Police and press fell short in Gates’ arrest

It is difficult to wrap ourselves around Gates’ arrest because there is nil to no consensus about the facts. The two weeks since the arrest leave me with many questions. Questions if raised and investigated – let alone answered – would give this story a different ending. Was the press delinquent in their responsibilities to faithfully convey what happened on that summer afternoon? You be the judge.

“On Thursday, July 16, 2009, Henry Gates, Jr. of…Ware Street, Cambridge, MA, was placed under arrest at Ware Street, after being observed exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior, in a public place, directed at a uniformed police officer who was investigating a report of a crime in progress. These actions on behalf of Gates served no legitimate purpose and caused citizens passing by this location to stop and take notice while appearing surprised and alarmed.”
– “Statement of Facts in Support of Application for Criminal Complaint”, Cambridge Police Department

“Well, the police report was an act of pure fiction. One designed to protect him, Sgt. Crowley…I was astonished at the audacity of the lies in the police report, …(W)hen I was arrested I was not read my Miranda rights. I was clearly arrested as a vindictive act, an act of spite….

“I think Sgt. Crowley was angry that I didn’t follow his initial orders—-his demand—-his order—-to step outside my house because I was protected as long as I was in the house because he didn’t have a warrant…”
– THE DAILY BEAST, Elizabeth Gates interviews her father, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

The arrest took place on Thursday, July 16, 2009, and was reported in the Harvard Crimson on Monday, the morning of the 20th, with the national press presenting the story that afternoon. Four days is plenty enough time to have yielded a fuller story than the one given to us initially. Why were there such vast differences between Gates’ and Crowley’s accounts? Was Dr. Gates given “due process”? What prompted the “loud and tumultuous” behavior? Why did it take one week to “discover” that “Sgt. Crowley is a “racial profiling expert” selected to teach a class in that field by an African American police commissioner?

Make no mistake about it, race – its harmony or its dissonance – is big business. And, each revelation in this case, delivered as “breaking news,” was a riveting ratings-grabber. But, each ratings point scored seemed to dig more deeply into this American wound; accurate information could have been a salve.

“Contrary to published reports that a ‘white woman’ called 911 and reported seeing ‘two black men’ trying to gain entry into Mr. Gates home, the woman, who has olive colored skin and is of Portuguese descent, told the 911 operator that she observed ‘two men’ at the home. It was very clear that she wasn’t sure what the men’s race was.”
– Atty. Wendy Murphy, representative for Lucia Whalen, the woman who reported the suspicious activity at the Gates home

How is it that the police have not been pressed for an answer for this untruth? The tapes have told the tale: Ms. Whalen did not charge that she saw “two black males with backpacks” at the Gates home. Whalen, in fact, in the beginning, never mentioned race at all. This was revealed on July 27th. How is it that so crucial an element to this story was not reported or discovered for 11 days? How did “two larger men, one looked kind of Hispanic”, as reported by Ms. Whalen, become ” two Black males with backpacks”, as stated in the police report?

Why is it that the police have not been pressed for answers to this inconsistency? Press reports cite concerns for Ms. Whalen’s privacy, which slowed down the release of the transcripts and tapes that contained this information. But, in order that the greater “public good” be served, should this information have been released? Was there a way for her anonymity to be preserved while informing the public of the thoughtful manner in which she approached this situation? It would have saved her the “personal devastation” of having been characterized a “racist” who called the police because the presumed intruders were black; certainly, this information would have re-shaped, reformed, and tempered the fiery public debate, casting much-needed light, instead of the singeing heat that has scorched this discourse.

And, why is Whalen still referenced as a “neighbor” when she is not? She has, in fact, worked in the neighborhood for 15 years “about 100 yards from Gates home,” according to the Boston Globe. This misinformation and the ensuing misimpression that has been allowed to persist, that a white woman did not recognize her black neighbor, could and should have been put to rest long ago. As her representative, Atty. Wendy Murphy, stated: “She doesn’t live in the area. She is by no means the entitled White neighbor.”

“Now, I don’t know…not seeing all the facts, what role race played in (the arrest)…But…the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home…”
– President Barack Obama, White House Press Conference, July 22, 2009

“He conceded that he didn’t have all the facts, and indeed he didn’t. I suspect that when the full picture comes out, he will regret the remarks he made.”
– Alan J. McDonald, the lawyer for the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association

What else can one say? The argument can be made that it defies the professional training of a lawyer to speak, let alone expound, upon that which he or she does not fully know. The president did not have the “all the facts” that he would have needed to have spoken without impeachability. What a gift that would and could have been. But, the police, unlike the President, had access to the tapes: they know what happened. It is incumbent upon them to tell the truth and not give some menacing, thinly veiled retort to the president of the United States.

Something is going on here and we would all be wise to pay attention. Weren’t you struck by the rainbow of “Blue” standing up for Sgt. Crowley? White, Black, Yellow and Brown stood together as a show of force against a member – although black – of the “elite”. In fact, an African American Cambridge police officer, Sgt. Leon Lashley, sent a letter of support for Sgt. Crowley to the White House with him to give to the president.

NYU Professor William Easterly wrote in the Huffington Post that this arrest may not have been about race, but something even more insidious: “The real problem here is that the Cambridge police (and many other government bureaucracies) do not feel themselves accountable to the citizens as they must be in a democratic society.”

The president apologized to the police after they rendered him – the Commander-in-Chief – a sharp rebuke. And Dr. Gates is still waiting for his. Do not hold your breath, Dr. Gates, keep breathing. Until we have a discussion in on how we can counterbalance the responsibilities of the powerful with the rights of the vulnerable, the events of the past two weeks will continue to play themselves out with greater frequency and intensity.