29 July 2009

Gates and the Original Accuser

Lucia Whalen went before the cameras today to vindicate her role in the debacle over Henry Louis Gates's attempt to force his way into his own home, but her comments as reported here raise a few fresh questions. Whalen explained that she was apparently not the first person to see Gates's struggle with his door, but had been approached while walking through the neighborhood by "an elderly woman without a cellphone" who found the behavior suspicious. We may presume that Whalen investigated the situation a little herself, but not sufficiently enough to determine the race of the perceived perpetrators. We'd be going a little too far, I admit, to expect her to walk up to Gates, if she had even the least suspicion that he was a burglar, to ask if he's having trouble with the door. In any event the 911 recordings exposed some sloppy reportage by the police. As is now known, Whalen could say no more than that one of the men at the door might have been Hispanic, but the police report, described as a summary of events, says that she described two black men. Moreover, her new statements create a he said/she said conflict with Sgt. Crowley, who has said that she described the suspicious men to him. Whalen now says that she never spoke to Crowley, but was told by him to stay where she was. All this raises a question: at what point did the police know or believe the men at Gates's door to be black? My guess is that the cops are recollecting things retroactively. Because they discovered a black man, they wrote into the report that black men were described, and Crowley may honestly yet mistakenly recall being told before finding Gates that his suspects were black. The other, less wholesome possibility is that the cops inferred from the more tentative descriptions that they would be dealing with blacks.

As was only fair, Whalen's lawyer noted that her client had not been invited to the Gates-Crowley beer bash scheduled for the White House, then dismissed the snub with impeccable sour-grapes reasoning, disclosing that Whalen doesn't like beer. The lawyer may have overreached in portraying Whalen as the calm hero of the crisis while the "three highly trained guys" involved -- Crowley, Gates and the President -- all overreacted. It makes one wonder whether Whalen really underreacted, though this may prove the kind of situation where you could only know what could have been done if you were there. In any event, if the President realizes his omission and tries to correct it, he really should make it a party for five by tracking down the cell-less old lady who really started the trouble.

In the end, the story is a sort of parable for our time. We live in an era of perhaps-inescapably greater surveillance, and the mere idea of that violates our feeling, as law-abiding people, that we should never be objects of surveillance at any time. Knowing ourselves innocent, it's hard to imagine our self-consciously innocent activities being viewed with suspicion. As a black man, Gates most likely felt only a more intense form of the outrage all of us might feel if trapped in such a nightmare scenario. So I wonder whether the race issue has obscured the real moral of the story, which has more to do with how any of us should deal with surveillance and the proper relation between watchers and watchmen than with whether the whole world should know Henry Louis Gates on sight. Any of us might find ourselves mistakenly accused of something at some time. Some people seem to think that forgiving resignation is the only appropriate response. I'd hope that we keep getting outraged when such stuff happens. The limits of our indignation at such times may mark the limits of our consciousness of ourselves as citizens of a free country.

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