Let me declare my bias up front. No, I am not a friend of Henry “Skip” Gates, but I had an encounter with the Cambridge police similar to that of the good professor — 36 years ago! I was a freshman at Harvard College when I was stopped by the Cambridge police. The officers jumped out of their car and crouched behind the opened doors with hands on their guns at the ready as one shouted for me to “Freeze!”

Following their instructions, I withdrew my hands, slowly, from the heavy coat that I was wearing. Then I slowly reached for my ID at their request. When they saw that I was a Harvard student, they relaxed and began to return to their cars without explanation. Similar to professor Gates, I became more tense as they relaxed. As they were satisfied, I became increasingly unsatisfied. There is a degree of dignity lost when the police treat you like a suspect. It is their responsibility to restore your citizen status. But it was typical for Cambridge police then (and according to Gates, even now) to see and treat black men as only suspects and not citizens. I then had to reclaim my citizen status. I asked why I was stopped. They responded with a flip, “You fit the description of a mugging suspect — a black man in a white coat.” To this day I don’t believe there was a mugging. They saw a black kid wander from the city onto the campus and followed in hot pursuit to make sure I wasn’t there to bother the white kids.

Given the recordings of the 911 calls in the Gates case, it is now known that the caller gave two equally plausible descriptions of what she saw. Either there was a break-in under way or the residents were returning from a trip (she noted the suitcases on the porch). But the dispatcher asked confusedly, “What do the suitcases have to do with anything?” It took a citizen to explain that it just might be the resident of the house having difficulty with a lock and not a break-in at all.

We now know from her statement and the recordings that Sgt. James Crowley manufactured a conversation with the caller that never took place — using words she never said. Crowley wrote in his report that the witness said “she observed … two black males with backpacks on the porch.” Crowley never seemed to consider the other possibility. Informed with both possibilities when he saw a well-dressed, middle-aged man on the other side of the door, Crowley should have considered whether Gates was indeed the resident of that address. Certainly when Gates showed the officer his identification, Crowley should have lifted the suspect status and returned Gates’ citizen status. All this would have required was a simple explanation and a tone of respect. This was the crucial transaction. Since Gates was being “uncooperative,” according to Crowley, the officer didn’t volunteer to restore his citizen status, which left Gates to demand it. It seems almost that Crowley was taunting Gates by withholding the restoration of his status. He refused to even give Gates his name and badge number when asked. The compliance that Crowley required of a suspect ought to certainly be reciprocated to a citizen by an officer.

To show Gates that he had total control over his status, Crowley lured Gates out to the porch, dangling the prospect of restoration with a sly “I’ll speak to you outside.” As soon as he stepped outside, Gates reports, Crowley said, “Thank you for accommodating my earlier request.” He then placed Gates under arrest. Crowley had decided to show Gates the enduring truth of the 1857 Dred Scott decision in which the Supreme Court stated that blacks had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” So for one brief moment, Sgt. Crowley shackled Gates with the chains of history.

It is a dangerous dance that Obama is doing with Crowley. The tapes of the 911 and radio transmissions have proved that Crowley is capable of manufacturing conversations that never took place. Given his clear disregard for the truth and his smug glee at having put professor Gates in his place, when Crowley sits down with Gates and Obama, I fear for the worst. If we think Joe the Plumber was a bit much too deal with, wait till Jim the Cop emerges from the White House with both Gates’ and Obama’s dignity securely tucked away in his pockets.

Madison Shockley is a minister of the United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, Calif., and a regular commentator on religion, race, politics and popular culture.


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