Friday, July 24, 2009

The Profiling Prof, the Pandering President, and the Poisonous Precedent

James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal writes in his Best of the Web blog of the kerfuffle between Prof. Gates and the Cambridge Police:
We still think, as we wrote yesterday, that in the incident itself, Crowley was more in the wrong than Gates. In a confrontation between a policeman and a private citizen, the former has far more power, and concomitantly more responsibility. But in a public debate over race, the black Harvard professor is the one with authority. Neither Gates’s social status nor his race absolves him from the responsibility of acknowledging and working to overcome his own prejudices.

I disagree with Mr. Taranto and I believe his criticism of Prof. Gates seriously underestimates the harm the professor's behavior has done.

About 15 years ago, Animal Control officers in Oakland, California, called on the home of a young Black man who owned a pit bull accused of biting a neighbor, and when the owner could not produce a current certificate of rabies vaccination, the Animal Control officers were obliged to take the dog in for quarantine. When the owner resisted, the officers called for backup. The responding officers were unable to get the young man to calm down once his dog was in custody, and so had to arrest him for disorderly conduct and interfering with a police officer.

But as OPD Officer William Grijalva attempted to handcuff the owner, he became violent. Though the officers used pepper spray, they were unable to subdue him, and he ran into his home, where his father kept a loaded shotgun behind the front door. When Officer Grijalva saw the shotgun leveled at him, he turned to find cover, and the shotgun pellets hit him in the side, where his bulletproof vest didn't provide protection. Despite his mortal wound, Officer Grijalva returned fire through the front door, as did his partner: the dog's owner was killed, but so was his disabled father, who was in a wheelchair behind the door.

As a leading scholar in African-American studies, Prof. Gates serves as a role model for Black American men. His behavior toward the police who responded to a call to protect his property appears from all accounts -- including the professor's -- to have been driven by his resentment of how police in the United States have treated Black men in the past. He chose to behave in a provocative and belligerent fashion toward the police officers in order to make them fully aware that he put his pride as an African-American man above his obligation as a citizen to allow the police to carry out their legitimate and necessary duties.

Prof. Gates's behavior, especially with President Obama's implicit endorsement, is likely to encourage young Black men to emulate him and "stand up to police racism" with belligerence and defiance. As Officer Grijalva's family can attest, that can easily lead to an escalation with consequences far more dire than mere charges of disorderly conduct. Prof. Gates and President Obama should both consider how their high dudgeon may well lead to unnecessary deaths of young Black men and police officers who encounter them in situations that otherwise could easily be defused.

No comments: