In some circles, Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard Professor who was arrested for having to break into his own home and arguing about the fact with a Cambridge policeman, is a celebrity. He shows up often on PBS and is a widely published author. That's the detail that renders shocking the fact that he was apparently "profiled" by a neighbor when he had difficulty getting through his front door. If there's a fuss over how the police behaved, it's regrettable to the extent that this neighbor ought to be the one dragged before the cameras for public scorn.
Predictably, reactionaries are protesting the President's characterization during yesterday's press conference of police conduct in the affair as "stupid." Some literal-minded observers found it hypocritical of Obama to pass such judgment when he had just said that he didn't know all the facts in the case. Others are satisfied by the fact of the President's race and his apparent friendship with "Skip" Gates that his is a hopelessly biased opinion.
It's important to recall that at this point the remaining controversy over the incident concerns Gates's conduct toward the policeman. I doubt that even the most sycophantic cop-lover believes that Gates should have been arrested merely on suspicion of burglary. But many apparently feel that he did not show proper deference to the officer when asked to show his I.D. There are two sides of the story. Gates says he complied promptly but angrily. The policeman says that Gates's refusal to comply promptly amounted to disorderly conduct. I suspect that both men remember the incident correctly as each experienced it. Certain observers are inclined to give the cop the benefit of the doubt because they assume Gates, as not only a black man but a black academic celebrity, to have had a chip on his shoulder. They presume that Gates freaked out because of an irrational suspicion of racism, while apologists for the police argue that their procedure would have been the same regardless of Gates's race.
There are people of diverse and clashing ideologies who want to make the Gates affair a racial issue. Inevitably it will be. But the real issue of proper concern for everyone is the question of the deference citizens supposedly owe to the police. Even at a moment when it should have become clear to him that a mistake had been made, the policeman seems to have continued the typical imperious demands for unconditional compliance that we see directed to human trash on television every week. There are people who will say that cops are entitled to act this way and must be given the benefit of the doubt when errors are made because theirs is the appropriate conduct in more desperate situations. This is the same style of analysis that gives a pass to policemen who slaughter innocent people with hands in their pockets as a matter of suspicious reflex. Because they are trained to kill, you see, their kill reflex must be kept at hair-trigger readiness and they must be conceded the right to act instantaneously on sudden suspicion. The Gates case is far less severe, and some might well dismiss it as trivial, but it just as well begs the question of whether citizens owe policemen all the deference they demand, or whether vice versa is the better rule in some cases. At one extreme, cops become akin to samurai who had the right to kill peasants who got in their way. And no one proposes anything that could qualify as the opposite extreme. Moderation is what's wanted, along with some clearer recognition of who serves whom in this country.