Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Professor and The Man

I've been putting this off to let things settle down a bit. I think it's time.

The easiest way to deal with police is politely. If they want ID, you give it to them without complaint or delay. If they ask what you're doing, you tell them. If you're told to move on or over or up or out, you do.

Note that I said that's the "easiest" way. It's not the only legal way, though. The law is clear that under anything like ordinary circumstances you don't have to answer an officer's questions. When an officer asks you to stop and talk, you can walk away. When the officer rings your doorbell, you can slam the door in her face. Your right to do those things in the ordinary circumstance is a consequence of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments and the Fourteenth Amendment through which the others became binding on the states.

The problem is that cops expect (and often demand) deference. Their attitude, the attitude of even the best cops, is that people who don't readily cooperate have something to hide and are doing what they shouldn't.

All that's the same whether you're a middle-aged white banker stopped for speeding on the highway or a college student arrested for underage drinking or a bank robber or a nineteen-year-old black kid walking down the street minding your own business getting rousted for being a nineteen-year-old black kid. And it's the same, too, when you're Suron Jacobs, an African-American man who was arrested and charged with resisting arrest because he refused to answer a cop's questions and tried to walk away when he was approached by the police while waiting for his brother to pick him up near a school in Ottawa Hills, Ohio where he was working on a renovation project. Jacobs sued Ottawa Hills over that and the settlement cost the village some $165,000. (Story buried in this article. Stories from the time aren't available for free. Full disclosure - I was one of Suron's lawyers when he sued Ottawa Hills.)

And, of course, and now we get to the meat of things, it's the same when you're a distinguished professor at Harvard. Especially if you're black. But if you happen to be Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the event gets a whole lot of publicity.

Here's the thing. Police, black or white, otherwise racist or not, are conditioned to believe that people of color commit more crimes than white folks. They are conditioned to believe that, especially, people of color in upscale neighborhoods aren't there for legitimate reasons. And they're damn sure that those people of color ought to be deferential. It's not racial profiling, exactly, it's more pernicious and less conscious than that.

We have some actual data from New York: From 2004 through 2008, police in New York City stopped and frisked something close to 2 million people. Roughly half were African-American. Just under a third were Latino. Around 10 percent were white. And nearly 90 percent were altogether innocent of any wrongdoing. (Report here; thanks to Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice for reminding me of the study.) The lesson really is clear about what police expect.

I don't pretend to know exactly what happened the other night in Cambridge. But I know this much for sure: If Professor Gates had humbled himself, if he'd behaved with the deference that Sgt Crowly wanted and expected, he'd not have been arrested. Instead, and whatever the details, he was indignant or outraged or just uncooperatively standing on his right to be treated with dignity and respect and to refuse to bow down (literally or metaphorically) before whitey.

More power to him. Would we were all so brave.

But you know, if he weren't who he is, with all the connections he has, he might well have spent a day or two in jail before being released, and might still have a court appearance or twelve ahead. And if he were that nineteen year old kid I mentioned a bit ago, he might very well have a few bruises - or worse.

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