At this point, we have the following narrative on the events of last July 16th in Cambridge, Massachusetts — one which appears to have won majority acceptance by the public (and I think rightly so): A neighbor called the police on seeing two men forcing their way into a house on her street; a house which had been broken into just weeks earlier. (Obviously she failed to recognize Professor Gates as the legitimate resident — but this is hardly a huge surprise these days, in an urban environment, when so few people really know their neighbors.)
Sgt. Jim Crowley, who happened to be very nearby, attended to the scene. Professor Gates, seeing a white police officer in his doorway and hearing a request to step outside of his home to talk, took deep umbrage on an immediate basis. The encounter progressed with Gates yelling accusations and demands, and Sgt. Crowley attempting to ascertain the facts of the situation. It ended with Gates pursuing Sgt. Crowley out of the house, still yelling and carrying-on, in the presence of other police officers and the general public, and with the arrest of Gates for disorderly conduct.
In the days following, competing narratives attempted to hold sway (i.e. Gates’ characterization of the events versus that in the police report). The President of the United States, Barack H. Obama, took a question on the subject at a prime-time press conference and delivered what was clearly a carefully (if badly) thought-out answer. He had three bullet-points prepared. (1) “Any of us would be pretty angry” to be in Gates’ situation. Since Gates’ situation was merely being asked to provide his identity, in a context where a police officer was responding to a report of a break-in, this seems far from a fair and obvious conclusion. Gates knew that he had forced his way into his home in broad daylight — a home which had recently been burglarized. It most certainly should have crossed his mind that someone in the neighborhood might get the wrong idea, and he most certainly should have been prepared to courteously explain himself. (2) The police had “acted stupidly” by arresting Gates for disorderly conduct. As someone who wasn’t on the scene and who admitted that he did not know the full facts, this was a clear over-reach on Obama’s part, and the most irresponsible element of his statement, not least because it might encourage many others in petty confrontations with police officers to accuse them of being stupid, citing the authority of the commander-in-chief. (3) There was a “long history” of minorities being stopped by police “disproportionately” in America. You can stipulate to the absolute truth of that observation by President Obama and still consider it to be nothing more than a non-sequitor when applied to this case. Was Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. being singled-out “disproportionately,” when a break-in at that address had been reported to the police and he was found to be the only person on the scene?
The narrative continued to develop, as we learned that Sgt. Jim Crowley had a long and exemplary record as a police officer, and was especially highly-regarded for his expertise in and sensitivity to issues of racial profiling. He had been selected (by a police commissioner who happened to be African-American himself) to teach new recruits on how to avoid unfair racial profiling.
President Obama began his process of “dialing back” from his carefully thought-out and abysmally wrong-headed statement at his news conference, saying through his spokesman that what he really meant was that “cooler heads should have prevailed” on both sides during the confrontation. Yet no one — not even Professor Gates — had intimated that Sgt. Crowley lost his head during the encounter. Indeed, two things were becoming clear to reasonable observers: (1) Sgt. Crowley was perhaps the most cool-headed person in the entire world with regard to this situation (he was giving even-tempered interviews to the media during these days, respectful to everyone involved) and (2) the only person guilty of racial profiling on July 16th had been none other than Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who had seen a white policeman in his doorway and immediately jumped to the worst possible conclusion. (And of-course the President of the United States had implicitly endorsed Gates’ act of racial profiling.)
As this narrative was settling into general acceptance with average Americans (and no doubt as a result of polling by the Obama political machine), the President realized that he needed to take drastic action to mend the hole he had kicked in his own boat, before he sank to the bottom. He telephoned Sgt. Crowley. During their conversation (if you read the relevant and contemporaneous news reports) it’s clear that it was Crowley, not Obama, who came up with the idea that Gates, Obama and himself should “have a beer” at the White House and clear the air over the situation. This, a genuinely Christian-spirited offer of peacemaking by the wronged party, was the wisest, most cool-headed and magnanimous thing anyone could have come up with. Obama, in a surprise appearance to the press in the White House East Room, did not claim it was his idea but has been very happy to take credit for it, and much of the media has indeed given him credit for it.
He further stated at this point that he could have “calibrated” his remarks better when he said that the police acted stupidly. This, I suppose, is how the Most Honest And Articulate President In History says that he was dead wrong. He continued to maintain, however, that the police “overreacted,” and — in a statement that he audibly almost choked upon — he averred for the very first time that he thought that Professor Gates “probably overreacted” as well.
What can be seen at this point in time is that Sgt. Jim Crowley, merely by being honest, restrained, and Christian-spirited, has effectively humiliated the President of the United States and his friend, Harvard Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., the prominent and elite intellectual and alleged expert on the African-American experience. Without exhibiting any ill-will during the process, this Cambridge police sergeant has bested these two powerful men and all the influence at their disposal, and has made obvious the fallaciousness of their statements. It is truly an amazing thing, and something for which we ought to give thanks. It rarely shakes out this way.
And so we come to the question posed by the title of this piece: What if, indeed, it had not been Sgt. Crowley, with his exemplary credentials and nearly faultless professionalism, who had encountered Professor “Chip-On-My-Elite-Shoulder” Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. on that fateful day?
What did Professor Gates assume when he saw the white police officer in his doorway? Surely, he assumed that he was dealing with just some “Joe Schmo” policeman. He — the great intellectual, widely admired expert on issues of race in America and friend of the President of the United States — was not for a moment going to deign to give this little person a moment of patience or respect. He would steamroll the stupid cop, who would certainly curse the day he had ever dared to question the great and storied Professor Gates. He was, according to an eminently verifiable assertion in the police report, instantly on his telephone in some absurd attempt to speak to “the chief.”
What if, for the sake of argument, the police officer with the unfortunate duty of questioning Professor Gates that day had in fact been some kind of rookie cop with no long and clear history of professional behavior? What if — even — it had been an officer with some slight blemishes on his record?
In that case, in the days following the event, the narrative that developed in the media may well have been considerably different to what we actually saw. In that case, it is distinctly possible that Professor Gates’ loud assertions of racism — implicitly backed up by no less a personage than the President of the United States — would have had sufficient momentum to win the day; if not immediately, then ultimately. What could a Joe Schmo policeman with a meager or even patchy record do to counteract that kind of pressure? How far would the Cambridge Police Department and the local government in Cambridge — not to mention the Governor of Massachusetts, who also made premature and prejudicial remarks in this case — go to defend such an insignificant officer in such a context?
We can’t know for sure, and we won’t ever know for sure. But I suggest that Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. believed, standing there in that moment, that he did know. He believed that his reputation, his standing, his big-shot self and his powerful friends would decimate this puny white police officer who dared to ask him to cooperate with a routine check on a reported break-in.
Professor Gates, and President Barack Obama, have been handed, by Sgt. Jim Crowley, a golden opportunity to truly “dial back” from inanity, prejudice and ill-will, and to make this a genuine “teachable moment” over the sharing of some beers in the White House. Whether all of this will unfold in the intended spirit remains to be seen. But I think that all people of good will can be grateful for the twist of fate that made Sgt. Crowley the man to confront this particular Harvard professor, drunk with privilege and entitlement and perhaps having a generally aggravating day, on this potentially pivotal occasion. Crowley appears to be that singular individual of whom it can accurately be said that he, one bright day, prevailed against the very Gates of Hell.
Addendum: The clip below, of Crowley’s fellow officers speaking on his behalf, is essential viewing. As Allahpundit says at Hot Air: “If you’re looking for post-racial America, you’ve found it.”