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Thursday, April 17, 2014
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Published: 8/1/2009

The professor, the officer

BY ROSE RUSSELL

THE President was right about looking at what happened between Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Cambridge police Sgt. James Crowley as a "teachable moment."

African-Americans teach their children not to behave as the renowned academician did when the sergeant asked him for identification in his home.

After all, officers have weapons, and there have been too many times to recount here how often police have fatally shot or otherwise injured defenseless black people who didn't have weapons.

Can you say Amadou Diallo? He was pulling out his wallet when New York City cops plugged him with 41 shots.

Though there's a reason each person on the inner circle of this Gates-Crowley issue responded the way he did, they all bear some culpability. Except one person.

Yes, the sergeant was doing his job. But he should have left the professor alone after he saw his ID.

Professor Gates was ticked. It's an anger you don't understand unless you've been there or are close to someone who has. I can't tell you how many times my husband has come home fuming after being stopped by a cop alleging that our car looked like one they were looking for. Of course, of course.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said somebody should have been the adult and told the sergeant to back off, swallow hard, and leave the man yelling on his own porch. Now that really would have made Mr. Gates look bad.

Although my husband and I taught our children not to mouth off to cops - I didn't say they should take a submissive demeanor - it's difficult to condone the professor's response, even in his own home, and even though I understand it.

I don't want to imagine what might have happened had he not been a well-known professor and had it been nighttime, without an audience. When African-Americans are stopped by police, the results typically don't end up with a beer at the White House but too often with the arrested person in a casket.

So as far as I can tell, the professor should not have been arrested. I don't think expressing anger and outrage are arrestable offenses. Say he was disorderly? According to whom? He was not truly disorderly. If that were so, the Cambridge police department wouldn't have dropped the charges.

President Obama's comment that the police acted "stupidly" set him on a course where clearly no president has tread before. Yet he is the first president to have any real idea about what Professor Gates encountered. Here's some insight into his empathy with the professor.

"I can recite the usual litany of petty slights that during my 45 years have been directed my way: security guards tailing me as I shop in department stores, white couples who toss me their car keys as I stand outside a restaurant waiting for the valet, police cars pulling me over for no apparent reason," he wrote in his 2006 book, Audacity of Hope. "I know what it's like to have people tell me I can't do something because of my color, and I know the bitter swill of swallowed-back anger."

Mr. Gates didn't swallow his anger. His outrage is accounted for by the thousands of times that other blacks have been stopped by police and swallowed their anger.

The President has admitted that his initial choice of words regarding Cambridge police were ill-chosen. But consider that what was behind them were memories of his own similar encounters.

And though he clarified his statement, it won't mean much to the numbskulls out there who say he's a racist and that his focus on race scares them.

Though that's stupid, here's a bulletin: The President doesn't focus on race. Like most African-Americans, he's constantly reminded about his race in one way or another. So when media and conservative groups query him about that issue, the polite and right thing for him to do is to respond.

Frankly, it was refreshing that the President of the United States could intervene and pull two people on opposite ends into the Rose Garden. Had John McCain been president, it's doubtful he would have been asked about the issue, let alone brought the opponents together.

Some say the President should not have ventured into the debate. Probably. But look, the professor and officer have had civil discourse about an issue that still rips at the heart of America. They could lead the way to identifying solutions to address the issue to the satisfaction of all concerned, and they could do so without beer.

Now, Lucia Whalen, the woman who made the first call to police, is the only one on the inside who is not to blame. I would welcome her to my neighborhood.

Rose Russell is a Blade associate editor.

Contact her at: rrussell@theblade.com



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