I want to take a brief moment to go back to that independent panel review that concluded both Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley missed opportunities to ratchet down the tension before Gates was arrested.
Roughly, here's the sequence of events: The Cambridge police respond to a possible break in. Crowley and Gates talk, Gates provides his personal and university identification, but implies Crowley is treating him poorly because he is black. Crowley turns to leave. An angry Gates follows Crowley outside, demanding Crowley's name and badge number. Crowley says he attempts to give it to Gates, but Gates is yelling too loudly at him. Crowley arrests him on his own porch for disorderly conduct.
Yesterday I described the idea that both men were equally at fault as strenuously even-handed, but it's worth reiterating -- the report essentially takes as a given the idea that a police officer can arrest you in your own home, not because you've committed a crime but because you were rude to him. You'd imagine that, in the aftermath of a misunderstanding, the burden of de-escalation would fall on the professional law-enforcement officer, not the person who has just been mistaken for a criminal.
It's also worth noting that while Gates may have had an understandable, historically supported paranoia regarding the police, and Crowley may not have possessed any racial animus whatsoever, the national reaction to this incident was incredibly racially charged. When Sen. Scott Brown won in Massachusetts for example, a National Review writer celebrated the win as a victory against "identity politics" before expressing his outrage at Crowley's treatment by the "African-American professor" who owned "more than one European-made luxury car." I imagine President Obama's original statement, that the Cambridge Police acted "stupidly" in arresting Gates, was likely influenced by the fact that he could imagine being similarly treated by police were he not actually president.
I personally think it's hard to imagine people broadly excusing a police officer arresting someone for mere rudeness without the racial undertones of this whole situation. But no matter what race you are, the idea that a police officer can arrest you at your own home just for being nasty has disturbing implications for individual liberty.
UPDATE: Ta-Nehisi Coates writes:
This is all rather amazing to me. On a macro level, we seem to have reached a point where we will give cops the power of to inflict death and detention, but not the corresponding responsibility. There are probably deep societal reasons for why we've made that decision. But the implication here is that the guy empowered by the state to use lethal force has no more responsibility than the unarmed citizen.
This point has been proven under far more deadly circumstances--and may yet be proven again in the trial of Oscar Grant's killer.