You know what they call a black man with a Ph.D.?
Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 14 years ago, in 2009, on the World Wide Web.
Sergeant James Crowley (Cambridge, MA)
Stupid, belligerent, violent
One of the advantages of not being even remotely connected with electoral politics is the fact that, unlike, say, Barack Obama, I have no votes that I need to collect from timid white
moderates, and also no sniffy self-important special interests or political respectability rackets that I need to appease. I don’t need to care what professional blowhards or doughfaces think of me, or whether or not a white police sergeant in Massachusetts, and all his buddies in the Brotherhood, are
disappointed in me. So while Obama may feel compelled to re-calibrate, I have no reason to back off out of concern for sensitivities of conventional-delusional political thinking. So if he won’t stand by his own perfectly reasonable comments, I at least am free to say, without qualification or calibration, that when Sergeant James Crowley cuffed, arrested, and imprisoned Henry Louis Gates on his front porch, for daring to holler at a cop inside his own house, Sergeant James Crowley was damn well acting
stupidly. As a matter of fact, he was being stupid, belligerent, and violent towards an innocent man who he had absolutely no right to arrest.
Of course he was. He putatively showed up to investigate a possible burglary (in the middle of the day?) when a neighbor called in a report that two black men were forcing open the door to the house. (Gates had just gotten back from a long trip to China and found that the door was jammed, so he asked the man who drove him home — who was also black — to help him shoulder it open.) The cop showed up, demanded that Gates step outside, entered the house without a warrant and without permission when Gates refused to step outside, demanded identification while refusing to give his badge number, and when it was conclusively demonstrated to him that Gates lived there and was, in fact,
breaking in to his own damn house, he and his gang brothers ambushed Gates on his front porch and arrested him for being
loud and tumultuous in his own house where he had a right to be. Quite in spite of the fact that, even if you grant for the sake of argument every single detail of the cop’s own version of events, once it was clear that Gates lived in the house he had supposedly been burglarizing, Sergeant James Crowley had absolutely no moral or legal basis whatsoever for remaining one second longer, or for arresting and imprisoning Henry Louis Gates, since raising your voice to a police officer is not a crime, and neither is calling him names (whether those names are fair or unfair), and neither is hollering loudly and tumultuously inside your own home. Shoving your way into a man’s house to hassle him, and then arresting him for these non-crimes when he gets upset, is a stupid way to handle a situation when you’re not sure what’s going on; the cuffing, arrest, and jailing were also an act of physical force carried out against an innocent man by an entitled bully who had no right to be there but who has no problem with using intimidation and violence to get his way.
And, as it happens, in this case, his stupidity, intimidation and violence took the specific form of stupid, belligerent, violent racism. As they so often do when government police (especially, but not only, white government police) interact with black men and women, even black scholars in their late 50s who rent their houses from Harvard University and walk with a cane.
And the opinions of the usual bellowing blowhard brigade to one side, it actually doesn’t matter one bit whether or not Henry Louis Gates could or should have been more calm or cool or collected under the circumstances; whether or not he actually should have been
grateful for being hassled in his own house by a sworn officer of the law in the name of Service and Protection; whether or not the names that he called this stupid, belligerent, violent cop were in fact fair or unfair given the situation; or whether he ought to have changed his behavior or his attitude in the least. Henry Louis Gates’s behavior and attitude aren’t in question; whether or not he was acting as he ought, Sergeant James Crowley had no reason to be there and no justification and no excuse for arresting him or hauling him off to jail. Nothing that Gates could possibly have said, under the circumstances, would have made the arrest and imprisonment justifiable or even excusable; and when legally-privileged agents of the state go around attacking innocent men, I’m a hell of a lot more worried about that than I am about policing the conduct of the victims of their aggression and coercion.
All this should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever dealt with government police, or knows much of anything about the world around them. Of course, that rules out politicians, media commentators, and other professional blowhards, who rarely talk to anyone but each other and have very little experience of being on the business end of government policing, or much of anything other than their own self-important power games. But the rest of us know perfectly well that cops often act with tremendous arrogance and entitlement, especially when they feel uncertain or threatened by the situation that they are in (that they have, in fact, been trained very explicitly to stay
in control of the situation by any means necessary); that they also tend to view men and women of color, regardless of class, and poor white men and women, too, as more disruptive or more threatening than affluent white men and women; and that either conscious or subconscious racial profiling is the order of the day in virtually all street-level urban policing. It is also both obvious and widely known that cops routinely use incredibly vague chickenshit charges like
disorderly conduct, even when it is absolutely obvious that none of even those incredibly vague criteria actually apply, in order to shove people around, intimidate them into complying with arbitrary orders, or to humiliate and punish those who do not comply. Even when the charges are sure to be dismissed,
you can beat the rap but you can’t beat the ride, and all that. Anyone whose understanding of policework is not basically mythological in nature, or is not constrained by non-rational political imperatives, knows these things, and should be outraged, but not even remotely surprised, that all this went down.
And the fact that a bunch of cops get indignant about the offense to their honor by being called out, for once in their professional lives, on their stupid, belligerent, violent behavior doesn’t change the fact one bit. What happened is typical, damned typical; the only thing atypical is the political and media connections of the victim. And Sergeant James Crowley, as a sworn police officer, was just living up to the standards of stupidity, belligerence, violence and racism that his gang brothers have set. You might be tempted call stupidity, belligerence, violence, and racism the occupational disease of government police in America. If not for the fact that it is their occupation.
- Brian Palmer, Slate (2009-07-22): Do Police Officers Have To Identify Themselves? And other Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrest questions, answered by the Explainer.
- Lawrence Bobo, The Root (2009-07-21): What Do You Call a Black Man with a Ph.D.? The Skip Gates arrest shows how little some features of the national racial landscape have changed over time.
- Leonard Pitts, Jr. Seattle Times (2009-07-24): The Henry Louis Gates Jr. incident: Sometimes, they just don’t see you
- Macon D., stuff white people do (2009-07-21): think they can put themselves in the shoes of black people
- Randall McElroy, The Distributed Republic (2009-07-21): Henry Louis Gates, Jr. vs. the Cambridge PD
- Lila Ravija, The Mind-Body Politic (2009-07-21): Police Arrest Harvard Scholar In House
- Sheldon Richman, Free Association (2009-07-24): For Gates and Against the Police
- Gary Chartier, LiberaLaw (2009-07-24): Show Some Respect
Gary Chartier /#
Couldn’t agree more. The basic problem here is whether cops somehow deserve to be held to moral standards significantly lower than the rest of us. Those defending the arresting officer apparently think so. Their worldview frightens me.
Rad Geek /#
Yep. Just for funsies, here’s on the case (redacted to remove stupid textual bleeps where everyone knows what word you’re using):, a and proprietor of libertarianhumor.com
Down in the comments, he clarifies that he takes this position because he believes that the appropriate norms for government police officers in their conduct towards ordinary citizens are like the norms for parents in their conduct towards small children:
Well, there’s definitely something humorous going on at that site. But not because libertarians are generally going to be laughing with him….
Of course, I’m just picking on this particular dude because I was reading his website today, and because he claims, improbably, to be a libertarian. Views like that, and more or less identical ways of expressing them, are utterly typical among run-of-the-mill conservatives, white liberals, and the broad swath of conventional-delusional political mainstreamers.
Marja Erwin /#
And because those views are so widespread, when those of us who have survived police brutality speak up, others who have not will mock us, and will blame us. This culture makes millions of us feel hated, outcast, and surrounded, for what the police have done to us. This victim-blaming is one of the keys to any system of oppression.
I think I need to speak up from time to time, to remind other survivors that you are not alone, and you did not deserve this.
L. Neil Smith /#
I have long believed that in a police “situation” the cop in question should be required to hand his gun over to the first responsible adult who happens along. Also, Kevlar has made them arrogant and must be strictly forbidden.
Discussed at aaeblog.com /#
Best Defense | Austro-Athenian Empire:
Jim Davidson /#
The cop was stupid, belligerent, and wrong. He probably likes to beat down “suspects” and plant evidence, too. Bullies should be treated abusively, and free speech should never be punished.
In my view, cops like this ought to be killed by their intended victims. Any threat to life, liberty, or property justifies defensive force, and I don’t see any reason to exclude cops.
Thanks for writing this. It was disappointing to see Obama back down from his surprisingly bold and true (for a politician, anyway) statement on the situation. But from the system’s point of view, Crowley did not act stupidly, he just miscalculated by bullying someone who had the social standing to push back. Once you assume the sanctity of the stupid, immoral, disgusting police state as a good, bullying by cops to keep subjects in their place makes perfect sense.
Regarding racial profiling:
I took Intro to Criminal Justice at Rutgers. It was an absurdly easy class taught by a cop. When discussing profiling, it was noted that the NJ State Police got in trouble for racial profiling a few years ago, and that their protocol called for profiling gun and drug traffickers by a number of factors and that race ended up getting overemphasized. So if you were an apparently low-income minority from out of state traveling up I-95 with little luggage, you were probably more likely to be searched by the cops.
Hence Talk To Neighbors, Not To Cops
Discussed at littlealexinwonderland.wordpress.com /#
Daily Briefing — 26th-27th July 2009 « Little Alex in Wonderland:
This story is a bit encouraging: two cops are unanimous in stating their opinion that, once it was established Gates was the owner, they should have left – regardless of any insults hurled their way.
A girl who apparently knows officer Crowley has a post vouching for his character. At the end she notes that he gets quite irritated if anybody disses the police. So you better not accuse him of being a pig bully, or he will proceed to bully you.
Realistically speaking, I would act just as subservient to a cop as any of the other commenters that disappoint you. I’m not stupid. If I just got back from a long flight from China only to find my door jammed, my executive function would be bit drained though.
Most adult feminist women don’t appreciate being referred to as ‘girls’, and I suspect Rad Geek, who also identifies as a feminist, feels the same way.
Whoops, I see the about tab identifies her as 26. I continued referring to my peers as “kids” throughout college when they were legally adults, but 26 is quite past the line. Unless that’s what you’re into.
Bob Kaercher /#
BTW, there’s a charming little “I Support Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley” page on Facebook:
Here are a few of the highly enlightening comments:
Who knows? Perhaps Mr. Craft will soon have his wish granted and he too will be hauled out of his own home and into the local police station for the grave offense of telling off a badged intruder…or maybe he’ll just quietly submit to the humiliation of being treated like a criminal in his own home.
I know what you mean, Nate! Gates had some nerve, right? If I’m ever in the same situation as he was, you’re damn straight that I’ll just do my civic duty and justify my presence in my own home to the armed government agent who is privileged to initiate violence against me if I dare say an unkind word about his intrusive presence.
You know, you have to admit that Steve might have a very good point here. I mean, I’m perfectly willing to give Sgt. Crowley the benefit of the doubt that he’s an equal opportunity bully. Whether you’re black, hispanic, white…you get uppity with him and it’s off to the local cage with ya!
Oh, Angela…That is so true! I, too, am sick and tired hearing about case after case, incident after incident, of abusive cops bullying and in some cases even beating and killing people. Louis Gates, Sgt. Crowley, Oscar Grant, blah, blah, blah, blah…I mean, come on! United We Stand, right?
“Unless that’s what you’re into.”
Rad Geek /#
Well, FeministX’s argument on the issue of racism, such as it is, is not very convincing on its own merits, any more than Crowley’s own defense about how he couldn’t have been doing something racist in the Gates arrest ‘coz this one time he stuck his mouth on a dying black athelete’s mouth. And I have to say that, having encountered her writing before, under circumstances that I’ll discuss in private if you like (because they have to do with business on another website), I’m not sure that when the author of posts like this call for eugenic sterilization or her famous series of posts on Australian aborigines vouches for some dude’s not being a racist, that her word lends much credibility to the conclusion.
I don’t think the problem is being subservient to cops. That’s a tactical decision that you have to make for yourself given the circumstances and your own temperament.
What is a problem is when people move beyond that, and start siding with the cops and blaming the victim. In reality, the ethical responsibility not to bully and shove people around belongs to the aggressor, not to his victims.
The general term is “blaming the victim”. Usually one group of people will say “You should have known that was a risky thing to do”, while others say “That doesn’t excuse the actions of others and ideally there would be nothing wrong with the victim’s behavior”. I don’t think either point contradicts the other. When the risk does not come from morally responsible agents we are content to just focus on our own behavior in response (though it is still generally rude to remind someone of any mistakes they might have made for sufficiently bad outcomes). Being an evil reductionist materialist with the belief that all morality is subjective, I am content to maintain that lens in all situations (even if not to the exclusion of all others). The difference when the risk comes from human actors* is that we can hold those actors responsible in order to deter acts we don’t desire. The “blaming the victim” objection might be that we are implicitly treating the aggressor like an Act of God, which gets off scot-free.
*That isn’t quite right, you’re at risk from human actors whether you walk home drunk across a busy intersection or dangerous neighborhood. The latter case features criminal intent while the former falls more in the negligence area. We could hold drivers just as responsible for hitting pedestrians as we might a first-degree murderer and this would likely increase caution and reduce the number of fatalities. Like Gordon Tullock’s spike in the steering-wheel, we have decided the costs outweigh the benefits.
Discussed at radgeek.com /#
Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-07-29 – Clown suits:
Discussed at radgeek.com /#
Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-07-31 – The Police Beat: