Obama should have stayed out of Gates case

The Cambridge cops acted "stupidly" in their press conference today, but the president showed class in following up

By Joan Walsh
Published July 24, 2009 9:25PM (UTC)
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Cambridge Police Sergeants James Crowley (L) and Leon Lashley stand together at a news conference with representatives of various police unions in Cambridge, Massachusetts July 24, 2009. Sergeant Lashley was on the scene last week when Sergeant Crowley arrested prominent black scholar and Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. after responding to a call about a break-in at Gates' home in Cambridge.

(Updated below, after Obama statement)

I personally wish President Obama hadn't directly criticized the lamentable arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Cambridge police on Tuesday. Obama made two factual errors in his remarks -- Gates had not forgotten his keys, they didn't work because his lock had been broken in a burglary attempt; and he didn't jimmy the door open, he got in the back door -- which suggested his comments weren't fully informed, as correct as his ultimate judgment may turn out to be. I understand and support his desire to speak out against racial profiling; I wish (and I'm sure he does too) he could take back the statement that the police acted "stupidly."


I myself am not sure if the Cambridge police acted "stupidly" in arresting Gates; we don't yet know all the facts, although from what we do know, it seems an arrest could have and should have been avoided. But I will say conclusively that they acted stupidly on Friday, holding a blustering press conference to support Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer, but then saying Crowley wouldn't speak. Of course, Crowley has been speaking, selectively, to the media, so it was a strange decision to mute him today -- especially because he's come across as fairly sympathetic when he has spoken up. An even stranger decision by the local cops: To announce the support of multicultural police associations, and to assemble a diverse roster of male and female officers behind the podium – but then, to only choose to have white male cops speak. Not smart. Not smart at all. Downright stupid.

I think between them, James Hannaham and the Ivy League African-American who chose the byline "The Phantom Negro," have summed up all the complexity of this case, and its basic simplicity, too. There's almost no compelling reason for a man who walks with a cane to be arrested in or just outside of (there's some debate about which) his own home, whether or not he mouthed off a bit to the cops. There's also no compelling reason for Gates to have mouthed off the way he did, if Crowley's account is to be believed, since at least in the origins of the police visit, they were trying to protect Gates' property, not harm him.

And while almost no one is talking about it, class is nearly as relevant here as race. There is often tension between working-class cops and academics, whether students or professors, in campus towns. The assumption by the liberal elite, from President Obama and Gov. Deval Patrick on down, that the well-off, well-loved, well-connected Gates (defended by his best friend in the Washington Post though the piece is only online in Gates' own TheRoot.com; interviewed, unbelievably, by his own daughter for the Daily Beast) was completely in the right here, has to gall these white working-class cops.


Still, there is a dangerous way this case is playing into our increasingly grim dialogue about race in post-Obama America. From the unfair attacks on Sonia Sotomoyor to the paranoia of the "Birthers," to the false claims of increasing white disadvantage made by right-wing pundits from Rush Limbaugh to MSNBC's Pat Buchanan, there has been a sharp and irrational spike in the sense of white racial grievance. The Gates-Crowley flap is certainly not helping.

Today Robert Gibbs said the president "regrets" distracting the media by getting involved in the flap, and to me that's good news. But we might need a brief follow-up to Obama's Philadelphia race speech before we're through. Nobody is stepping up to defuse this conflict; there's mainly been escalation, just as there was last Thursday in Gates' Cambridge home. The fact is, Obama's opponents are using any means necessary, including race, to thwart his political agenda. He didn't need this particular racial passion play getting in his way. Who's going to take the first step toward reconciliation? I'm watching closely.

Update: Well, I planned to watch closely, but I went to lunch first. And while I was gone, President Obama spoke to the White House press corps and took the first step toward reconciliation himself. He's a mensch. It's hard to admit your mistakes -- our last president couldn't even think of one when asked -- and Obama's capacity to admit he shouldn't have escalated the Gates conflict is really impressive. Alex Koppelman has the full text of Obama's remarks, plus video, here, I like the idea of Obama, Gates and Crowley having a beer in the White House. Would that all our racial conflicts would end this way. They won't, but this is a really important first step. Next up: Pat Buchanan admits he's wrong, white men aren't being treated like blacks during Jim Crow. Kidding. We can only dream.



Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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