Prof. Gates’ Arrest, Cambridge Police and Racism


(image from here)

News about the arrest of Harvard Professor Gates seems to be flowing out of the news-machine-spigot at full force these days.   At least part of the story seems to be shifting toward Crowley, the Cambridge cop who was centrally involved in Gates’ arrest.  Here, I’ll go through a few of the main links to various parts of the story, and then – as we do here – draw on some social science research to see if that can illuminate what’s going on here.

Several people are defending Crowley.  Some of these defenders are not surprising, such as this blogger who sees Crowley – a racial profiling expert for the Cambridge police – as being treated unfairly because he is white. Other Crowley defenders are somewhat more surprising, such as Dr. Boyce Watkins, an African American professor at Syracuse University and often ardent critic of the racial status quo, who writes:

After my battles with Bill O’Reilly made me the most hated professor on the Syracuse University campus last year, I always thought I was the radical guy in the room. But in this case, I must encourage temperance and fairness. Whether it has killed slaves in the past or destroyed careers in the present, the mob mentality has never been good for America.

From a centrist perspective, the Christian Science Monitor has a piece called, “Gates Arrest: Racial Profiling or ‘Tempest in a Teapot,'” and the staid CSM comes down decidedly on the ‘tempest in a teapot’ side of this.  The CSM emphasizes “bad behavior on both sides,” as in this quote from a representative of the Cambridge Police:

“It wasn’t Professor Gates’s best moment, and it was not the Cambridge Police Department’s best moment.”

Then, the CSM includes this line which is the heart of their argument in this article:

Law enforcement analysts are inclined to agree, suggesting that the incident may have been only a “tempest in a teapot.”

Unfortunately, the evidence from the ‘law enforcement analysts’ – one crim professor a radio talk show how and a legal blogger – is pretty thin.   The evidence they glean from quote by the crim professor tend to be critical of Crowley’s actions, as in:

“The best motto for a police officer is that sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” says George Kirkham, a former police officer and now a professor of criminology at Florida State University. “People wind up venting, and you have to let them vent.” “We are a country founded on Jeffersonian ideals, and people don’t like government in their lives,” says Professor Kirkham. “[Police] need to be aware of that.”

So, here, Kirkham is basically saying that Crowley should not have arrested Gates no matter how “tumultuous” his behavior.  The key phrase here is the use of “Jeffersonian ideals.”   Now, I’m assuming the ideals to which Kirkham is referring here are the ones about government not interfering in people’s lives, and not the ones that Jefferson wrotes about in Notes on the State of Virginia in which he argued for the inherent inferiority of blacks, including (presumably) Sally Hemmings, the woman he enslaved, raped, and her children by Jefferson.   Still, I think Kirkham is right here, it would be a good idea to keep these latter Jeffersonian values in mind when dealing with anyone and particularly with African Americans.  My point here is that even the *expert* in this case is so completely steeped in the white racial frame that he doesn’t even realize the multiple connotations of what he’s saying to this CSM reporter. And, for their part, the CSM reporters and editors never step outside the white racial frame to evaluate this case even though this is supposedly an “analysis” piece.

A better source for “law enforcement analyst” might be Lowry Heussler, who has worked on police-misconduct cases in Massachusetts, the state where the Gates arrest happened.   In a post for the blog The Reality-Based Community, Heussler provides a meticulous analysis of Crowley’s actions based on Crowley’s own words (the report he wrote about the arrest):

Read Crowley’s report and stop on page two when he admits seeing Gates’s Harvard photo ID. I don’t care what Gates had said to him up until then, Crowley was obligated to leave. He had identified Gates. Any further investigation of Gates’ right to be present in the house could have been done elsewhere. His decision to call HUPD seems disproportionate, but we could give him points for thoroughness if he had made that call from his car while keeping an eye on the house. Had a citizen refused to leave Gates’ home after being told to, the cops could have made an arrest for trespass.

Heussler goes on from there, offering a thoroughly devastating critique of Crowley’s actions as police – apart from the racial context – and based on Crowley’s on words.   Basically, what he finds is that Crowley gets pissed off that Gates has accused him of racism, then works to escalate the situation by “inviting” Gates out onto the porch where he is arrested.

Now, to the social science.  Henry Ferrell at Crooked Timber has a nice post called “Discretion and Arrest Power,” in which he discusses the relevance of Peter Moskos’ book, Cop in the Hood. Moskos, a sociologist and a CUNY professor at John Jay College, spent a year as a beat officer in Baltimore. In his book, Moskos discusses the “zone of discretion” that cops have and the ways that they try to expand their authority beyond that which they are legally authorized to do (Moskos, p. 117-118). In Moskos’ account of being Baltimore police officer (as Farrell recounts it) he both (a) uses a verbal invitation to induce the targeted individual to leave the building, and (b) then uses the attention of bystanders to generate a charge of disorderly conduct.

Crowley, for his part, maintains that he is “not a racist” and refuses to apologize.  And, I think it’s quite possible that Crowley did not have any intention to racially discriminate against anyone when he showed up at the house on Ware Street responding to a call.    I do, however, think that the confluence of events and factors shaped his response to the situation so that it played out in ways that are consistent with centuries of racial discrimination in this country.   First, there’s the white racial frame that shaped Crowley’s view of what was happening and what kind of a “danger” Professor Gates posed.  Second, there’s the “cop in the hood” mentality in which police are often forced to use their discretion to decide what to do in a situation that may seem unclear.  Third, there is Crowley’s “reputation” as a “racial profiling expert” and Gates charge of “racism.”  This, according to one experts’ speculation, pissed off Crowley and that’s where the escalation occurred.  Now, Crowley – and his defenders – seem entrenched in the effort to shore up Crowley’s “racial innocence” and thus redeem him as a ‘good’ (read: not racist) white person.

This will, I predict, continue to be a huge news story.   And, much of the coverage will be focused on Crowley and his supposed “racial innocence.”   I find this a disappointing focus on this story because by making it a story about Crowley, it completely individualizes – and ultimately trivializes – the problem here. I hope that others – possibly Professor Gates leading the way – will use this incident to rerfocus our attention on efforts to change the racial inequality at the heart of our criminal justice system, and indeed, at the heart of our society.


  1. AB

    I can understand Prof. Gates predicament. I personally experienced similar treatment with the same police force. I am a colored person and I had just pulled my car over to a valid parking meter to take a phone call (near MIT). While I was in the car talking on the phone, the police officer walked over and issued a parking ticket while I was still present in my car.
    Moreover, the same officer passed by without issuing a ticket to a white woman who ran to put coin the meter.
    To add insult to the injury, appeal does not work no matter what proof you present!

  2. Joe

    No media or scholary analysts I have seen have set this incident in its much larger societal context of systemic racism. They both were trapped in that larger reality. Gates was angry not just at what that cop did, but at how whites, esp. cops, frequently discriminate against black people day after day, year after year, literally thousands of times in a lifetime. That compounds the anger you feel when you are mistreated, esp. in your own home. And this cop, apparently fairly liberal and knowing theoretically about profiling that he teaches about, is trapped by looking at the world from the white racial frame that does not allow him to really put himself in Gates place in that house at that time, and see how a black man (in this case a small, older, gray headed, gray bearded, spectacled, limping black man who does not look like any street criminal that cop has ever seen) must feel anger at being treated that way. As a good analyst, One needs to step back and see the Greek-type tragedy that systemic racism creates for all of us — until we learn to “see ” it and get rid of it.

  3. I agree that it’s a shame that the focus is now on Crowley’s “innocence.” I wonder if it’s about his actions or the accusation that he’s racist. He doesn’t have to be racist for his actions to be wrong. And I think we may have discussed this before, but it applies here to – one example of white privilege is the idea that being accused of being a racist is just the worst thing in the world. It focuses the attention on the individual and their “heart” instead of the actions they took, which in most cases is racist.
    @ AB – I’m tempted to ask, did you pay the meter? Or is it okay to be at a parking meter without paying so long as you’re in the car?

  4. JDF

    I still think it’s likely that Crowley was outraged to have a black man talk back to him, and he felt he had to do something in front of his peers. Also, I saw the black cop on the scene interviewed on 360 last night; talk about being between a rock and a hard place: i.e., people of color who are trying to make a living while defending their comrades, yet it seemed obvious that he thought this whole thing could’ve been avoided had HE answered the door, not Crowley.

  5. Nquest

    JDF, I saw that part of AC 360` too. I found Sgt. Lashley to either be overly nervous or grossly underprepared. Once he said he felt it would have been different had he arrived first or was the lead officer, he wasn’t ready to explain how he still supported Sgt. Crowley’s conduct given that belief. And, of course, Lashley see he would have also made the arrest which made things more confusing.
    I haven’t followed all this close enough but one of the clips where Cambridge police were together showed Crowley a step or two away from Lashley giving him a look that epitomized “rock meets hard place.” Then, too, I’m having problems with the police department/union allowing the officers to speak to the media as much as they have.
    As for Crowley and all the declarations of his racist innocense… Well, what’s new in America? I think, of all the TV commentators/guests, Eugene Robinson tried to put this in the proper context when he noted how [irrelevant] questions about whether Crowley is a “racist” stop us from looking honestly at the action. And there’s a huge difference.
    Focusing on the person vs. the action is a distraction and it seems like a conscious one for racism deniers or defenders of all (or most) things White privilege.


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