Archived: Race Is Always Getting In The Way


Before the saga of Gatesgate (the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., by Boston police) disappears into the limbo reserved for mountains made of molehills, let me make one comment:

That Boston police officer did not act “stupidly” in slapping cuffs on the renown black historian and hauling him off to jail.

It was Gates who acted stupidly.

I grew up in Detroit—not Grosse Pointe-Detroit or Bloomfield Hills, but Detroit, where the factories once were—and one thing we learned early on was this:

Do not give a policeman an excuse to beat you up for he will often do it.

And what’s excuse enough for a beating? Well, giving him lip ranks high on the list.

When I was a young reporter I remember a county attorney in Iowa telling me that every case of police brutality he had ever investigated began with the victim challenging the authority of the law officers.

“It drives a lot of cops crazy,” the attorney said.

And so it does. I remember my surprise at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago when the student protestors expressed outrage and astonishment that the Chicago police were beating the hell out of them.

These kids were on the streets, calling the cops impolite names, impugning the virtue of their mothers, even throwing rocks at them, and they were surprised when the police responded by hitting them on the head with clubs?

“Where did these kids grown up?” I asked a colleague from Philadelphia.

“I don’t know, but it wasn’t Philadelphia,” he said.

Do I think it’s proper for police to beat people up simply because they’re disrespectful? No I don’t. I think all police should be saints. Saints with guns. But that’s not the way of the world. Gates should consider himself lucky he didn’t draw a mean, racist cop with an itchy nightstick.

On the other hand, I am perfectly willing to cut Gates some slack. He’s a middle-aged man with a bad hip. On the night in question he’d just gotten off a plane after a 14-hour flight home from China, where he was making a documentary. Fourteen hours!

He was tired. He was coming down with a cold. His hip probably was killing him and, to top it all off, he’d had to break into his own house because of a jammed door.

Add to that the fact that Gates’ field of specialty is black history. He probably has as firm a grasp of this country’s lamentable history of race relations as anyone alive. He lives with that history of the subjugation and oppression of African-Americans, the record of police brutality inflicted on blacks.

He carries with him the rage inspired by those injustices.

So when a cop showed up and hassled him in his own home— he snapped.

Have you ever snapped? I’ve snapped, often with less provocation than Gates had.
I would still argue that it was the police officer, ultimately, who should not have let things get out of hand. Gates is 58 years old. He weighs a wet 150 and he walks with a cane. He dresses like a Harvard professor.

It should have been obvious to the officer that Gates presented no threat to society and that he was not a burglar. He was just a crotchety old man behaving like a jerk.
It would have been nice, also, if President Obama hadn’t been so quick to condemn the Boston police from his bully pulpit. He got it about right the second time around, but, really, no one was at the top of their game here.

It’s amazing, however, how even people of good will can get crosswise when race is involved.

Don Kaul is a Washington correspondent.

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