July 22, 2009

Empathy Has to Go Both Ways with Race

Justin Katz

I hesitate to help stir the pot of manufactured racial strife, but the prominent black academic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of Harvard has illustrated too perfectly why racial division will persist until such "leaders" of minority communities as him begin arguing, by example, for mutual empathy.

Gates returned from a research trip to find that his house key wouldn't work: "the lock had been tampered with." So, he and his driver, another black man whom Gates described as large, forced the door open. A neighbor called the police and gave a description of the men.

You can guess the script. The police arrived, and one of them (white) tweaked Gates's sensibilities when he used the Voice of Authority (a "threatening" tone, in Gates's words) in the course of sorting the matter out, and the ensuing scene ended with Gates's arrest. The critical moment, in my view, comes with the professor's "instinct" that he "was not to step outside" per the officer's instructions. (Curiously, the Washington Post appears to have scrubbed that quotation from its online report.)

Having been the target of the Voice of Authority a few times when I was younger, I probably join a great many other white men (and women, too, no doubt, but fewer) in seeing no racial component to the officer's behavior. Moreover, with even a weak attempt at objective distance, something that should be as natural as breathing to a Harvardian big brain, it's possible to discern that, contrary to Gates's assessment, the policeman didn't have a single "narrative" of the "black guy breaking and entering." Rather, he likely had multiple possible scenarios in mind, and it is his often-dangerous job to weave through them all and return to his cruiser with nobody injured or killed.

A little empathy for his perspective is merited. The police department received a call about two men of a particular description forcing entry into a suburban home. Upon officers' arrival to the site, only one of the men was present, and he relatively short and old. The fact that the policeman entered the house by himself suggests that "misunderstanding" was already one "narrative in his head," but if that misunderstanding could be resolved on the porch, he could remain within view of the "half dozen" of his colleagues who were also on the scene.

It's possible that wisdom should have suggested (if protocol allowed) that the men in blue make the hastiest possible exit and leave Gates fuming on his front steps. But he began to push and belittle, escalating the scene to the point at which the officers thought it justified to arrest him and to thereby kick off a spate of news coverage and a new professional initiative for academic.

All parties involved will emerge unscathed or, in Gates's case, to their own advantage. Unfortunately for some young black man further down the cultural lines of communication, however, the "instinct" that turned an anecdote into an incident has been reinforced, and it might not end so well for him.

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I know what Gates looks like,and he doesn't even remotely resemble a B&E guy.He was probably aggravated enough with the door,and then the cop coming into it caused him more frustation.Gates hasn't really ever been a racial bomb thrower and has actually been at severe odds with Louis Farrakhan on numerous occasions.
Why didn't his neighbor know who he was?
I've had to break into my own house-years back I had to fish my wife in through a basement window-ruined the frame doing it.Can't do it anymore with the tiny replacement windows.

Posted by: joe bernstein at July 22, 2009 3:20 PM

Gates did 2 things wrong.

1 - He let the police into his home after already showing his ID. He didn't call the police, had no need for them to be there etc. The incident should have been resolved immediately after showing the ID. Note that the officers version of the story states that Gates did not show his ID immediately while Gates version backed by an eye witness states he did show both his license and Harvard ID after retrieving them while the officer remained on the porch.

2 - He stepped outside of his home at the request of the officer.

The moral of the story is that the police can arrest you for free speech or as they say 'loud and tumultuous begavior'.

Posted by: doughboys at July 22, 2009 4:19 PM

Our information appears to differ. Based on the three links in my post (and various others), it sounds like the officer asked Gates to step onto the porch, where the officer himself was standing. Gates refused and went into the kitchen to get his ID; the officer followed, although I've seen no mention one way or the other as to whether Gates invited him in.

Gates handed the officer his ID and began haranguing him about his name and badge number. His account and the officer's differ as to whether the information was given.

Gates then followed the officer outside, apparently without being asked to do so, and continued in an angry tone.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 22, 2009 4:42 PM

Having read the police report, which presumably sets things out in the light most favorable to the responding officer, I don't really see the appropriateness of the arrest under these circumstances.

Let's stipulate that Prof. Gates acted like an a-hole.

But that's not a crime (if it were the Cambridge PD would undoubtedly have to arrest many, many more members of the Harvard faculty).

The reality of the world is that police officers have to deal with a-holes all the time.

And when it's a close call -- which it appears to have been at best in this case -- a seasoned officer (the arresting was a Sgt., I understand) should have the capacity to defuse the situation and walk away.

If the officer really thought this was a disorderly, an arrest was still not necessary; he could have issued a summons and sorted things out later with the prosecution officer.

I do sympathize with the officer who is put into this mix, but I think he handled a bad situation in a very poor manner.

Posted by: brassband at July 22, 2009 5:31 PM

A policeman knocks on my door and asks me to step outside without a warrant? I show my ID and the probable cause based on the reported 'burglary' goes out the window faster than you can say racial profiling.

I raise my voice inside my OWN home and on my OWN front porch and I am charged with disorderly conduct? Disorderly conduct towards whom? Policemen who I did not invite into my home or on my property and whose entire reason for showing up DISAPPEARED when I showed my ID?

This was not on the street or in a car. A person has a huge expectation of privacy within their own 4 walls. King's warrants went out the window centuries ago.

Based on my own limited experience (official and non official) with the police I take the word of a private citizen under these murky circumstances and so did the District Attorney's office of Middlesex County and Martha Cloakley is no pushover like Patrick Lynch.

ABC News is the only media outlet including those in Boston that appears to have told both sides of the story.


Posted by: doughboys at July 22, 2009 5:51 PM

For clarity: My point is not that the police are without blame for bad decision-making here. I'm suggesting, first, that the issue of race is Gates's imposition and, second, that people run into these circumstances all the time (because the other folks with whom their dealing are human, too), and a "leader" of a minority community leader, especially of an academic tincture, should recognize that level-headedness would serve his or her community better.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 22, 2009 6:23 PM

I see your point of view however Gates is the one left with an arrest record and a mug shot on the net after being held for 4 hours after the bogus arrest from raising his voice within his home.

What are the consequences of the policeman's bad decision?

I don't look at this as a racial issue being white but from a personal rights perspective. He should never have opened the door imo bottom line.

Posted by: doughboys at July 22, 2009 7:18 PM

Gates is going to profit mightily from this incident.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 22, 2009 8:08 PM

This is nothing more than a resume builder for Gates. He acted like an extra big a-hole knowing exactly what was at stake and how he could profit from it.
Anyone who thinks otherwise is naive.
You can say a lot of things about the guy; stupid is not one of them. He knew exactly how to play this hand.

Posted by: Mike Cappelli at July 22, 2009 8:29 PM

Justin, racebaiters always profit from their racebaiting. That's why they do it. Rev. Al, Jesse, Louie F, etc.
Did you hear Gates interview with Boston.com?
The guy is a whackjob who claims he's "56% white". lol Now why would anyone who claims to be majority white embrace the identity of black man and then try to tell us they're horribly oppressed in this society??
Gates is a liberal Havad elite who is used to having those around him kiss his 44% black bum. The one and only crime this officer committed in the eyes of Louie is that he was not willing to kiss Louie's belligerent and hostile 44% black bum.
My genuine hope is the next time any of Louie's neighbors see anything suspicious going on around his house they ignore it. How hilarious would it be if Louie's house burned to the ground because nobody called the "white folk" to put it out??? lol

Posted by: Tim at July 22, 2009 8:34 PM

Justin, Is Gates profiting (if he does) from this a consequence for the officer?

There are rarely any consequences for wrongful behavior by police. The best example I can think if is the theft of 5 subsequently unregistered and therefore illegal weapons by Portsmouth police officers. No charges were ever filed. They are above the very law they are paid to enforce.

In reviewing the statute used for the arrest it appears that this is generally used in 'public' situations. I fail to see how this applies in any way shape or fashion here.

The real issue at hand is whether the arrest was correct given that an ID was shown or even lawful since the statute implies public behavior not whether the victim gets compensated for wrongful arrest down the road.

Posted by: doughboys at July 22, 2009 8:48 PM

Just to bolster my position here is a court case in MA that deals with a similar situation.

Commonwealth v. Mulvey
57 Mass. App. Ct. 579 (March 14, 2003)
Police presence in and of itself does not by itself turn an otherwise purely private outburst into disorderly conduct.

The defendant was charged with disorderly conduct for yelling and pacing on private property that was set back from the road in a secluded area. There was no one around at the time except police officers. While the statute requires that the disturbance be such that it had or was likely to have an impact upon people in an area accessible to the public, the presence of police officers alone will not suffice to prove the public element.

In reaching its decision, the Court noted that the rationale behind criminalizing disorderly conduct rests on the belief that a disorderly person can provoke violence in others. Given that an inherent part of police work involves being in the presence of distraught individuals, and given that police officers are trained to maintain order, the Court concluded that police should be the least likely to be provoked. Therefore, police presence alone does not satisfy the public element.

Posted by: doughboys at July 22, 2009 9:56 PM

I,m starting to believe that the whole world has gone insane.Justin, you state that Gates is going to profit from this incident.On the other hand, I returned from an Iraqi Freedom tour to go broke trying to get my house back. I wish someone would give Pres. Obama a copy of your story--- Judicial Emphathy and a veteran. to see what he has to say about that.

Posted by: paulkelly at July 23, 2009 11:24 AM

The part of Cambridge that Mr. Gates lives in is relatively "high crime". My ex just had someone reach through her kitchen window and steal her purse.

The police arrived on report of a break in. Even with identification, Mr. Gates erratic behavior might have given them pause. How are they to know that his wife and kids are not being held hostage?

I am distrustful of anyone who knows, with precision, that he is 56% "white" (or 44% "black") and then chooses to speak for "the least amongst us". Clearly he sees himself as one of elevated status.

From my own experience, I have a parel of vacant land which has been in my family over 100 years. Last Spring I decided to clear it. In the course of this, I was "visited" by the police 21 times. Each time I was required to produce ID and explain what I was dooing there. Proof of ownership was demanded. My dded is from 1897 and did not impress them. They were unable to read a map. They were distrustful that someone was cutting trees because he was tired of looking at them. SOmewhere around the 15th "visit", I was beginning to feel harassed. Some of the officers were black, I never suspected racial motivation. I did keep calm because I know that the police love "disorderly conduct".

Finally I went to city hall looking for something that would prove my ownership. I was greeted with "so, you're the one". On inquiry, I found the city hall and the police had been deluged with calls from women reporting that I was stealing wood from city property. So, the police had been dispatched with a presumption that I was stealing wood from city property. Naturally, I was never informed of this.

After it was cleared, National Grid began using it as a "commuter lot". On seeking help from the police, I was told to put up a no trespassing sign. (I thought to call the police and report that National Grid was stealing wood from city property).

So, I put up the sign. After that I am burning brush on the property and receive my 21st visit from the police. They demand my ID and want to know if I have seen the "No Trespassing" sign.

So, Mr. Gates,"get a life" and realize that it is a "life in the big city".

PS. A 50 year old white acquaintance of mine, with a leg brace, was recently falsely accused of shop lifting. The police arrived and at tazer point he was told to kneel. He refused because of the knee brace. When he tried to point it out, he was knocked to the ground because they thought he was "going for a weapon". He was then arrested for "disorderly conduct". How do you like that Mr. Gates? I think you, and your fellow "elites", simply don't know how the world works if you feel singled out.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at July 23, 2009 12:30 PM

"The moral of the story is that the police can arrest you for free speech or as they say 'loud and tumultuous begavior'."

Yes, they can, and often do. Why do you think they became police officers? To "serve and protect"? I once knew one who returned from Viet Nam, then became a mercenary in Rhodesia. I asked him why he did that "Because all I know is how to kill people". He later took a disability. He then travelled back and forth to Miami as a drug dealer. In the end he was killed in a shoot out with the Miami police. Look into the number of shootings at the police nightclub n Pawtucket.

Police misbehavior is so commonplace, a difference in color does not require a presumption that the incident is "racial"

As to the "profit" mentioned, the blogosphere is already alive with reports that Gates is negotiating a movie.

His aid by Sharpton creates a presumption of fraud. Remember Twanya Brawley? A friend's wife (she was Puerto Rican) was the doctor who examined Twanya Brawley and found no evidence of the rape alledged. The doctor's house suffered arson. Now I, for one, would never think that was Sharpton's people.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at July 23, 2009 2:55 PM

Sorry if I seem to be "on a roll". But I just saw the news story that the only president we have has announced that the police behaved "stupidly".

I think it is outrageous for the Leader of the Free World to make such a statement before "the facts are in". Unfortunately the facts will never "be in". In our society that can only happen through trial, that outcome has been obviated.

Since not all readers of this blog may get the Massachusetts "buzz", you may not know that the Governor called the Mayor of Cambridge when he heard about his friend, Mr. Gates, being in trouble. Following that, the Mayor called the police on Mr. Gate's behalf.

Talk about a "racial incident" that could only happen for a white guy named Kennedy.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at July 23, 2009 3:23 PM

The irony here is that the race-baiting black professor was so blinded by his own bigotry, that he failed to comprehend that the cops were there to protect a black man's property.
Real racists, those cops, huh?!

Posted by: Mike Cappelli at July 23, 2009 4:37 PM


To say that I'm disappointed in your take on this situation, would be a gross understatement.

Put yourself in the situation, you've locked yourself out your house and are trying to jimmy your way into the house. The police show up, you show them your ID but they treat you like a trespasser within your own home.

I think I'd be a little ticked off about that situation, wouldn't you?

I think the police acted inappropriately here and a few posts up Warrington posts a case where I'd also agree - if his facts are correct - that the police acted inappropriately.

But, I am not concerned so much with how the police acted or that the neighbor didn't recognize it was her neighbor trying to get into his own house. But, your reaction is so knee-jerk like watching Al Sharpton call every speeding ticket a black man receives racial profiling.

I think you go a little to cutesy with this line:

"The fact that the policeman entered the house by himself suggests that "misunderstanding" was already one "narrative in his head,""


Here's what I think. The cops didn't believe this black man owned/rented/lived in the house. When he showed them documentation they remained unconvinced and he became insulted that they didn't believe him. Would they have believed a white male. Put a gun to my head, I'd say yes all the time. Would you argue otherwise?

I guess Justin, I've seen this too many times. Profiling exists and police officers are called to make quick decisions that can me life or death. But, they definitely owe this man an apology and need to rethink why they reacted to him the way they did.

I've had few interractions with police where I was on the wrong side of the law. But, I've always been treated fairly. Still, in the back of my mind I wonder if there will be a day where my race and not the facts of a situation will decide my fate.

And that's something I have to live with and you, fortunately, do not.


Posted by: don roach at July 24, 2009 7:42 AM

My reaction is not "knee jerk." It's based on the timeline that Mr. Gates himself first put forth. The policeman arrived on the porch and called in to him. Everybody's forgetting that the call was about two men, and he only saw one. We may infer that Gates permitted the officer in the house while he grabbed his ID in the kitchen, and then the officer left, and Gates says he followed him, saying nothing about being ordered to do so.

By his own admission, Gates's objective is to increase discussion of race — which is an outcome of professional benefit to the race-based scholar. Put the pieces together, and while it probably would have been wise of the police just to leave, their poor judgment does not appear to be based on race.

I once asked one of the members of my wedding party for any example of racial bias in his life as a young black man. His example was a time he and his friend were running through the streets of Hackensack, NJ, in the middle of the night and the police stopped them to see what they were up to.

My other friend, who is white, was once pulled over for a "broken license plate light" because the cop thought I was a local gangster whom he knew. If I were black, my anecdote would be a better example of racial bias than my friend's, but I'm not black. What does that tell you?

Incidentally, you misunderstand my reference to a "misunderstanding," which suggests to me that I was dead-on about the need for empathy. I was arguing that there wasn't the simple racially tinged "narrative" that Gates imputed, but multiple narratives. The one that had been reported to him was of two men breaking and entering. When he arrived to find one old guy on the phone, the possibility that the truth was a misunderstanding on the caller's part.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 24, 2009 8:11 AM

Justin-"old man on the phone"?Gates is 58.I'm 62.Who are you calling "old men" around here?
Don-one of my high school buddies,Charlie,lives in marietta,Georgia,He is Black.He makes a lot of money,because after retirng from IBM he started his own very successful company.He moved into his neighborhood many eyars ago when it was all White and not very welcoming to anyone else.His friends warned him.Charlie was a trooper in the 173rd Airborne in Nam and survived wounds in both legs and a lung.He wasn't intmidated.As he tells it,he never had a speck of trouble.If you knew Charlie,you'd know why-he's friendly, but if you pushed him ,you'd need good life insurance.
Charlie told me he's NEVER been racially profiled by police in Georgia.He always drives a new BMW because he can afford to and he likes cars.He said he's been stopped only twice,both times by the State Police,and he says both times because he was at least 20mph over the limit.He told me the cops were courtoeus and didn't ask him why he was driving that car.He said-"I LOOK like someone who should be driving one-suit,tie,briefcase"-being Black was incidental.He further told me that if a cop sees a kid with his hat on backwards driving the same car he SHOULD stop him-after all,Charlie said,"it could be he stole MY car".Charlie is a conservative.
In high school ,he was a poppular,well-liked guy .Then he and four other guys who weren't students got arrested foor murder.It was all over the front pages h.His family was mortified.He had five siblings,none of whom ever were in trouble.His parents were hardworking people.They were devastated.About a week later,a witness came forward who
was able to absolutely prove that Charlie was participating in a boxing tournament when this killing occured,and this witness was a community center director with a good reputation.Others who were at the tournament also came forward.the charges against Charlie were dismissed and guess where that was in the paper?Around page 50.Charlie was so embarrassed,he quit school and joined the Army,where he finished with a GED and went on to a successful life.

Posted by: joe bernstein at July 24, 2009 11:09 AM


No offense intended; I was just playing of the implication that it is absurd to see Gates as a potential criminal based on his appearance.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 24, 2009 11:21 AM

Justin, I understand your cries for mutual empathy. Difference is, Gates was charged with a crime and the officer was only subject to a few verbal "assaults". That's a big difference.

Would I like to see the officer reprimanded? No.

Would I like for the officers & entire force to undergo formalized training? Yes. Next time it might not be Gates and it might be someone lower profile.

I want to feel secure in knowing the officers will respond differently.

Like I said, I've always had good interractions with police, heck my wife was in a similar situation as Gates having locked herself out the house. She had a much different experience.

But, I strongly believe that this incident represents and issue that should be addressed. Trying to gloss it over under the guise of mutual empathy, misunderstandings, and the kind ignores and cheapens a reality many of us face daily.

Posted by: don roach at July 24, 2009 1:37 PM

The minorities especially the ones with higher education are uppity and can't touch this. They hate the police until they need them. the uppity professor is lucky that he didn't walk in on a robbery, then he would have blamed the police for not watching his house. They want to have it both ways. The police may just take there sweet time if some try to break into his house again.

Posted by: RiverFox at July 25, 2009 3:49 PM

Interesting now that the 911 tapes have been released to see that Crowley clearly lied on the police report as the caller said that two men one possibly hispanic carrying suit cases looked like they were forcing their way into the house. She also repeated twice that she 'didn't know if they lived there or nor'.

Crowley on the released police tapes says Gates ' is uncooperative, keep sending cars' a minute later he has Gates ID.

Posted by: doughboys at July 27, 2009 8:38 PM