Friday, July 24, 2009

Obama v. the Po-Pos

It's Friday. So that's cool.
So Obama called the behavior of Cambridge cops stupid when they arrested Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who happens to be black, in his own home this week. The president admitted both that he was friends with Gates and that he didn't really know all of the facts before he made this statement.
I'm not really sure whether the police in Cambridge acted stupidly or not (I guess it all depends upon how Gates was acting as the police tried to sort out this strange situation where Gates was breaking into his own house), but this statement seemed like a pretty clear misstep by Obama. You just can't admit that you're biased and that you don't know all of the facts and then go on to say the police acted stupidly.
But given the hundreds or thousands of times that Bush spoke stupidly (anyone else still remember when he justified the Iraq war by saying it was because Saddam Hussein had threatened to kill his daddy?), I think I can probably forgive Obama for succumbing to emotion and speaking sort of recklessly, especially in a situation where a friend of his was arrested after being investigated for breaking into his own home.
Anyway, it's still far from clear that the Cambridge police weren't acting foolishly. I can tell you as a prosecutor who watches the actions of Austin juries on a regular basis that the people here in our town would probably be pretty unwilling to support the police in a case where a man was arrested after being found "breaking into" his own home (and even more suspicious of the police if the man arrested was black). Personally, I'm a little more sympathetic to the fact that the police need to be given a little room to do their job (i.e., figuring out what's actually going on in a given situation) without having to deal with a bunch of verbal abuse and theatrics (if that's what actually occurred here), but still- I don't think the president's comments were necessarily that far outside the mainstream for a lot of Americans. And as he admitted, this was a friend of his who was involved, so you can see why he might be a little touchy about this.
The real problem, of course, is that the president gave an hour long press conference supporting healthcare reform, but all anyone's talking about is this comment (about the police acting stupidly).
Oops, I gotta run. More later, probably.


Anonymous said...

I read the article you cited as well as several other articles and nowhere have I seen the president admit that he didn't know all the pertinent facts. He knew the crucial fact, that Mr. Gates was arrested AFTER producing documentation that this was his own home. Come on! Can you imagine? And Obama is right that law enforcement historically and currently does not treat African Americans with the same dignity, decency and lack of suspicion as they would their white counterpart, and if that outrages a harvard professor stopped in his own home and accused of breaking in, is that really a crime? His outrage?

J.S. said...

Well, I DID see the actual TV clip of the president saying that he didn't know all of the facts (or maybe he said details) surrounding the arrest, and they even talked about the fact that the president had made that admission on last night's Daily Show. I agree that the police probably should have acted a little more diplomatically, but in their defense, they were trying to investigate a call from a concerned neighbor who saw a couple of men breaking into one of the houses in the neighborhood (and this professor really did end up forcing a door open). I don't know what happened once the police got to the house. Maybe they were totally out of line, or maybe they were being cursed at, verbally abused, and being called racists from the minute they showed up (while, in the end, they were trying to protect this guy's property). Maybe the cops were way out of line (and they probably shouldn't have made the arrest- which I believe in the end was for disorderly conduct- not for the burglary- regardless of the circumstances), but maybe this professor got very defensive, belligerent and extremely hostile and abusive very quickly because he just assumed the cops were racist. We don't know if the cops were acting unprofessionally, or if the professor just got bent out of shape really fast because he assumed they were tagetting him because he was black (when in truth, I would expect the police to investigate ANY situation where a person of ANY color were forcing open a door to a house).
I don't know the facts. We certainly have problems with racial profiling in this country, but we also have problems with people getting reflexively defensive and quickly becoming extremely agitated whenever they suspect, rightly or wrongly, that racism is a motivating factor (and sometimes this really is a factor, and sometimes it isn't).
In order to have more effective community-police relations in this country, we need action from both sides. (we absolutely need to be sure that racial profiling isn't going on, but we also need people to not berate police officers, call them racists, and become belligerent with them when they're really just trying to do their jobs.)
Sadly, we have a lot of negative history to overcome in order to improve relations.
(by the way, I actually had a gun drawn on me by a cop one time in Houston when I was visiting my parents house because I forgot the alarm code. We got it all straightened out by showing him some of my childhood pictures from the "wall of shame"- and I was very calm and polite, I'm proud to say- but it was a little scary there for a moment. Now if I had been black, would it have been fair for me to immediately become belligerent under the assumption that the cop only drew his weapon because I was black? Incidentally, the cop who pulled the gun on me was black.)

Unknown said...

Dang, Jason. How many times have you had a gun pulled on you, anyway? This is at least the second example you've given! You ARE rather menacing, it must be stated.

J.S. said...

;-) Well, I think that's the only other time I had a gun pulled on me, but to be honest, I had sort of forgotten about this one until we started talking about this incident. The cop actually ended up being a really nice guy, but I specifically remember him sort of jokingly commenting (in a relieved sort of way) about how poorly things would have gone for him if he had shot a white kid in his parents' own home. He was joking, but the point was a legitimate one, and it sort of highlights the fact that race relations really are a factor that are sort of on the mind of a lot of police officers these days.

J.S. said...

Also, I learned that if a cop is walking up to your house, don't go charging out the front door in a big hurry to explain yourself- or at least not without your hands in the air.