A couple of years ago around 11 o’clock at night, I got on a New York City subway with a bicycle. I wasn’t sure whether it was legal but I asked the tollbooth clerk and he waved me through.
When I got on the car, however, a black transit cop came up to me and said, “You’re not supposed to have a bicycle on the subway.”
I responded, “I asked the tollbooth clerk and he said it was alright.”
The cop stiffened. “Will you please not say, ‘What?'” he barked at me.
“I didn’t say ‘What'” — the words were almost out of my mouth when I grabbed them. It was easy to see where this was going. The cop would say something even more irrelevant, to which I would make an even more rational response. We would exchange volleys, me showing off my superior logical and verbal abilities, always with a note of condescension ini my voice, until he got mad enough to arrest me. I would probably spend the night in jail.
So I swallowed my pride and said, “Okay.” That was enough. He left me alone and I got off at the next stop. I found out later that bikes are allowed on the subway, but what difference did it make? The important thing was he had the gun and the legal authority and he was going to win the argument. I didn’t feel like staying up all night just to prove a point. It was a small surrender but one I would easily make again.
Now I realize I’m not as important Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I don’t have his Harvard professorship or international reputation or his long history of pain and suffering. Yet somehow I wish he had been a little more circumspect in taking stock of the situation in Cambridge the other day before dragging the nation into another of these morose racial melodramas.
Gates and his cab driver were putting their shoulders against his front door on a Thursday afternoon in a residential neighborhood after finding it damaged in — wouldn’t you know it — a previous burglary. A woman in the street saw them and called the police. An officer responded almost immediately. Is there anything unusual about this? Would we want the police or the woman to act in any other way? If nothing else, Gates should feel fortunate that he lives in a neighborhood where people look after such things. In many another urban neighborhood, somebody could be prying a door open in mid-afternoon and no one would pay the slightest attention. Even if they did, the police might take half an hour to arrive.
Gates could have perceived the whole thing for what it was — an obvious misunderstanding. He could have produced his identification, proved to the officer that he lived in the house and explained his unusual behavior, perhaps showing a little deference to the law in the process. Instead, he decided to treat the whole things as an intolerable insult, refusing to step outside and insinuating that the police were only at his door “Because I’m a black man in America.” His rant attracted such a crowd that the officer was finally forced to put him in handcuffs for disorderly conduct. This is what police officers must do. They cannot simply walk away from a disruptive situation. Their business is to maintain public order. That the charges were later dropped only proves the point. An arrest in this circumstance is only meant to pacify the situation, not inflict some kind of permanent punishment.
So is this all a matter of “racial profiling”? If it is, then we’d better find the woman who made the report and arrest her because surely she is the guilty party. Once a police officer arrives on the scene, his sole responsibility is to find out what is happening. Gates treated all this as irrelevant. He was too important to be the subject of a police enquiry. “Do you know who you’re dealing with?” he announced. (All this is eerily reminiscent of that other Boston Brahmin, John Kerry, who when caught cutting into theater lines or otherwise exercising his prerogatives would always respond, “Do you know who I am?”) In any case, it was obviously his preconceived notions that turned a routine investigation into an incendiary confontation.
What if Gates had actually been an intruder? Is the policeman supposed to walk away without determining what is going on? If an unknown person inside a house announces the investigating officer is a racist, does that settle the matter? If Gates the homeowner had lost valuable property in the incident, would he be satisfied if the police told him, “We caught the guy in the act but he said we were being racist so we had to let him get away”? Would Gates accept this as an excuse, or — since he was now the disadvantaged party — would he discover yet another insidious form of “racism”?
Gates has chosen to drag the whole country into a racial melodrama just to prove a point. Maybe that isn’t so bad. Maybe we can forget about health care for a while. (On the other hand, maybe the liberal press will tell us we have to adopt Obama’s health-care program in order to assuage our guilt over the ordeal of Henry Louis Gates.) Boston is a very class-conscious town, with Harvard professors at the top and Irish cops very near the bottom. It won’t be surprising to see the entire academic establishment set its weight upon the police force, once again turning them into scapegoats with all the implications for crime and disorder that occurred in the 1960s.
In any case, there’s a much better example of how Gates could have responded. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X tells of another encounter with the Cambridge police. In this case he was actually out with a carload of thieves burglarizing homes in a residential neighborhood. While cruising the streets they spotted a cop car making its rounds. Knowing they were about to be “profiled,” Malcolm X had an inspiration. He jumped out of the car and flagged down the cops, pretending to be lost and asking for directions. The cops bought it and the whole gang got away.
Would that Henry Louis Gates had the same kind of street smarts instead of his more predictable academic arrogance. He might have saved himself spending a few hours in handcuffs and the whole country a grueling ordeal. If nothing else, however, Gates is an egotist, so maybe that’s what he wanted in the first place.