Summing It After The Summit

Well, the much-ballyhooed Gates-Obama-Crowley “Beer Summit” has come and gone with much fanfare but little incident. I don’t know what it says about us as a country, that in the midst of the worst financial crisis in eighty years, the most tense negotiations on comprehensive health care reform since at least the enactment of Medicare, and two separate wars, we can be so easily diverted onto seemingly-endless dissections of the meaning of which beer each participant in President Obama’s “teachable moment” chose to order, or their place at the table or body language.

Yeah, yeah, I know….this is supposed to be merely a metaphor for – and instance of – the long-running and much-debated national conversation about race which – to approximately no one’s surprise – didn’t magically heal itself with the election of the first black President. Since the fateful night when Mr. Obama strode to the podium in front of the media to discuss health care for an hour, only to find his entire message waylaid by the final question of the evening regarding the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates at the hands of a white Cambridge police officer, it seems as if the entire nation, sometimes, has been focused on one aspect of the fallout from the events of that evening – either the arrest itself, or Mr. Obama’s “poorly-calibrated” (to use his description) words at the health care press conference.

However, I read a post that made me change my thinking on this issue from one of “cripes, what an idiotic distraction” to something only tangentially concerning race issues. Namely, the idea of our relationship to the police and authority in general in America, post 9/11, ca. 2009. The post in question was from the always-worthwhile Digby (which, if you aren’t reading, you should be), and the part which really resonated with me was this:

…to me, this situation actually has far broader implications about all citizens’ relationship to the police and the way we are expected to respond to authority, regardless of race. I’ve watched too many taser videos over the past few years featuring people of all races and both genders being put to the ground screaming in pain, not because they were dangerous or threatening and not because they were so out of control there was no other way to deal with them, but because they were arguing with police and the officer perceived a lack of respect for the badge.

I have discovered that my hackles automatically going up at such authoritarian behavior is not necessarily the common reaction among my fellow Americans, not even my fellow liberals. The arguments are usually something along the lines of “that guy was an idiot to argue with the cops, he should know better,” which is very similar to what many are saying about Gates. He has even been criticized for being a “bad role model,” thus putting young black kids at risk if they do the same things.

Now, on a practical, day to day level, it’s hard to argue that being argumentative with a cop is a dangerous thing. They have guns. They can arrest you and can cost you your freedom if they want to do it badly enough. They can often get away with doing violence on you and suffer no consequences. You are taking a risk if you provoke someone with that kind of power, no doubt about it.

Indeed, it is very little different than exercising your right of free speech to tell a gang of armed thugs to go fuck themselves. It’s legal, but it’s not very smart. But that’s the problem isn’t it? We shouldn’t have to make the same calculations about how to behave with police as we would with armed criminals. The police are supposed to be the good guys who follow the rules and the law and don’t expect innocent citizens to bow to their brute power the same way that a street gang would do. The police are not supposed to wield what is essentially brute force on the entire population.

(emphasis mine)

A long time ago, when I lived in San Francisco, I was coming home from a party with my then-girlfriend. We were young and broke and didn’t own a car, and San Francisco is one of the few American cities which has a sufficiently-extensive public transit system that one can live there quite comfortably (usually) without owning a car. One of the few drawbacks of this sort of lifestyle-choice is that after about midnight, the bus (and subway) service goes to a very bare-bones schedule; not all lines run anymore, and the ones that do run far less frequently than even in the middle of the day.

On this particular night, as we left the party, we were walking the two or three blocks to the major cross street where we’d pick up one bus which would allow us to transfer to another one that would pass very near our apartment. We already knew it would be a long time to get home, based upon the skeletal late-night bus service, but as we looked ahead, we saw the very bus that we needed to catch cross over the street we were on and keep going. When we got down to the corner with the bus stop, we checked the schedule, and our fears were confirmed: the next bus on that line wasn’t for another hour. Damn. So, we decided after a quick conversation that it would be both warmer (it was early March) and likely quicker to simply walk the most direct route home than it would be to sit there twiddling our increasingly chilly thumbs for the next hour. The only problem was that the shortest way to get where we were going involved walking through the Western Addition projects.

Now, for those of you who aren’t familiar with San Francisco, but rather only cities like Philly or Chicago, the projects in SF would probably seem like well-lit theme parks to you. The projects in most older, larger east-coast cities are much more dark and dangerous than the ones in SF. Still, they’re public housing projects, not the local mall. They can be dangerous at any time of the day, and at just past two o’clock in the morning, well, I’m betting that you see exactly where this is going, right?

Sure enough, as we got into the projects, there was a group of seven men (boys, really, but full-grown enough be as dangerous as any adult) standing in a group under one of the few streetlights on one block. We saw them, of course, but decided that it would look even worse at that point for us to cross the street to avoid passing them by, since there was no other reason for us to be crossing; no shops, not even any houses with lights still on. So we just kept walking. And, sure enough, they let us pass just by them, and then one of them grabbed my girlfriend’s arms and pinned them behind her back, another grabbed me in a headlock and sat me down on the ground, and a third took out a good-sized folding Buck knife and showed it to me.

Unfortunately for them, I think between my girlfriend and I, we might have had about twelve dollars – if that. So their effort was (at least in their eyes) mostly wasted. They went through my pockets, took what little we had – same for my girlfriend’s purse – and then, disappointedly, one of them cuffed me, open-handed (but fairly hard) on the back of the head…and then they told us to leave. We did.

Obviously, we were pretty shaken, and didn’t get a lot of sleep that night. As people often do when they’ve been in a car accident or another high-stress situation that happens all of a sudden, we kept playing the situation over and over in our conversation, checking our stories against one another, noting little differences in what we’d each seen, thought and felt as it happened. The whole thing couldn’t have taken more than about 90 seconds, but – again, as is often the case – it felt like forever when it was happening. All things considered, we got off remarkably easy: I had been worried they might try to rape my girlfriend, and (she told me later) when she saw them waving the knife under my nose, she had been certain they were going to use it on me after they got done relieving us of our valuables (what little there was). As you might imagine, we each went through a variety of emotions, ranging from anger to the shakes to all sorts of other things. But one thing we both felt rather strongly was a sense of sheepishness – that we’d been pretty stupid to not think twice before traipsing through a major US city’s housing projects at 2:20 am.

But my perspective on it changed, as I thought about it more over the next several days. My thinking on that subject specifically – that we’d been fools to not consider the danger – began to evolve, along what I think are parallel lines to the ones Digby was talking about above. I began to realize that this occurrence was not my fault – or my girlfriend’s. Even if it had been the most thoughtless or “stupid” idea in the world to walk from that bus stop through the projects at that time of the night, what took place was still the responsibility – the fault – of those seven teenagers. They had to choose to make victims of us; they were not helpless pawns performing actions that were beyond their control. It’s not as if my girlfriend and I made the thoughtless choice to walk through a lions’ den or something like that, where there would have been nobody to blame but ourselves (lions being lions and all). If, by chance, the men who mugged us had happened to go inside to bed a few minutes earlier, or to eat something, my girlfriend and I might have passed through the projects completely unmolested. Of course, reaching our destination unharmed wouldn’t have made our decision to walk through those projects at that hour any less foolish or short-sighted. It just would have been good luck. And what I began to realize was that the flip-side to that notion was that although certainly we might have been able to predict (and therefore prevent) what happened to us by choosing another way to get home, our mugging was, looked at from a certain perspective, merely bad luck.

And on top of that realization came another one – the realization that those two notions – one, that we’d been foolish and two, that those men had been the ones who were 100% to blame for their crime – were not at odds with one another. In fact, both were true at the same time: my girlfriend and I SHOULD have realized that walking through the projects at 2:20AM wasn’t smart, because of the likelihood we’d get mugged or worse, but at the same time, it wasn’t our fault that we were robbed, it was the fault of the men/boys who mugged us. Just because we might have avoided the situation with a little clearer foresight didn’t absolve our muggers of responsibility for their actions.

When I read Digby’s post regarding the Gates incident, that story came back vividly to me, because one of the primary things I learned from that experience is to always take care to assign responsibility where it truly belongs, not just where you (or others) can make an excuse or argument that it could have been addressed. Were my girlfriend and I monumentally thoughtless (“dumb”) to have not realized that walking through those projects at that time might very well lead to bad things? Absolutely. But does our mistake make US to blame for our own mugging? No. No way – the responsibility, the fault, the karmic freight, if you will, for those events on that night, rests squarely on the heads of the men who chose to victimize my girlfriend and I as we walked past them. Similarly, when people go through the rigors of the police academy and exams, they do so with the understanding that when they put on that badge, they are public servants. Every person on the planet, virtually, recognizes and understands the authority and role of the police, even if they are Lex Luthor himself and don’t submit to the cops’ authority, they know what it is. And the ones who wear the uniform and the badge know that they are called to a higher standard of behavior when in uniform and on the job than those with whom they interact. Everyone – all humans – will behave badly on occasion. Perhaps they’re drunk. Or depressed. Or angry. Or just not thinking clearly. Or any of thousands of other reasons; we’ve all got memories in which we acted in ways we’re not proud of and wish we hadn’t done. These are the people the cops deal with every day, day in and day out: the guy who has one too many beers at the local bar and then figures it’s only a couple of miles home, he can make it. The married couple in the heat of a domestic argument. Etc. Part of police training is to learn to recognize and deal with the tensions and volatility of others in a cool, detached and professional manner. Sure, bad guys need to go to jail. But the vast majority of people that even the cops deal with aren’t “bad guys” through and through, they’re people who the cops get to witness in the very act of (or just after) making significantly poor choices – like my girlfriend and I did that night.

The difference between my run-in with those long-ago San Francisco street-thugs and what transpired between Gates and Crowley a couple of weeks ago is exactly what Digby referred to: I was dealing with street criminals, while professor Gates was dealing with a man wearing the color of authority (not to mention a gun), whose salary was paid for in part by Gates himself, and who had sworn an oath to protect and serve. Yes, cops are people too – they have human failings just like we all do – perhaps like professor Gates himself had that night. But when a policeman signs in at the station house for that night’s 8 or 10 hour shift, he is supposed to be well-rested, alert, and operating with the professional judgment expected of all of us in our full-time jobs. Men like Sergeant Crowley are supposed to be trained to deal with people who are in the process of screwing up or making bad decisions; people who are angry, drunk or otherwise temporarily not in their right minds. They – the cops – are supposed to be the cooler heads, using training and logical assessment and reasoning to decide whether to defuse a situation, call for backup, or start firing their weapon….or any number of other responses.

But, too often these days, we see outcomes like the one that occurred between Gates and Crowley; we see a person who might very well have been acting badly or using poor judgment – or maybe not – wind up in handcuffs or (in the worst cases) writhing on the floor in pain from high-voltage electric shock, having committed no crime.

And make no mistake, Gates committed no crime. He may very well have been unruly, loud, profane or insulting. But he was not violent, nor did he impede Sergeant Crowley’s performance of his duties or the course of his police work.

In Digby’s excellent article, she refers to another post at Crooked Timber (which sparked her thoughts), which was a guest-post from a policeman who presented the cops’-eye view of how that altercation probably appeared. Digby quotes him as saying:

It cannot become commonplace for people to be allowed to scream at the police in public, threatening them with political phone calls, deriding their abilities, etc. Routine acts like rendering aid to lost children, taking accident reports and issuing traffic violations could be derailed at any time by any person who has a perceived grievance with the police.

When I got to that part of Digby’s post, the memories of my own run-in with not cops but street thugs came vividly back, and I found myself nodding in agreement to Digby’s assessment that:

This is a form of blackmail…[which]…says that the police will not be willing to rescue lost children if they have to put up with yelling citizens. That is an abdication of their duties and the idea that they should then be given carte blanche to shut up all citizens by means of arrest, because it creates a social environment where someone might cause a distraction in the future…

It is very rude of citizens to do that, to be sure. But it is not a crime. The idea that people should not get angry, should not pull rank (as Gates apparently tried to do with Crowley), should not be rude to others is an issue for sociologists and Miss Manners, not the cops. Humans often behave badly, but that doesn’t make it illegal. For people with such tremendous power as police officers to be coddled into thinking that these are behaviors that allow them to arrest people (or worse) seems to be to far more dangerous than allowing a foolish person or two to set a bad example in the public square.

Walking through a lion’s den is monumentally dumb: lions are territorial, and (especially if hungry) will attack. It won’t be the lions’ fault, because they don’t have free will; that’s how they ARE. Walking through a city’s housing projects at 2am is also dumb…but the criminals who prey on people there DO have free will and CAN choose not to victimize others. Getting victimized by such thugs – while preventable and even “stupid” – is still the responsibility of the thugs, not the victims. But the real-world moral differences that separates human thugs from hungry lions is nearly identical to the one that separates (or should separate) cops from street thugs: in both cases, the latter are supposed to be held to a higher standard, and thus more responsible for their actions.

I have no idea to what degree race played a part in the events that transpired between Sergeant Crowley and professor Gates. Perhaps a great deal, perhaps very little – though race was certainly the reason for all the media attention to those events. But I do know that the police are supposed to be able to behave better than virtually all those whom they are called upon to interact with. That’s not a prediction or a guess: it’s universally understood. Whatever failings or poor behavior professor Gates demonstrated during his interaction with Sergeant Crowley, both sides agree that Gates was not violent nor did he break any law. Sergeant Crowley was wrong to arrest him, and if any apologies are due in this whole overblown mess, they are due to professor Gates, not to Sergeant Crowley.