Henry Louis Gates Arrest Case Is About Liberty, Not Race, Beer, or Stupidity

Both parties acted stupidly, as did the president. But being obnoxious in your own home is no crime.

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My first reaction to the tale of Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s arrest was that we were seeing a Cambridge, Mass., community theater version of Rashomon, the classic Akira Kurosawa film about how the same story can seem dramatically different depending upon the participants' perspective.

But just under three weeks and one presidential happy hour later, I see that the significance of what took place in and around Gates's home lies less in how the participants viewed the incident than in what the rest of us perceive. It's a national Rorschach test. So the story of Gates and Sgt. James Crowley becomes a narrative of race, how the fact of Barack Obama's presidency cannot reverse the historic treatment of black men in America, especially at the hands of law enforcement. Or it is seen as a tale of class, how the elitist, pointy-headed Ivy Leaguer looked down on and mistreated a hard-working blue-collar type and then got preferential treatment from his buddy the president.

But there's one perspective that I've heard disturbingly little of, especially since it seems to me the most indisputable (if, perhaps, politically unpalatable). This is a story of civil liberties and constitutional rights. Because even if you assume that Crowley's account of the incident is absolutely accurate and that Gates's version is a whole-cloth fabrication, Crowley and his colleagues acted not only stupidly, as President Obama so bluntly put it, but also wrongly.

Gates, by Crowley's account, behaved obnoxiously. He opened with race: Told by Crowley that he was investigating a break-in report, Gates exclaimed, "Why, because I'm a black man in America?" He was confrontational, yelled, and was manifestly uncooperative. He played the officious, self-important jerk, picking up the telephone to tell someone to "get the chief" (of police, presumably), he called Crowley a racist, and he warned the officer that he had no idea whom he was "messing" with. When Crowley, satisfied that Gates did in fact reside in the house, told the yelling professor that he was leaving but would answer any more questions outside, the response was: "Ya, I'll speak with your mama outside." (You'd think that Harvard's Alphonse Fletcher University professor and director of its W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research could come up with something better than a "your mama" crack.)

Gates, of course, did follow Crowley outside and eventually, unwillingly, all the way to the clink. Arguably worse than acting obnoxiously, Gates was acting stupidly, to use the word of the moment. But acting stupidly is not a crime. Neither is mouthing off to a cop or, for that matter, breaking into one's own home. Peel away the racial and class overtones, and what you have is someone being arrested in his own home for being rude to a police officer.

"The professor at any time could have resolved the issue by quieting down and/or going back inside the house," Crowley told a radio interviewer. True. But the police officer could also have resolved the issue by rolling his eyes, wishing the cranky old professor a nice day, getting in his car, and going off in search of an actual crime. And as the person with greater power—in this case, the power to arrest and incarcerate—Crowley had more responsibility to defuse the situation. As Colin Powell observed to Larry King, at some point, one would think, "some adult supervision would have stepped in." Instead, according to published reports of a recording of the radio communications between Crowley and a dispatcher, the officer asked for backup, saying, "Keep the cars coming." This presumably to deal with the threat posed by Gates's acerbic tongue.

Policing is by definition dangerous work. Those who do it deserve our respect, but that is a moral obligation, not a legal one; violation of it is punishable by derision or disappointment, not handcuffs or jail time. And respecting someone does not mean you cannot question his behavior, any more than doing an important or respectable job imparts infallibility. After all, power does not bring the wisdom of when to use it (or not), as anyone can attest who has had to deal with a petty bureaucrat or, yes, a testy police officer. Give enough people authority, and some are bound to misuse it. It's not a knock on the police to say that they occasionally behave badly; it's a knock on human nature.