Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Wyatt Earp syndrome endures

I'm too old to believe that my expressing myself on any particular topic is automatically a boon. Therefore I haven't hurried to say anything on Henry Louis Gates. The incident did leave a bad taste in my mouth, but I couldn't quite identify the flavor. This came from being pretty sure I didn't see the whole picture. But this double essay at Perpetual Post does strike at what I think is the heart of the matter. Howard Megdal puts it quite acutely.

First, the act itself. Those trying to find a middle ground have pointed out that Mr. Gates did not act respectfully toward the police officer harassing him in his own home. It’s awfully hard for me to hear this, and think anyone legitimately believes Sgt. Crowley had the right to continue harassing Gates, particularly once Gates produced ID, and as Crowley made clear himself, was obviously the owner of the house.

Once that fact became clear, it was incumbent upon Sgt. Crowley to leave. I have heard many make the point that Crowley needed to make it clear that he was in charge. HE DID NOT. Crowley’s job isn’t to prove some subjective standard that he is the boss of the neighborhood. His job is, and I quote, “To serve and protect.” He is there to make certain crimes aren’t committed. No crime was being committed. Job done. Go home, and leave the citizen alone. This is reprehensible behavior otherwise. To take it beyond harassment, to then arrest Gates for what Crowley then knew was utterly justifiable frustration at having to prove he lives in his own home, is particularly egrigious.

There has been quite a bit of talk about how Sergeant Crowley is stung by accusations of racism and how he gave Reggie Lewis mouth-to-mouth. That's very nice and very sad and if I were Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates, I'd be inclined to wave him in. But it's not just a matter of whether a particular cop hates or disdains black people. It's a question of what quality justice gets handed out.

Urban policemen are trained to be--among other things--the cock of the walk. Beyond simply enforcing the law, the goal is to forcerully communicate the message that you are the boss, and that your authoritah is not to be questioned by those wishing to keep their heads in one piece.

Now there may be times that the hard guy approach is necessary: drug dealers, violent street gangs, etc. But people also get hit by the blackjack of the law when they're just trying to get a fair shake for themselves. As it happens, a large number of these people are black. Were a larger number of them white, I believe the reporting on the Gates-Crowley fracas would have a very different tone.


susan said...

Very well put.

Ben said...

Ta very much. :)