The Gates Incident: When Keepin' It Real Goes Wrong

One of my favorite skits on The Dave Chappelle Show was "When Keepin' It Real Goes Wrong." It was a hilarious take on when it wasn't the right time for Black folks to keep it real, thereby jeopardizing everything they have. The arrest of Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his Cambridge, MA home qualifies for that skit on so many levels.

First, I think I have a distinctive perspective on this issue. One, in case you have not noticed, I am an African-American male. Two, I am also a Deputy Sheriff. Three, I am a former legislator who annually introduced anti-racial profiling bills. Therefore, I would like to offer my two cents, as it seems like everybody, including the President of the United States, has.

As everyone knows by now, Dr. Gates, a Black male who is a tenured professor at Harvard University, was returning from a week-long trip and along with a friend, another Black male, tried to enter his home. Gates apparently had trouble opening the front door to his house, thus prompting a conscientious neighbor to call the police, since Gates' home has previously been broken into earlier this year.

Cambridge Police responded to the scene, with the mindset that there was a burglary in progress. The officer that encountered Gates was Sgt. James Crowley. The stories diverge from here, but my assessment is that Crowley asked for identification from Gates, Gates provided it while, in a slightly agitated state, made some off-color comments and accusations.

At some point, Gates made a comment that crossed the line for Crowley, and with other officers present, proceeded to inform Gates that he was under arrest for disorderly conduct. Within 24 hours, Gates was released and the charges were dropped, with the MA Governor Duval Patrick, an African-American and former U.S. District Attorney, issuing a public apology. The issue appeared to be dying off until that evening when at a nationally televised press conference on health care legislation, President Obama made the comment that the Cambridge Police "acted stupidly" in their handling of the Gates incident.

In my opinion, Gates, Crowley and Obama all kept it real at the wrong time. For Gates and Obama, one has to remember that these Black men are almost identical in their class structure. Most people forget that the President is just six years removed from being a professor at a prestigious university, therefore I am sure he had a flash of how he would have felt if the Chicago Police tried to arrest him for burglary at his Hyde Park home.

During my tenure as a State Representative, I was stopped many times by police officers, whether I was in the wrong or not. Once I identified myself to the officer, I was let go and one time even escorted me to my home. I did not criticized the officer or pull the "Black Card." I stayed calm and the officer did not feel threatened, therefore I always had a peaceful resolution.

Not every Black man gets that kind of treatment, hence the term "DWB" aka "Driving While Black". I worked hard to even the playing field in that regard through legislative action. But I believe Dr. Gates should have kept his cool, not be accusatory, and I am sure that the police would have left without incident. That being said, regardless of what Gates said to him, Sgt. Crowley should have deflected any outrage Gates hurled at him.

Law enforcement officers are trained to deescalate a situation, not add fire to the flame. An instructor once told me that it is better to talk your way out of a volatile situation rather than having to use force. Once Crowley had assessed that Gates was the rightful occupant of the home and that there were no unidentified suspects trying to rob the home, Crowley, and the other officers, should have made their way out of the situation and let Gates get some rest at his own home instead of a holding cell. It was really contingent on Sgt. Crowley to back away, since he was obviously the ranking officer at the scene. If your leader does not back away from a situation, then you, as a rank-and-file officer, have to stay and support your leader. Crowley put himself and his fellow officers in an unnecessary crisis.

As for the President, for the first time he let his emotions get the best of him. I understand his initial outrage for his friend, but he is the President of the United States. If he had said "unnecessary" instead of "stupidly", we would not be talking about the incident in such a grand context. The Cambridge Police had conceded their point when they dismissed the charges. However, when the President interjected his personal feelings, he offended a lot of men and women who put on the shield, star and badge. The reaction time of the Cambridge Police to stop a burglary in a Black man's home should have been a signal that racism was not a factor in their actions. The President should have commended them for being responsive, while admonishing them for making a bigger deal of the situation than was warranted. Also, as a point of reference, it is probably not good politically for a Harvard-educated man to reference the actions of a working class man in that same city "stupid." I guess this proves that Obama is human after all.

What I hope happens because of this high-profile case is that all parties apologize for their actions and that a renewed dialogue about relationships between the police and the African-American community comes forth. It is imperative in a society based on law and order that all communities feel that the police is committed to serve and protect all citizens. We should be sensitive that racial profiling does exist and at the same time remember that Black men and women also serve in this noble profession.

Sir Robert Peel, considered the father of law enforcement, said, "The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon the public approval of police actions." When any segment of our population feels negatively about those committed to prevent crime and disorder, it weakens the thin blue line that protects us.

In summation, as aforementioned, Gates, Crowley and Obama all kept it real at the wrong time. Now it is time for cooler heads to prevail, intelligent discourse to begin and for of all of us to get a better understanding. That would be keeping it real, the right way.


  1. While I appreciate your prospective, I do think police are not entitled to use the law as their personal weapon when their feelings are hurt (regardless of the color of the person who dares to speak their mind in front of an officer)

    I think that is what leads many to feel the officer(s) were inappropriate. Is it really necessary to arrest anyone because they feel unfairly treated and say so? Now I may be wrong, but I can't believe that "disorderly conduct" was a law created to ensure that police are not offended during the commission of their duty. Now if the suspect does more than mouth off, then, perhaps, there is cause for the police to go the next level. (ie suspect physically assaults the officer) Or if the person were creating a commotion during a public event.

    Perhaps the whole "disorderly conduct" should be removed from the books, because honestly, I can not see other than in extreme circumstances it would be legitimately used. I would think the police could (pardon the expression) man up and get over it that a person isn't going to like to feel harassed (from the suspects pov), and the police should understand that and not take reactions personally. They are doing their job and reacting badly (ie verbally disgruntled) alone should not be against the law.

    The old adage, you get what you give, comes to mind, and I think the police need to separate their emotions from their job....sure, lip back to some belligerent suspect, but don't use the law as your personal billy club.

  2. Very well put, Mr. Fleming (or your honor). There is probably blame on both sides. Possibly on Professor Gates' side for being disorderly with the officer, and certainly on the officer's side for not defusing the situation. As you stated, it is one of a police officer's duties to keep personal feelings out of their decision-making process. Of course, that is easier said than done. We don't really know what Professor Gates did or said to the officer.
    As far as what the President said, you are right... he is human. He can't and shouldn't censor everything he says.


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