Living in the Bronx during Rudy Giuliani’s tenure as the Big Apple’s overseer, I was well-versed in the proper survival protocol when dealing with “New York’s Finest” during a traffic stop or any other street encounter with the city’s then most-infamous gang; the NYPD.
The first rule of thumb was to always have a classical or light music radio station programmed that you could switch to (without a sudden move, of course) as soon as the police lights came on behind you. This tended to disarm the approaching officer who would expect cuss-filled rap lyrics and heavy bass lines to be your music of choice.
The second rule of thumb was to speak the King’s English, referring to the officer as “sir” from the moment you were approached and asked a question.
The third and most important rule was to never argue with the officer and you certainly did not accuse them of pulling you over because you were black unless you had a particular urge to add handcuffs to whatever ensemble you may have on at the time.
Though it’s 2009 and Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a Harvard professor living in Cambridge, Mass., he violated that third important rule. He consequently suffered the same fate that I would have if I had done the same to an officer in Giuliani’s New York in the mid-1990s.
The moment that Gates drew the race card out of the deck, and defiantly baited Sgt. James Crowley, the wheels were set in motion for an arrest based on just about anything the good sergeant could come up with.
The historically erudite and undeniably intelligent professor was certainly and justifiably outraged at the prolonged interaction with the Cambridge police. But with the understanding that racial profiling does exist, there is a duty to avoid provoking the encounter with police to the level where you have actually given them cause to arrest you for disorderly conduct.
Be upset and be outraged, but as the saying goes; “Never let them see you sweat.”
Get badge numbers. Get names. But most importantly, get out of the situation with your dignity and your freedom.
Despite the disorderly conduct charges for Gates being dropped, some incendiary political fuel was added to the racial profiling fire when President Barack Obama stated in a press conference that he believed that the Cambridge police “acted stupidly” in their arrest of Gates.
This is where Obama made a mistake.
It came as no surprise that police and law enforcement agencies took offense to the characterization of Sgt. Crowley and his boys in blue as having acted stupidly.
It is important that we temper our disgust and contempt for racial profiling with the realization and understanding that police officers have dangerous jobs and that in many cases their zealous pursuit of suspects and heightened suspicions ensure that they will go home to their families at the end of their shifts.
What happened to Professor Gates after he presented the police with proper identification may have been “inappropriate,” but the term “stupidly’ denotes incompetence and ignorance, which were not the case, especially when dealing with a highly irate gentleman who was undoubtedly disorderly in the expression of his outrage.
What Obama did next was brilliant.
Inviting the parties involved to an informal discussion over beer at the White House was a masterful, yet subliminal homage to the sentiment of police brutality poster child Rodney King: “Can’t we all just get along?”
In a world where people talk more by text messages and email than face to face, this was a throwback to old-school diplomacy. There were no microphones and no posturing for an audience, just four men talking over brews and snacks.
Though there were no apologies or concessions, the most important result of the so-called “Beer Summit” is that rather than have the nuances of a sensitive issue being debated exclusively through the media, the parties involved got together and had a civil discussion about the event and its implications.
It would be naïve to believe that the complexities of racial profiling, and for that matter, race relations, can be solved by having a beer on a picnic table on the White House lawn, but it does show that we have come a long way.
After all, there was a time when, instead of serving as host of the Beer Summit, Obama (or someone who looked like him) would have been the one serving the beer.