Home > "Liberal" Media, Law, Race, Social Issues > Was Crowley Racist? Probably Not. But That’s Not What Obama Was Talking About.

Was Crowley Racist? Probably Not. But That’s Not What Obama Was Talking About.

July 24th, 2009

A lot of the controversy over the Gates arrest is now focused on racism. And the other day, when asked about the situation, Obama–clearly admitting that he was biased and did not have all the facts–suggested that the arrest was “stupid.” The problem is, conservatives–as well as a good chunk of the mainstream media–have now made this about Obama attacking the police for racism, when that is not even close to what was the case.

Here is Obama’s original statement:

My understanding is, at that point, Professor Gates is already in his house. The police officer comes in. I’m sure there’s some exchange of words. But my understanding is — is that Professor Gates then shows his ID to show that this is his house, and at that point he gets arrested for disorderly conduct, charges which are later dropped.

Now, I’ve — I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.

And number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcing disproportionately. That’s just a fact.

Note that while race is mentioned here, Obama (1) does not refer to the arrest as stupid in any way related to race, and (2) makes no claim that actual racism was involved–he actually says “separate and apart from this incident” there is a history of racism, referring to either why Gates reacted as he did, or that sensitivity must be practiced by all parties when race even might be an issue, or both.

The result? The narrative now is that Obama’s remark was somehow an accusation of racism, and an attack on an honest, hard-working cop. One example of how the story is being reported:

Crowley’s account came on a day of dizzying debate over his actions, a furor that was touched off by President Barack Obama’s remarks at a news conference Wednesday night, when he said the police had “acted stupidly” and linked Gates’ arrest to the nation’s long history of racial profiling.

“Linked” being the key word. In a very loose sense, it’s true, but the use of that word implies that Obama accused the officer in some sense of racism–when Obama went to great lengths to avoid saying exactly that. Can you honestly say that Obama “linked Gates’ arrest to … racial profiling” when Obama said “separate and apart from this incident” there is a history of racial profiling? And he was right in that there is a history of racial profiling.

It’s a shame, because the real issue of importance here is not Obama, and not even racial profiling, but rather “contempt of cop” arrests–the “stupid” act that Obama referred to. And Obama was 100% right–it was a stupid arrest, almost certainly a case of a cop getting annoyed at someone and abusing his power to slap that person down.

But what about racism? Was is in fact involved?

While I strongly disagree with the arrest, I don’t think that the facts much support the idea that Crowley himself was racist. It’s possible that he made racially biased assumptions, but far from certain, and Crowley deserves the benefit of the doubt on this.

The initial situation that Crowley was put into was unavoidable: he received a call reporting a break-in, so naturally he had to investigate. He could not just say to himself, “Hmm, there’s an older gentleman inside, he’s probably the owner, I’ll just go away.” He had to check and find out who Gates was. Nothing wrong there.

What Gates identifies as racism is less of a clear-cut situation: that Crowley asked Gates to step out onto the front porch. Apparently, it is much more difficult for an officer to make an arrest if the individual is indoors rather than out; a policeman asking someone to step outside could be a prelude to an arrest. And if Crowley was intending to arrest Gates with no questions asked, then that would have been far more likely a case of racism–it is perhaps not as likely that a police officer would arrest a 58-year-old white person using a cane, in that situation, in such a fashion.

But this is where benefit of the doubt comes in: perhaps Crowley was simply asking Gates to step outside just to be on the safe side, allowing himself more options should the situation take a bad turn. We can’t know what Crowley’s actual intent there was, and so cannot make the assumption that Crowley was being racist–especially since it appears that he did not do anything after that which appeared significantly out of order–until the actual arrest, that is.

Gates, however, made that assumption right off the bat, but there was a contributing factor: that the call had been made at all. This was not Crowley’s fault, of course; the neighbor may have over-reacted. She saw a man forcing open a door–but she also noticed two men. This is critical. To see two men, she had to either see Gates before he entered the house, in which case she would have seen him go around and enter the house easily before the forced front-door entry occurred, or she had to see Gates inside the house when the door was forced open. Neither make sense in the context of an unlawful break-in.

The fact that the neighbor reported men with “backpacks” casts further suspicion: neither man was wearing a backpack–instead, they were dressed in suits, carrying luggage. Where did she get backpacks from, and how did she miss the suitcases? Seeing two men dressed in suits with luggage is a far cry from two men with backpacks; one suggests a returning resident, the other suggests young thugs. It is easy to question whether the neighbor would have reported things differently had she seen two white men in suits, one with greying hair and a cane, in the same situation.

So Gates had returned home in a context that did not match any reasonable expectation of a break-in, and yet moments later police come and act like he may be an intruder. The real turning point was Crowley’s request that Gates step outside, which Gates recognized as a possible prelude to an arrest. With these two facts–an accusation of a black man in an upscale white neighborhood breaking into his own home, and the likelihood that the police officer would simply arrest him right off the bat–Gates forms a new context, and from that point on, everything he sees is colored by it.

Race may very well have played a part in setting up the situation–but it is less than perfectly clear. The neighbor could have just seen things wrong and maybe race had nothing to do with it; the officer could have just been following procedure and might not have treated Gates differently than anyone else. But in the overall context, Gates did have reason to believe that race was involved–though he certainly over-reacted, even if you don’t take the officer’s account at full face value.

What is likely the case is that the neighbor saw the forced entry, and as witnesses are wont to do, painted in details that weren’t there–not an act of overt racism, but more than likely unconscious bias, giving us backpacks instead of suits and luggage, and ignoring the overall context where Gates was already indoors. The policeman came and made what he considered a by-the-book encounter; though he may have intended to act inappropriately and would have arrested Gates right off, we have to assume that he just wanted Gates outside to make the situation easier to deal with. But by that point, Gates had received one too many signals that he was being treated in a racist manner, did not give benefit of the doubt, and started making accusations–accusations that Crowley probably was strongly offended by. The main business of identifying the owner done, Crowley then makes the next big mistake: by wildly overreacting to an angry man who believed he had good reason to be upset, and arresting Gates on trumped-up charges.

That’s the main issue in the end. While actual racism may have played a small, contributory role in setting this up, it was the early taking of offense by both gates and Crowley which escalated things, and eventually Crowley was most at fault, using his authority to satisfy his personal grievance.

And that was the only part of this which was way over the line: the contempt-of-cop arrest.

Obama’s comment did not accuse the cop of racism, but because the media is playing it that way, it’s now about the stuck-up Harvard elitist and his reverse-racist pal in the Oval Office dumping on an honest, hard working cop by labeling him as a racist. Right-wing sites are already ginning up conspiracy theories, like the Boston Globe removing the police report from their web site because it was too embarrassing for Gates, or because it contradicted the paper’s liberal-media agenda to make Gates look like a victim–as if the police report is gospel or something.

So much for any attention on the abusive practice of “contempt of cop” arrests.

By the way, a comment just filed in the previous post sheds new light on why Crowley worded his police report so oddly. From Massachusetts state law, two of the four identifying qualities of what constitutes “disorderly conduct”:

“with purpose to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm

“engages in fighting or threatening, violent or tumultuous behavior”

Then, from Crowley’s report:

Due to the tumultuous manner Gates had exhibited in his residence as well as his continued tumultuous behavior outside the residence, in view of the public, I warned Gates that he was becoming disorderly. Gates ignored my warning and continued to yell, which drew the attention of both the police officers and citizens, who appeared surprised and alarmed by Gates’s outburst.

It seems pretty clear that Gates was very intentionally cribbing language from the state code so as to justify the arrest. These terms raised flags–note that my post pays special attention to these terms, as they stood out as rather unusual and unlikely. Now we know why: Crowley had to justify the arrest. Whether this is regular practice or not, it seems to cast doubt on the accuracy of what he claimed, as if it were tailor-made to fit the law, as opposed to being a true and objective account of what actually happened.

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  1. July 25th, 2009 at 02:05 | #1

    I first wrote about this on Tues and basically said that Gates was a jack arse.
    Now Obama opens his uninformed mouth and inserts his foot in it.
    Gates said that Crowley didn’t know who he was messing with.
    Perhaps Gates is the one who didn’t know who he was messing with.
    Check out my take on it and the link to my Tue post. Also, please stick around for more good content.

  2. July 28th, 2009 at 04:48 | #2

    Two thoughts-

    1 – I am fairly certain that police are specifically trained to use the exact language of the law when writing an arrest report. It is only good sense. As such, I do not see this as reflecting for or against the validity of this report.

    2 – I personally have no problem with the police arresting someone for behaving abusively towards them. In my eyes, that sort of behaviour should have consequences. Do that sort of thing towards someone in another line of work and you will get poor service, delays, and maybe spit in your food. These options have drastic consequences if applied by the police, so offering a more measured response seems appropriate. Consider the alternative… what conseqeunces would you expect from having a large number of armed individuals who can be insulted and verbally abused without legal recourse?

  3. Luis
    July 28th, 2009 at 12:06 | #3

    Jon: I think you’re right on being trained to use specific language in the report, but that does not help Crowley’s case–it only suggests that police are trained to fit the language of their reports to match the language of the law, instead of the language which best describes the event.

    On the point of consequences, I disagree; you are suggesting that citizens should not have the right to criticize police up front, and I can’t get on board with that. First, it abridges free speech rights, and second, it gives further purchase for police to arrest people for any speech that might even be perceived as critical. I am not sure what you mean by your last sentence, but it seems to suggest that if you allow people to insult policemen, then the police will respond with deadly force–and I don’t see that as credible.

    If you work in retail sales, you know that you will get a lot of obnoxious customers ranting at you. As far as ranting goes, you have to just let it slide off. The police should not be excused from this–if anything, they are expected to tolerate a lot more. If it is something that suggests a danger to them, then reaction is warranted. But just yelling? Nope–if I could take it from people I sold popcorn to, then officers can take it from people who have been accused of breaking into their own homes.

  4. July 28th, 2009 at 14:16 | #4

    I did work in retail when I was younger. One thing I recall quite clearly is that we flat out hated the customers. I submit that having police feel about the public the way we felt about customers is a bad idea. Also note that turnover in retail is extreme, and this is not an urelated phenomenon. Also not a good thing with police.

    And at all but the crappiest of employers, abusive customers are asked to leave and not to return. The whole ‘we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone’ thing is not available to the police.

    I was not referring to police using deadly force on people who piss them off, that is indeed rare. I was referring to things like using the taser or slamming them up against the car, which is not nearly as rare as one might hope.

    The free speach issue has merit, but seriously, Have you ever heard of a case where anything usefull came from shouting abuse at a police officer? Time and place have always been among the ‘reasonable restrictions’ allowed on free speach. I do not see this as stretching that unduly; although I am open to arguments that demonstrate otherwise.

    My general opinion can be summed up by saying that a high pressure system with no ‘release valve’ will fail, often explosively.

  5. Luis
    July 28th, 2009 at 15:09 | #5


    Interesting point about how abusive customers are treated. Unfortunately, I think that it is impossible to apply that situation directly to a police situation. In one sense, the problem is exacerbated by the nature of police work: whereas retail is mostly about pleasing the customer, police work is mostly about situations where people are dangerous, upset, or uncivil from the get-go. I would have to say that it is simply and unfortunately a part of the job, and that police officers really just have to develop thick skins.

    As for high turnover in retail, part of that is also because, well, it’s retail. Being a cop is way different, with lots more training and different expectations about the job. Also, high turnover in retail is likely a matter of low pay and bad conditions–salesperson at the local retail shop is not, for most, a career position. Instead it is more often a holding-pattern job for people doing short-term work, paying the bills, making extra pocket money, etc. So I don’t think it’s relevant to say that this is a good comparison for police work in that regard. I brought it up only in the sense that, as a worker in a movie theater as a college student, I saw it as part of the job to gladly (at least on the outside) suffer fools, and if I could do it, then so could a police officer. It is, in fact, a much greater part of their job than it is for someone in retail, in some ways.

    I have heard people support Crowley by giving examples where they were ordered around, treated roughly and shortly, and generally abused by cops, and by golly they were grateful for it. “Yes, SIR! May I have another, SIR! Thank you for protecting me, SIR!” THe thing is, I fear this becoming the usual state: let police officers abuse you at any situation at will and take it with a smile, even if there is no danger, and don’t even THINK of giving them any lip. That’s not the society I want to live in. As many have pointed out, police serve us, they are not our masters. We are generally programmed to be polite and helpful to them and to give them a great deal of latitude and control before we start questioning them.

    In fact, that may have been the *problem* in the Gates situation–that since Gates was not obsequious from the start, the officer may have been irked just by that; his standards may have been, “if this guy doesn’t show more respect like most other people do, I have a right to throw him in jail.”

    In short, all arguments considered, I still believe–strongly–that what Crowley did was inappropriate and, in fact, should be illegal if it is not already. No chance in hell that he would ever pay more than a superficial penalty, but abusing the authority to arrest someone on trumped-up charges just because someone is annoying you… that’s not kosher.

    I would further point you to today’s story, in which the 9/11 and the radio tapes strongly suggest that Crowley was perhaps exaggerating and–something I did not suspect before–might actually have allowed racial bias to enter his policing. Nobody told him the men were black–something he falsely entered into his report–and he seems to have made up the backpack thing. Also, his tapes suggest that Gates was not nearly as “tumultuous” as Crowley made out.

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