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The Professor, The Policeman & the President

I, for one, am tired of hearing about the encounter between the professor and the policeman. However I am going to add my words because I've not heard or read anything that reflected my perception of that encounter.

I was disappointed that the president stupidly said that the policeman acted stupidly. But because the president is a Harvard alum and the professor is a member of the Harvard faculty, I suspect that the president felt personally offended by the alleged actions of the policeman. I have no idea what the president hoped to accomplish by having the professor and the policeman come to the White House. Is he now going to invite the antagonists of other such encounters to the White House for a beer? Is he going to stop being the President and become the national Therapist?  The president's "beer summit", as some in the media have called it, has made the president the butt of jokes by the late night comedians who, until now, had been unable to find anything about him they could make fun of. Once those who make a lucrative living by making fun of others find a weakness in a president, once a president becomes fodder for laughter, the president's power to persuade and inspire is damaged.

What intrigues me about the encounter between the professor and the policeman is that either of them could have walked away after it was established that the professor was in his own residence. What happened that made it impossible for either one of them to do that?

In any encounter, one person creates the emotional atmosphere by tone of voice, gestures, facial expressions, etc. Who and what created the emotional atmosphere of the encounter between the professor and the policeman, and did so in such a way that the encounter spun out of control so quickly?

Generally, we lose control when we feel that our identity is being attacked. When an encounter which should be impersonal and innocuous becomes personal, communication is impossible, and, the person feeling attacked cannot walk away. When both people feel that their identities are being attacked, the encounter becomes violent, and emotional violence is as damaging to the spirit as physical violence is to the body and spirit.

Like most black men in the United States, I have had encounters with the police, though not in my home. (However, I did have an encounter with two white FBI agents in my home). Nonetheless, in those encounters (and even in the one with the FBI) I sought to create a benign emotional atmosphere by remembering that when the policeman took off his uniform, he was a mere human being; I related to him, not the uniform. Above all, I did not act as if his reason for stopping me was because I was black, even if I was convinced that was his reason. Thus far, over the years, the emotional atmosphere of these encounters has remained benign.

I was most distressed when, after the professor and the policeman met with the president and vice-president, the policeman let it be known that he had not apologized. And the president never apologized for saying that the policeman acted "stupidly". Although the professor did not say that he did not apologize, it is safe to assume that he didn't.

It is deeply regrettable that apologies are seen as a sign of weakness, of giving in, as an act that is self-demeaning. As intelligent as the professor, the policeman, and the president may be, their emotional IQ's are low. An apology is not a statement that I did something wrong. An apology is the recognition and acceptance of the fact that something I said or did was hurtful to the other person(s) in the encounter. Whether the hurt was intentional or unintentional is not important. What is important is letting the other person(s) know that I know that they are in pain, even if I was in the right.

If the president wanted his little tete-a-tete on the White House lawn to be a "teachable moment," he failed. I think he knows now that he should have said that the encounter between the professor and the policeman was a local matter and left it at that. But his own ego identification as a Harvard alum and a friend of the professor, as well as his being black, made him feel that his ego had been attacked by the policeman. One of the odd things in American life is that when we are asked, "What do you do for a living?", we respond by saying, "I am a policeman/professor/whatever". We are asked what is it that we do, and we respond with a statement of identity. Thus, the policeman felt his identity was not being respected by the professor, and the professor felt his identity as a member of the Harvard faculty was not being respected, which led the professor to feel that his identity as a black man was  under siege.

But whenever we feel that our identities are under attack, we are saying that the person attacking us has more power over us than we have over ourselves. Doing so puts one in the position of being a victim, and seeing yourself as a victim is a statement of self-hatred. That self-hatred is projected onto the adversary. Thus, men have waged war against other men for the breadth and length of human history, and when I write "men", I am being gender specific.

If you wonder why I've written about the professor and the policeman without using the names of the individuals, it is because I know the professor and do not want my observations construed as an attack on him, and most important, the dynamics of the encounter between the two specific individuals is a dynamic latent in almost any encounter between two people, even of the same race, religion, or gender. If the specific encounter is seen only in the context of race and racial profiling, we fail ourselves by not recognizing how such dynamics all too often play an important part in our relations with those we live with each and every day in our homes.

Thus, I have not written about the professor, the policeman, and the president. I have written about you and me.

Julius Lester

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Julius, yours is the most

Julius, yours is the most intelligent commentary I've read about this incident.

Maureen Dowd wrote that it is about race, class, and testosterone, but your observation about emotional intelligence resonates for me. I'm quite saddened to learn that none of the three had the sense to apologize to the others. Even children on the playground know this is the most graceful way to blunt hard feelings.

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Apologies, lazy policing and that 'probable cause' thing

You didn't exactly explain why you were "disappointed" over the opinion voice by the president back on July 22, 2009. Like you, he's an adult, and just like you, he is entitled to both have and express his opinion on anything he wishes. I recall that the president did indicate why it was he felt the sergeant (Sergeant Crowley) had "acted stupidly" in arresting the professor (Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) for disorderly conduct. Quite frankly, there is absolutely no legitimate reason for you or for anyone else to be at all 'suspicious' as to his reasons for saying that this police officer "acted stupidly" beyond what the man said on July 22, 2009, for President Obama didn't say that he was "personally offended" by the actions, alleged or otherwise, of Crowley, did he?

There's nothing wrong with jokes, per se, and jokes about the president should not be off-limits, the Crowley-Gates incident speaks to a serious problem in the US (beyond jokes and beer summits) with the perception of policemen that some Americans have as to their role in American society that some other Americans do not: Whenever a police officer must intrude into a citizen's life, what he or she does must be within the scope of the Constitution.

You wrote that either Crowley or Gates "could have walked away after it was established that the professor was in his own residence," but wasn't Gates at his own residence? (Shaking my head.) Also, once Gates had established that he actually lived in the very home where Crowley was standing (by Gates having provided to Crowley his Harvard ID and his driver's license, both picture IDs), it seems to me that what no longer existed was a reasonable suspicion that Gates was a burglar, right?

Do you have any idea as to what was it about Crowley's standing there in Gates' home that so unnerved the professor? Or is your only concern the disappointment you felt when President Obama decided not to keep his opinion about how the Cambridge Police having "acted stupidly" in arresting Gates for disorderly conduct at his own home to himself and that he went to share what he opined with the entire nation on network tv, despite his tacit admission that he didn't know all of the facts that related to the arrest of his friend?

I'll get back to what it was that so unnerved Professor Gates in a moment, but you also wrote something about "the person feeling attacked cannot walk away," but Gates was already in his home and Gates knew, even if he wanted to leave, that he wasn't free to leave his home to go elsewhere, because the officer had seized him at that moment. Gates wasn't in the position of being able to close his door on Crowley to force Crowley to either unlawfully break-in the door himself or obtain a search warrant to lawfully force Gates to open his door. Crowley was standing in Gates' home.

If you were referring to Crowley's feeling attacked so that he couldn't walk away, what kind of training did this police officer get that he should have reacted at all to anything that Gates may have said to him after his reason for being at the Gates home in the first place -- his investigation of a possible break-in at this address -- had now concluded?

You wrote that "an apology is not a statement that I did something wrong," but that "[a]n apology is the recognition and acceptance of the fact that something I said or did was hurtful to the other person(s) in the encounter." Actually, Webster’s New International Dictionary defines an "apology" as “an acknowledgment intended as an atonement for some improper or injurious remark or act; an admission to another of a wrong or discourtesy done him, accompanied by an expression of regret.” In Christianity, it's not about who is right or wrong, but about unity and peace with fellow Christians. Outside of Christianity though, its about who's right and who's wrong, and the victim never apologizes to the victimizer (I don't ever see the scenario you infer in what you write where the rape victim apologizes to the rapist for what the rapist has done.)

Pride is a barrier that makes it difficult, even impossible, to apologize and make peace with the person against whom we have committed a wrong, and humility is also involved in making an apology. Contrary to popular opinion (about apology being a weakness), the one that offers an apology manifests power, even if the recipient of it should reject such, for it is righteous on the part of the one that owes someone that he or she has wronged an apology to do so, for it is, in fact, a power that shatters barriers to unity and peace.

Speaking of apologies not made at the August 6, 2009 beer summit, was it Gates that had intruded into Crowley's life or was it vice versa? Shouldn't the intruder (Crowley) have been the one to apologize for the intrusion into Gates' life on the day of the intrusion -- July 16, 2009? What apology did Gates owe to Crowley? More importantly, and now getting to my point here as to what it was that so unnerved Gates, what apology did Obama owe Crowley?

Lynne Sweet of the Chicago Sun Times, had asked President Obama on July 22, 2009, in pertinent part, "What does this incident [pertaining to Professor Gates' arrest at his home in Cambridge] ... say about race relations in America?" and Obama stated in response that this arrest may have been a part of that "long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately." And it now turns out that he was right, for Crowley didn't have probable cause to arrest Gates, although Gates had cause to be "pretty angry," as the president stated, over the fact that Crowley had entered his home having reasonable suspicion, but no probable cause, and in so doing trampled Gates' Fourth Amendment right to be "secure in [his person and house] ... against unreasonable ... seizures."

Okay, perhaps what the president opined might have come across clearer if he had added the words "without probable cause" and said that there has been a "long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement without probable cause disproportionately." Maybe he forgot that as president he ought to use verbiage that the folks that voted for him might better be able to understand. These same three words he could have added to what he Terry Morgan, ABC News Nightline, on July 23, 2009: "I have to say I'm surprised by the controversy surrounding my statement, because I think it was a pretty straightforward commentary, that you probably don't need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man, who uses a cane, who's in his own home "without probable cause." But he didn't use these three words.

What the president understood was that this police officer -- Crowley -- was responding to a 9-1-1 call about a possible break-in indicates that the officer didn't see such a crime taking place himself so there weren't any exigent circumstances present, and it also stood to reason that there would be no probable cause for this officer to believe -- after Gates had identified himself and proved to the officer by providing his Harvard ID and his driver's license that he was a Harvard professor and lived at that address -- that Gates would be arrested for burglarizing his own home, so even though the president admitted that he "[didn't] know all the facts" of the case, it was reasonable for him to conclude that a legal arrest should not proceed without probable cause for believing that a real crime had taken place.

Cambridge Police Commissioner, Robert C. Haas, who came out in solidarity for Sergeant Crowley along with Steve Killion, president of the Cambridge police Superior Officers Association, and Sergeant Dennis O'Connor as well, during a press conference at the Hotel Marlowe in Cambridge, Massachusetts, back on July 24, 2009, three days before the 9-1-1 tape that was released on July 27, 2009, was available to them, were just as "guilty" as was President Obama in voicing their opinions about the incident when none of these officials knew all of the facts themselves. Obama's made his comment on July 22, 2009, five days before the 9-1-1 tape was released.

Did you know that the very first thing that Sergeant Crowley said to Professor Gates when speaking to the professor from the other side of the front door was "step outside on the porch"? If instead of you, it was your own child, say, a 12-year-old, standing on the other side of the door, would you have instructed your child to open the door to a total stranger, to a man wearing a badge that was dressed in clothing that resembled that warn by a police officer? Under such a circumstance my 12-year-old would have called me on my cell phone immediately for instructions and would not have opened the door to "step outside." Gates didn't do so and reportedly he told Sergeant Crowley, "I will not."

Lazy policing might have led to Gates having been arrested as a burglary suspect had he done so, for although the 9-1-1 caller (Ms. Whalen) never really spoke to Sergeant Crowley, merely identifying herself as the 9-1-1 caller, nor had she told the 9-1-1 dispatcher that she had seen "two black men with backpacks" enter the Gates home, Crowley believed that "two black males with backpacks" had illegally entered this home. And how do we know this? Because Crowley stated in his police report that he had been informed that "two black men with backpacks" had entered the home and stated that the 9-1-1 caller had reiterated to him when speaking with her on the scene that she had seen "two black men with backpacks." We now know that Whalen reported having seen “two larger men” and having seen "two suitcases," but that she had said nothing about having seen "two black men with backpacks."

If Crowley has the audacity to file a false police report, then it seems that Gates was definitely going to arrested by Crowley as a burglary suspect, but Gates' refusal to open the door and "step outside" forced Crowley to change his tactics and do what he should have done in the first place: Inform the professor that he was there investigating a possible break-in burglary that had been reported at his address.

Although Gates had promptly informed Crowley that there had been no burglary and that he lived at that address, the sergeant didn't know the professor and so he made a reasonable request that Gates produce identification that would prove his identity, so when Professor Gates excuses himself to go the kitchen where his wallet was in order to retrieve his Harvard ID and his driver's license he discovers that Sergeant Crowley has not only invited himself into Gates' home, which infuriated him, but that he had followed him into the kitchen. Keep in mind that Gates had already told Crowley that he wasn't going to "step outside" so there was no reason for Crowley to think that it would be okay for him to "step inside" of this man's home unless invited to do so.

Gates voiced his complaint to Crowley and attributed Crowley's boldness in entering his home without having been invited into it as Crowley's contempt for him as a black man whose rights, Gates felt, would not have been so quickly trampled upon had he been a white man, and went on to request Crowley's name and badge number so that he would report this incident to Crowley's superiors, which request, made several times, Crowley continued to ignore, even after Crowley had cleared Gates as being a burglar despite. Crowley should have left Gates' home at this time, but he did not leave and instead went on to ask Gates another question that Gates thought to be both impertinent and scary, namely, as to whether there was anyone else in the house. Gates did not know that Crowley's intentions were, as he expected the officer to leave his home, thinking this burglary investigation had concluded.

Gates feels Crowley had overstepped his authority as a police officer and asks the officer to leave his home, but the officer does not leave right away, and instead is quite persistent about Gates answering his question. Gates is not quite livid thinking that Crowley had, for whatever reason, was still looking at him as being guilty of something, and had profiled him as being a burglar that had unlawfully entered this home because he was black, and feared this encounter was about to become a dangerous situation where he might become the next African American to fall victim to another police shooting. Gates had become fearful of his life. Crowley finally leaves, but without giving Gates his name and badge number, so Gates follows Crowley and asks one of the officers outside for Crowley's name and badge number, and for this, as a retaliatory strike, Crowley misuses his police powers by arresting Gates for disorderly conduct although knowing the reason for Gates' indignation with him.

Now lazy policing is not the same as racial profiling someone, and forming suspicions about a person based on an individual's race, which is why the president said that "separate and apart from this incident ... there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately." What Obama means is that it is a fact that blacks and Hispanics in disproportionate numbers are inconvenienced than are whites by arrests made without probable cause by police officers wanting to speak with them in an intimidating environment, like at a police station.

Now what the president did not say on July 22, 2009, is that he believed that Sergeant Crowley racially profiled Professor Gates and arrested him for disorderly conduct because he thought that Crowley was a racist. The point to be made here though is that no matter what Gates might have thought or said about the incident or the officer's motives -- and right or wrong, Gates is definitely entitled to voice his own opinion about what occurred at his home on July 16, 2009 -- lazy policing by a police officer in arresting or detaining someone when investigating whether the arrested person might have committed a crime does not necessarily mean that racial profiling has actually occurred or that Crowley is a racist.

Here is a case where a black citizen is stopped or "seized" and deprived of his liberty by law enforcement by being arrested when the police officer in this case -- Crowley -- didn't have probable cause to do so, for what was Sergeant Crowley doing standing in Professor Gates' home in the first place if he wasn't invited to enter his home by Gates? Would Crowley have done the very same thing had a 12-year-old child opened the door? Probably, especially if Crowley didn't at all feel constrained by a 58-year-old adult.

You say you believe President Obama "knows now that he should have said that the encounter between the professor and the policeman was a local matter and left it at that," and you also said that the president's ego and "his being black ... [made the president] feel that his ego had been attacked by the policeman." You don't elaborate though on why you feel that the president "knows now" that he should have not commented on the matter, but I can assure you that his being black or having an ego (as most of us do!) had nothing at all to do with the president's not offering an apology to Crowley and I don't believe the president felt his ego was attacked in some way by Crowley either.

By the way, although you evidently believe otherwise, with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek as I say this, as I read your blog, I recall thinking that what you have written you have written about "the professor, the policeman, and the president."