had been a nobody. But why would we want to seek a national conversation about race based on an incident that is plausibly racial on only one side? Doesn't moving from the provable to the narrative always favor the folks who are farther from the truth in the general discussion?

Racial profiling - or disproportionate response against minorities - does indeed happen. But the discussion we are not having results from certain possibilities being eliminated from the public discussion because they are too uncomfortable. People have such conversations in secret, or in places on the internet that are castigated by others, but there is much we cannot say because it is too volatile. I submit that it is the PC crowd which prevents honest discussion, however much they say they clamor for it. There are theories with some scientific support that are not funded for research, do not make it to the editorial pages, and even I avoid on my blog because I don't want the hassle. Yet they are there.

There is certainly much that is unattractive right now coming out of the comments sections of conservative sites. There is equal prejudice coming off the left (I checked TPM and firedoglake today). It is better to either confront such things or ignore them, not argue. But the site-owners posting on the subject have divided very interestingly in their type of reasoning.

terri said...

I don't think misrepresentation is a strong word, at all.

Lucia WHalen has been adament that the only conversation she had with Crowley was one in which she said she was the 911 caller and he told her to stay where she was as he went up to Gates' house. That was sentence from her, self-identifying herself.

Crowley says she told him she saw two black men entering the house with backpacks, and that is what he put in his police report:

In the police report, filed by Crowley, he says he spoke with Whalen outside the home before he approached Gates' house.

"She went on to tell me that she observed what appeared to be two black males with backpacks on the porch of Ware Street," the report says. "She told me that her suspicions were aroused when she observed one of the men wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry."

Unless the 911 caller is blatantly lying, this is more than simply differing accounts. Crowley created an entire which makes him look better and gives more credence to the idea that he was just doing his job.

I find that troubling and have a hard time imagining that he was simply mistaken about what the 911 caller said. If that detail is so grossly inaccurate, if he made that big of a mistake about what someone was do we know that his recording of what Gates said and did, and what happened between the two of them, isn't inaccurate, or painting his side in a false light?