There are a number of important lessons, if not downright teachable moments, in the July 16 arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates by Cambridge Police Sargeant James Crowley, and the subsequent involvement of President Barack Obama when he said that the Cambridge Police acted stupidly in arresting Professor Gates in his own home.
Clearly, race relations, especially the long history of racial profiling by the police, are a major part of the backdrop for this case. But perhaps, race acted more as the kindling that caused the relatively minor July 16 incident to flare out of control leading to Gates' arrest. And then again, the race kindling caused the incident to explode across the nation after the President’s remarks on the arrest.
All three principals in the case, Prof. Gates, Sgt. Crowley and President Obama, have excellent records when it comes to race relations. Rather than playing key roles in a racially tinged drama, they are role models for how people should behave in a well-functioning multi-cultural, multi-racial society.
Looking at it in retrospect, the whole incident has the making of a Greek tragedy. Three good, highly professional, and disciplined men, each made an out-of-character mistake and said and did things that they should not have. Why? Because like all human, our emotions sometimes get the better of us and get us in trouble.
What emotions are we talking about? Well, for those in positions of power - famous professors, authority figures, political leaders, - arrogance and pride are key emotions to guard against. The term hubris is particularly applicable. It was used in ancient Greece to denote excessive pride and self-confidence on the part of the powerful. Hubris is the flaw that causes tragic heroes to get in trouble.
Let’s briefly review the actions and potential missteps of the three key characters in our drama.
As many have pointed out, when a policeman on duty tells you to do something, other than in extreme cases, you should defer to their authority and do it. Arguing with a policeman and questioning their authority can quickly get you arrested.
Professor Gates had just returned from a trip to China where he had contracted a bronchial infection. He must have been quite tired and jet-lagged, which I know from personal experience will generally cause us to become irritable and possibly lose our temper at annoying remarks or provocations that we would otherwise ignore. He felt disrespected and provoked by Sgt. Crowley in his own home, and lost it. He most likely would not have reacted the same way had he been feeling better.
Sargeant Crowley was the first on the scene responding to a 911 call of a possible breaking and entering in what turned out to be Prof. Gates' house. When he saw a man at the door, he asked him to step outside onto the porch and produce identification, which he subsequently said in interviews is normal police procedure in such a situation.
The man at the door, Professor Gates, who did not know about the 911 call, was surprised that a police officer at his door ordered him to step outside his own home instead of greeting him cordially. He was confused as to what was going on, became indignant at being addressed in such an authoritarian tone, and refused to step outside. The altercation we are all very familiar with then ensued, and within five minutes, Professor Gates was in handcuffs and charged with disorderly conduct.
By that time, Sargeant Crowley had established that Prof. Gates did indeed live in that house, and he knew that Gates, who is near 60, not big at all, and walks with a cane, was no physical threat to him or anyone else. An experienced police officer like Sgt. Crowley should have been able to defuse the situation and walk away. Even though Prof. Gates may have been verbally abusive and guilty of contempt of cop, experts have pointed out that not liking his behavior was a poor reason to handcuff and arrest him.
Among those who thought that Sgt. Crowley and the Cambridge Police department were on shaky ground in arresting Prof. Gates is President Obama. That is why he said in answer to the last question at his July 22 health care press conference:
“My understanding is that Professor Gates then shows his I.D. to show that this is his house, and at that point he gets arrested for disorderly conduct. I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But I think it’s fair to say, No. 1, any of us would be pretty angry; No. 2, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and No. 3, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by police disproportionately. That’s just a fact.”
The acted stupidly remark offended a lot of of police departments and police officers, because they took it as an attack on their work, their professionalism, and their authority. For several days, the health care discussions the President hoped would have been sparked by his press conference were totally overshadowed by his intervention in the Gates-Crowley altercation.
Two days later, on July 24, the President tried to defuse the situation when he held an impromptu press briefing where he acknowledged that his own comments had inflamed the already high tensions of this case. He said that he still considered the arrest an overreaction, but that Professor Gates had probably overreacted as well, and added:
“I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up. I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically, and I could have calibrated those words differently.”
The President also said that he had placed calls to both Sgt. Crowley and Prof. Gates and invited them to come have a beer with him at the White House. This then led to the July 30 beer summit, in which Obama, Gates and Crowley were joined by Vice president Joe Biden to share a beer and hold an informal meeting on a hot summer afternoon in the White House gardens.
By publicly acknowledging his mistake, and by exhibiting humility in his subsequent words and actions, the President followed the mold of tragic heroes, who in order to be redeemed must understand their own responsibility in the unfortunate events; abandon their feelings of pride, arrogance and hubris; and come away having learned some valuable lessons. So did the other two protagonists, even though they did not quite explicitly acknowledge their missteps.
Fortunately, this drama fell short of a full fledged Greek tragedy, because even though each of the three main characters committed a potentially tragic mistake, they all backed off relatively quickly, agreed to come together at their White House meeting, decided to stop dwelling on the specific incident to which they had all contributed, and committed to now focus on the future and the lessons they all learned.
There are three key lessons here for all of us. First, we should feel good about the progress we have made since the 1960s in racial relations in America, but also acknowledge that much work remains to be done. Despite this progress, including the election of a black president, race relations and racial politics continue to be very powerful forces we have to continue to be sensitive to.
Second, we all make mistakes. To err is indeed human. The key is whether you can admit your mistake and move on. You don’t even have to pound your chest or gouge out your eyes to move on. Sgt. Crowley talked about “two gentlemen who agreed to disagree on a particular issue” after the beer meeting. The President never disowned his original acted stupidly remark. He just said that “I could have calibrated those words differently.”
The final teaching moment is the power of civilized discourse. This is particularly critical given all the polarizing media personalities and politicians who traffic mostly in anger, and adopt a read meat style based on blaming some particular group or another for everything that is wrong with the country. As the President so well put it following the beer summit:
“I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart. I am confident that has happened here tonight, and I am hopeful that all of us are able to draw this positive lesson from this episode.”