The Arrest and Transfiguration of Henry Louis Gates

by zunguzungu

The police who arrested Henry Louis Gates the day before yesterday must have been a miracle worker, or at the very least a lay clergyman of some kind. After all, what else are we to make of the moment when a property owner whose house had recently been broken into was himself transformed into the perpetrator? Such things do not merely happen; divinity must had to have been involved.

For one thing, Gates clearly could not have been arrested for breaking into his own house, and not only because it is logically impossible to do so. And at no point does the arresting officer assert that suspicion of that sort played any role in Gates’ arrest: from the moment that Gates shows his identification (and the officer accepts it), it is clear that the charge of burglary is off the table and that the situation has become something somewhat different. So let’s look closer. In the officer’s police report, Sgt. Crowley writes:

“Due to the tumultuous manner Gates had exhibited in his residence as well as his continued tumultuous behavior outside the residence, in view of the public, I warned Gates that he was becoming disorderly. Gates ignored my warning and continued to yell, which drew the attention of both the police officers and citizens, who appeared surprised and alarmed by Gates‘ outburst. For the second time I warned Gates to calm down while I withdrew my department issued handcuffs from their carrying case. Gates again ignored my warning and continued to yell at me. It was at this time that I informed Gates that he was under arrest.”

What happens in that magical moment? What strange and wondrous transformation was occurring as the well-meaning Sgt. Crowley reports to Gates that, before his very eyes, “he was becoming disorderly”? Surely we require the hand of providence as explanation.

More prosaically, Touré puts it this way: “why did the officers find it necessary to arrest a man who was in his own home and who had not posed or made a threat to them? The worst crime in the police report is Gates yelling at an officer who was telling him to calm down. Is that a crime?”

I think this is an important question. I’ve been unscientifically reading a lot of the blog commentary on the event (here, here, here, here, here, and especially the 2k comments here), and while trying to extract anything meaningful from the verbal overflow of an overly fecund comment thread is a hopelessly misguided ambition at best, I’m struck by a general failure to recognize that the event stinks in more than one distinct way.

This is what I mean. The episode pretty clearly begins with a racist indignity, and most people clearly recognize that fact: though the 58 year old Gates walks with the assistance of a cane — no one’s idea of a burglar — the fact that he is a black man apparently makes him sufficiently like the profile of a burglar to overcome the counterintuitivity of a man who has undergone hip-replacement surgery scrambling through windows and jimmying doors. And such profiling, to the extent of forcing a homeowner (who actually answers the door) to provide identification papers inside his own home, is an indignity, and a racist one.

But what then? The situation could have ended there, and we should think carefully about why it didn’t. After all, neither Sgt. Crowley nor Gates wanted this particular outcome. So why did it happen that Gates, plausible suspect of no recognizable crime, was taken into police custody? Part of it, of course, is Gates’ own actions. I’m not trying to blame Gates for the fact that his choice to be “tumultuous” (whatever that means) certainly was part of the equation; even if all he did was demand the officer’s badge number (as his lawyer’s account has it, and as it was his right to do) and even if there was no “yo mama-ing” involved at all (as the officer claims), it seems hard to imagine that he couldn’t have kept his cool in a way that would have kept him out of bracelets. Which is simply to say that Gates had a choice, albeit a choice between two indignities: either he could be the big man (“yo mama!”) or he could be the bigger man (either “over come ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction” as the Invisible Man’s grandfather advised or the kind of struggle through restrained passivity that the civil rights movement was all about are choices).

But then, to say that he had a choice is not to blame Gates for choosing wrong or something; in fact, being limited to this kind of choice is precisely another kind of indignity, since it puts the burden on Gates to fix the officer’s mistakes. And I’m struck by how many unsympathetic commentators essentially fault Gates for acting like most people would act in that sort of situation; after all, when angered and frustrated, most people tend to act angry and frustrated. Yet people given the choice of indignities that Gates had to choose from precisely don’t have the luxury of acting like normal people; they get the choice, instead, to either swallow other people’s crap or to suffer for their refusal to do so.

In this sense, when Gate’s detractors on the uglier comment threads suggest a class narrative (just another uppity professor from Hahvard lording it over the hard-working, much put upon beat cop), I think it’s precisely to avoid having to follow down this line of thinking. But while it’s true that Gates would have more social power than our blue-collar Sgt. Crowley in a few circumstances, this was certainly not one of them. You could as plausibly say that Gates was the victim of a home invasion by an unwelcome police officer, whose misguided accusations he has to endure, whose unreasonable demands he has to respect, and to whose authority he is eventually made subject. After all, while he is eventually made the perpetrator of a public crime, Gates only goes outside of his house in the first place because Sgt. Crowley tells him to, a desire which, as SEK notes, is the black box in the officer’s account (“if he had not, he couldn’t have arrested him).” SEK:

[Gates] was charged with a crime against chastity, morality, decency and good order:

“Common night walkers, common street walkers, both male and female, common railers and brawlers, persons who with offensive and disorderly acts or language accost or annoy persons of the opposite sex, lewd, wanton and lascivious persons in speech or behavior, idle and disorderly persons, disturbers of the peace, keepers of noisy and disorderly houses, and persons guilty of indecent exposure.”

The only one of those that applies to this situation would be disturbing the peace, which is difficult to do from inside your own house. Except that’s not what the officer accuses him of:

“Due to the tumultuous manner Gates had exhibited in his residence as well as his continued tumultuous behavior outside the residence, in view of the public, I warned Gates that he was becoming disorderly.”

At what point does mere tumultuousness become criminal disorderliness? Moreover, given that “tumult” refers to the “commotion of a multitude,” Gates must have literally been beside himself.

More than that, though, while the choice itself is a kind of imposition (and the choice to either suffer silently or suffer more for refusing to suffer silently is sickeningly familiar for anyone who knows African-American history even a little), most commentary has framed the event so as to emphasize Gates’ choice and agency, talking about what he should have done once the initial confrontation passed and allowing the officer’s own agency to simply disappear from view (Henry’s Crooked Timber post is an exception). But why couldn’t the officer be the one to suffer indignities in silence? If Gates had the choice to suck it up and swallow his pride, certainly so did Sgt. Crowley, and Crowley — unlike Gates — gets paid to swallow his pride.

Which is to say, I think it’s interesting (and symptomatic) that the internet commentariat has accorded such a healthy degree of scorn to the notion a professor is due a measure of respect and would go a little unhinged when subjected to this kind of indignity — what a snob! — but the idea that a policeman’s mis-steps should, as a matter of course, be glossed over — that Gates clean up his mess, essentially — has so many times and in so many places asserted as if it were a simple given. After all, while I can appreciate the practical wisdom of treating a cop with a gun like the dangerous animal he might turn out to be, this kind of healthy caution can be pragmatically necessary without being at all consistent with any sense of what a policeman should be. What concerns me, in other words, is the unspoken movement from a practical recognition that personal self-interest might necessitate excessive self-control (if one wants to stay out of jail anyway) and a more pernicious sense that it was Gate’s responsibility to do so, that whatever power does is justified.

The best way of reading the situation for Crowley, after all, would be to assert that it was simply Lucia Whalen’s phone call that put him in this situation and that he otherwise behaved like a saint. That might even be almost true. Certainly what started the whole thing in motion was her bizarrely misguided tip to the police that a break-in was in process, and even if Crowley exacerbated the situation by demanding multiple forms of identification from an obvious non-burglar, he did have a responsibility to investigate the situation, which put him, at best, in the uncomfortable position of interrogating the supposed crime’s victim. But even if that were the case, the fact that Gates takes the rap for her idiocy is a complete non-starter: when a bad tip leads a police officer to abuse an innocent, even inadvertently, surely the solution to that original misstep isn’t to abuse the injured innocent even more, is it? If Crowley knew that Lucia Whalen was the original caller (as his report indicates he did), she should have been called into the conversation immediately, either to confirm that the less-than-spry Gates was not the burglar she had reported or to take on the burden of accusation. The point where Crowley took it on himself to presume Gates to be the perpetrator (and especially when he followed Gates into his house) is where his police work became incredibly shoddy.

So this, then, is the question: when a police officer is in the wrong — and the absolutely most charitable interpretation of the situation is that Crowley was in the wrong, but that it wasn’t his fault — whose responsibility is it to clean up his mess? Is it the responsibility of Gates to suffer indignities in silence? Or is the officer’s responsibility to earn his pay and suck it up? Obviously, my feelings are clear, but it’s worth pointing out that this is less a question about race than about the relationship between citizens and the state, since, in a democracy, I have the idealism to imagine, it shouldn’t be the aggrieved party. Yet it was, which is why the joke I began with is not completely a joke: when Gates was arrested, he became the sacrificial scapegoat atoning for the officer’s blunder, for by magically transforming Gates’ indignation into a threat against the public, Crowley was able to make his own choices disappear, and to displace responsibility for the entire situation onto Gates himself. And this is worrying. When the instruments of state authority exonerate their own screw-ups by making their victims pay the price — and especially when citizens express their approval — we should be, if not surprised, at the very least worried.