In college, some of my friends majored in history. Others braved the pre-med gauntlet. I graduated in 2001 with a degree in something or other, but my concentration was really in what you might call police scanner science. For three years, I covered the police beat for the Harvard Crimson, which was -- is -- the city of Cambridge's only breakfast table daily. When my friends would be out studying or dating, I'd be chasing cops. If the crime happened to be near Harvard's campus, I'd get there before they would, which occasionally proved disconcerting.
During my four years at Harvard, I got to know quite a few Cambridge police officers -- black officers, white officers, Hispanic officers -- and I became familiar with the tinder box that is racial politics in Cambridge. Take wealthy white (or nonwhite) patricians affiliated with Harvard, add liberal activists (not always so rich) who were attracted to the city because of its progressive legacy, add diversity that mirrors the composition of the United States, add blue collar, mostly ethnic white cops who were lifers in the police department...and it's not hard to see how racial sensitivities could be so acute. But in Cambridge, class sensitivities are often as touchy. Town-gown relations ebb and flow but always create tension between anything that suggests "Harvard" and anything that suggests "Cambridge." Cops tend to be working class joes and janes, and professors tend to be patricians. Intermixes like this happen often.
What happened to Professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr. is hardly unique and in my reporting experience; these clashes tend to involve young white students being strung out by overaggressive cops on generally bogus "disorderly conduct" charges, which is the Cambridge police officer's catch-all charge for "generally just pissing me off and acting holier than thou." Indeed, college kids in Cambridge often showed disrespect for the cops, so it's not surprising that the cops felt disrespected by the students.
I remember listening one night to a report of a loud party in the Kendall Square neighborhood near MIT. A single cop arrived. He was white. The partygoers, about a dozen of them, were black. It's sensible in 1 on 12 situations -- even for something as relatively minor as a quality of life complaint -- for the cop to call for back-up. The cop did. At some point before the back-up arrived, a scuffle began. Who touched whom was unclear, at least to someone listening over the police radio. Within 5 minutes, more than a dozen Cambridge officers were at the scene -- most of the entire city's night shift deployment. 12 on 12. The cops are thinking that one of their guys is in trouble, and the partygoers are thinking that the cops have shown up because they are black. More scuffling. People are arrested. Lawsuits are filed.
Gates was understandably angry that he was being harassed in his house, mouthed off the to the police officer (legal, but never, ever a good idea), and was hauled away in cuffs for being too loud, apparently. The officer defends himself: he's a guy with a history of racial conciliation. A neighbor reported a break-in; the officer went to the house expecting to see someone breaking into a house; indeed, when he arrived, a guy was inside a house. The officer will go to his grave being convinced that he was following police procedure, and Gates will probably never be convinced that his race was not the prime factor in his brief detention. Gates's physical appearance may be exculpatory for Crowley. If the general idea is that Crowley was unconsciously motivated by racial prejudice, it's hard to imagine why he'd find a 5 foot 7 inch tall guy with graying hair and a cane to be threatening because of his race. Crowley seems to be more motivated by power and authority, which Gates (again, legally and perhaps appropriately, given the situation) ridiculed.
I'd bet that most police officers across the country have at least some sympathy for the officer. I'd wager that most of them might agree that the officer was being pushy when he put Gates in handcuffs...for no other reason than that he could. It's a mild form of excessive force, but one that police use all the time to intimidate people...most of them deserving of intimidation. Gates was not.
President Obama, meanwhile, has weighed in on the side of Professor Gates, saying the cops were "acting stupidly" That's a harsh conclusion based on what we know -- Gates has always had a flair for the media, and his side of the story has been embraced by liberals looking for evidence that racial animus remains an enormous problem in this country. I happen to agree with the liberals in this case. The President has shown a unique ability to understand how different points of view often lead to unnecessary conflicts like this one. It will be interesting to see if he modifies his point of view. (Update: lo' and behold...)
Marc Ambinder is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.