Okay, on Wednesday, July 22, President Obama held a primetime news conference to rally support for healthcare reform – and that’s okay. Presidents do such things when they sense that support for whatever is in the works is going wobbly and the opposition is getting up a head of steam. The nice thing about being head of state is that you can commandeer the airwaves.
Sure, the networks and cable news outfits will give the loyal opposition a chance to have their say, they always do, but you have the momentum – they’re reacting to you. And this was framed in a way that made the opposition squirm. Bill Kristol had written a column, sort of an open letter to all Republicans – the legislation may be good and solve a lot of problems, but it could ruin the Republican brand forever, as if it passed and got signed into law people would once again get the silly notion in their heads that the government can do some good – remember Medicare – and we can’t have people thinking that way. Hey, Saint Ronald would cry. We have to pour it on. We have to kill this plan. And then Jim DeMint, the senator from South Carolina, had said that regardless of the possible merits of the legislation, Republicans had to make sure nothing came to a vote – that would “break” Obama. That was the whole point. DeMint pretty much said this particular legislation wasn’t the issue at all – it could be any legislation. The point was to make Obama look like a fool – people like the guy too much and his charisma must be eliminated. DeMint had nothing much to say about healthcare. This was a matter of saving the Republican Party – that’s what mattered here.
Of course Obama referred to these two guys and said that people were going bankrupt, people were dying, the economy was in tatters – and dealing with our absurd healthcare system, changing it, was an effective and rather direct way to deal with those sorts of things. And they want to break him? He seemed to find that interesting, and stupid. When you have one holy hell of a mess, getting worse by the day, you might want to worry about the tens of millions of folks in deep trouble and what you can do to fix things. Some people are serious and deal with actual problems, and others do whatever it is they do – political maneuvering and that king-of-the-hill crap. Obama won that one.
But the news conference was, in the end, not that interesting – this was after all the middle of the process. All the issues had been thrashed about in the media for weeks, and it would be weeks before anything at all came to a vote. Not much was clarified. What had been said before was said with more fervor, and new dramatic heart-wrenching examples. But it was more of the same. You could say it was a waste of a perfectly good primetime hour, but in the middle of July there’s nothing much to watch anyway. It would have to do.
And it was all said in Washington Code – politicians and the press who ask the questions talking the way they talk, with catch phrases and formulations that are dog whistles to political junkies, but have civilians clicking through the channels for sport scores or some pleasant old movie they wouldn’t mind seeing for a fourth time. Luckily, the Moonshine Patriot translated the code – one of the better concise summaries of the whole event.
The only startling thing had to do with that Gates fellow. No, not Bill Gates, the far beyond obscenely wealthy man who gave the world Microsoft, nor Robert Gates, the Bush secretary of defense Obama kept on as that Gates was a sensible and careful man. Now we have a third Gates, the noted African-American Harvard scholar Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. The Wikipedia entry on this third Gates has an interesting note up top – “Editing of this article by new or unregistered users is currently disabled until July 24, 2009 due to vandalism.” Something is up here.
President Obama said that police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “acted stupidly” in arresting a prominent black Harvard professor last week after a confrontation at the man’s home.
“I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played,” Obama said Wednesday night while taking questions after a White House news conference.
Cambridge authorities dropped disorderly conduct charges against Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Tuesday.
Obama defended Gates on Wednesday night, while admitting that he may be “a little biased,” because Gates is a friend.
“But I think it’s fair to say, No. 1, any of us would be pretty angry; No. 2, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, No. 3 … that there’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.”
The incident, Obama said, shows “how race remains a factor in this society.”
Obama really stepped into it with that. You don’t call the police stupid. That’s like calling the real American heroes, firefighters, cowardly. Calling the police stupid, or saying that even if not stupid they’d done a stupid thing, meens you hate America, and particularly the Irish (you know the cop stereotype). It might mean you’re a terrorist, or something. This was a bad move.
And this would not die down:
Gates told CNN on Wednesday that although charges had been dropped, he will keep the issue alive.
“This is not about me; this is about the vulnerability of black men in America,” Gates told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien.
Gates said he’d be prepared to forgive the arresting officer “if he told the truth” – but the arresting officer, Sergeant James Crowley, said no way – “There are not many certainties in life, but it is for certain that Sgt. Crowley will not be apologizing.” CNN didn’t ask him why he was referring to himself in the third person.
Gates said the mayor of Cambridge had called him to apologize about the incident – being arrested and charged with disorderly conduct – but CNN couldn’t confirm that. Mayor Denise Simmons wasn’t answering her phone. She has to stand by her police guys after all.
And what happened was just odd:
Crowley wrote in the Cambridge police report that Gates refused to step outside to speak with him, the police report said, and when Crowley told Gates that he was investigating a possible break-in, Gates opened the front door and exclaimed, “Why, because I’m a black man in America?” the report said.
The report said Gates initially refused to show the officer identification, but eventually produced a Harvard identification card, prompting Crowley to radio for Harvard University Police.
“While I was led to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence, I was quite surprised and confused with the behavior he exhibited toward me,” Crowley said, according to the report.
Gates was arrested for “loud and tumultuous behavior in a public space” …
In short, Gates was pissed off, assumed to be a burglar in his own home – and he gave Crowley an earful. Apparently Crowley doesn’t take crap from anyone – off to jail. The charges were dropped, but a lawsuit may follow.
Every white man and woman on the right reacted as you’d expect – “Hey Skip, stop whining. You disrespected a cop. Only those who hate America and all it stands for do that sort of thing – so sit down and shut up, and don’t mouth off again.” Yep, one more uppity nigger – they’re all like that, you know.
Obama saw it this way:
I should say at the outset that Skip Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here. I don’t know all the facts. What’s been reported though is that the guy forgot his keys, jimmied his way to get into the house, there was a report called into the police station that there might be a burglary taking place. So far so good, all right. I mean, if I was trying to jigger into – well I guess this is my house now, so it probably wouldn’t happen. But let’s say my own house in Chicago. Here I’d get shot.
See Eric Kleefeld:
The press gallery naturally laughed at the joke. It was unclear whether Obama meant he would get shot in the sense of hypothetically being some random guy trying to break into the White House specifically – or whether this was a very dark joke about himself becoming a victim of racial profiling. Perhaps it was a bit of both.
Obama then continued narrating the circumstances of the Gates story. “I don’t know, not having been there, and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that,” he said. “But I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry. Number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home. And number three – what I think we know separate and apart from this incident – is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.”
This after Obama nominated Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, the judge who ruled against the white firefighter claiming minorities were always getting a break and he never got one, ever – just because he was a white guy. The right will be livid for a year over this “stupidity” remark from Obama too. Gates said mean things to the cop. Like the New Haven firefighter, this one cop had had enough of disrespect from some scruffy black man – and you can imagine how much he resented that the guy was a fancy-pants Harvard professor, and he was just a cop. It wasn’t fair. No one respects the white man anymore.
Those who aren’t white have a different view, as CNN notes here:
Jelani Cobb, an author and professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, says it’s troubling on many levels when “one of the most recognizable African-Americans in the country can be arrested in his own home and have to justify being in his own home.”
“It’s really kind of unfathomable,” Cobb said. “If it can happen to him, yeah, it can happen to any of us.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Jimi Izrael. “If a mild-mannered, bespectacled Ivy League professor who walks with a cane can be pulled from his own home and arrested on a minor charge, the rest of us don’t stand a chance,” Izrael wrote Tuesday on The Root, an online magazine with commentary from a variety of black perspectives that’s co-founded by Gates.
“We all fit a description. We are all suspects.”
And there’s this:
Kim Coleman, a Washington radio host, cultural commentator and blogger, said she grew numb when she saw the mugshot.
“I was not prepared for that,” she said. “To see one of my heroes in a mugshot was not something that I was expecting. … It just tells me we’re not in a post-racial society.”
She said there’s a reason why you don’t hear about prominent white people arrested in their homes: “because it doesn’t happen.”
It’s time for America to have a long overdue national conversation about race, Coleman said. “When are we going to have that,” she said. “When are we really going to sit down and strip down and say, ‘This is what I feel about you and this is what you feel about me. Now, how are we going to get over that?'”
Rebecca Walker, an award-winning author, said the arrest was devastating to scholars, writers, and artists “who work so hard to keep a free flow of information.”
“It seems eerily ironic Mr. Gates was returning from China, where surveillance is so high and freedom of speech and ideas so curtailed,” Walker said. “To see the mugshot of Skip was a blow to all of us who feel some sense of safety based on our work to try to mend all of these broken fences in America – to make ourselves into people who refuse to be limited by race and class and gender and everything else.”
“To end up, at the end of the day, treated like a criminal, unjustly stripped of our accomplishments and contributions, even if only for a moment, is profoundly disturbing.…”
There’s more at the link, and see this from Josh Marshall, Breaking: President is a Black Guy:
It’s a funny thing. When I was watching the press conference tonight during the Gates question, I think I must have looked away or maybe been writing when Obama made the “stupidly” comment. Because I didn’t hear it….
Now there’s a flood of para-commentary: not necessarily what he said, which is inconveniently unremarkable. But are we surprised that he said it? Should he have gone into such detail? What’s the fallout?
The political press is all atwitter over this, a bit like just after two high school kids square off for a fight but just before the punches start flying. But let’s be honest: this is all about a black guy getting on the side of another black guy who got crosswise with the cops. Why would he touch such a powder keg? Like it’s going to ignite at least one more battle in the late lamented Culture War.
But Marshall suggests we look at what he sees are the salient facts:
The house was Gates’ house. From what I understand, no one disputes that prior to his arrest and while in the house, Gates provided proof that the house was his. When you have those facts and the guy whose house it is ends up getting arrested, I think that’s prima facie evidence of bad police work.
We certainly can’t know it was racism. And perhaps there are extraordinary facts that would show the arrest was proper – that all the escalation came from Gates, was unwarranted and left the officer no choice but to arrest him. But I think the assumption has to be that the officer mishandled the situation. Because we hire the police to protect us from burglars breaking into our homes, not to arrest us in our own homes if we get a little miffed at being mistaken for burglars. Police are trained to prevent situations like that from escalating. They’re professionals. And I suspect that people who actually train recruits in best practices policing procedure, as opposed to political analyst and GOP press secretaries, would probably agree with that.
Marshall just cannot muster any shock that Obama said this. But he doesn’t work at Fox News.
But of course there is the quite black James Hannaham arguing the Gates incident is good news:
First of all, I’m elated that black Harvard professors exist, though I’m sure there are not enough of them; secondly, that what happens to any Harvard professor, regardless of race, can become worth reporting on; and thirdly, that this event will probably make members of the Cambridge Police Department and other police departments think twice before they arrest another black man. Imagine the confusion it will cause the po-po – “Uh-oh. Is this brother a professor, too? What does Cornel West look like?” Maybe some ordinary, untenured black men in the street will get some much-deserved benefit of the doubt now.
I’m even happier that the net result of this contretemps may be that Gates, whom I consider a hero, will most likely gain two things: increased fame, which will hopefully lead more people to his work, and, dare I say, a bit of street cred, like Martha Stewart’s stint in jail. No one can accuse Henry Louis Gates Jr. of living in an ivory tower anymore.
Hannaham also argues that the conflicting statements of Gates and arresting “also measure exactly the gap between, well, to be as accurate as possible, officers of the law and people they perceive to be black.” And that’s important:
Though they describe the same event, the two accounts are so substantially different that we can only pray for the leak of a YouTube video to set the record straight. Gates depicts himself calmly requesting the name and badge number of officers who had already entered his home and reveals gradually his realization that profiling might have occurred.
If we’re to believe Crowley’s police report (which I am disinclined to do, frankly), a Harvard scholar, faced with arrest in his own home, suddenly switches codes and begins to talk like George Jefferson – “Ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside!” This cry doesn’t sound so much to me like the gent who edited “The Norton Anthology of African American Literature.”
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if there’s one thing a successful academic knows how to respect, it’s authority. What’s more, in the battle of cop versus professor, it’s a safe bet that the African-American historian knows better what’s at stake when it comes to keeping an accurate record of the past.
We’re in for a bumpy ride. Healthcare – did someone mention healthcare?