The Lady is a Champ

Today the much-anticipated beerfest between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and James Crowley of the Cambridge police department, brokered by President Obama, will take place.

Yesterday, I was blown away by what struck me as the sincerity, common sense, and decency of Lucia Whalen, the woman who called 911 to report possibly suspicious activity at the Gates home, during her press conference. By now most observers know that, in her call to 911, Whalen never even mentioned race; when prompted by a dispatcher, she said she thought one of the men she was seeing might be Hispanic, but she was not sure.

When you listen to the tape of her on 911, it is clear that her interest was in protecting the safety of her community and looking out for a neighbor, not in vilifying anyone or being alarmist.

So race was not an issue in her mind, only, ironically, in the minds of those who made assumptions about her. It seems to me that, even if she had hypothetically been able to identify the race of those whom she thought might be breaking in, she should not be vilified for that, either. A person’s race–like height, weight, age, or sex–can be an easy, and useful, means of quick identification. Obviously it should not be a basis for determining someone’s character or guilt. But like height, weight, sex, etc., it is an identifying trait for police officers who need to determine whom they are looking for in order to begin assessing what is going on.

During the 1990’s, as an editor/reporter for a community newspaper called Town & Village News, one of my duties was to cull stories from the week’s police reports at the 13th precinct in Gramercy, a Manhattan neighborhood. I would select and summarize accounts from the reports that I thought residents in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, the two middle-income, Manhattan housing developments we served, would find of interest.

As anyone who has regularly reviewed police reports knows, they rely heavily on terms of basic identification– height, weight, age, sex, clothing, and race (For example, “A white man in his 30s wearing a hooded sweatshirt assaulted a black woman in her 20s wearing a raincoat”). It is logical that this should be so; police are in the business of making efficient and, hopefully, accurate identifications, and they must rely on objective physical description, along with descriptions of behavior, to make a positive ID. That is why a police dispatcher would ask basic questions like what is the sex, race, height and weight of the person engaged in suspicious activity, what is he/she wearing, etc. If the person who appears to possibly be breaking in looks like a woman, should the caller hesitate to say so out of fear of offending feminists? Absurd.

While I can imagine how being questioned by police in his own home must have touched a very sore nerve for Professor Gates (a man’s home is his castle), and I don’t know all the facts, I can’t help but wonder: would he really want his neighbors, if heaven forbid someone were actually breaking into his home in the future, to fail to call the police, or fail to accurately describe the suspect if that person happened to appear black?

On the other hand, maybe President Obama was right (however unwise it was of him to weigh in) that Sgt. Crowley acted stupidly. It seems pretty clear that if Gates was showing ID with his picture and the house’s address on it, it was his house. Also, who but a bona fide Harvard academic from the ivory-est of towers would stand there and engage a police officer in a protracted argument about race in America? Sounds like Crowley should’ve just sighed and been on his way.

All in all, to paraphrase Whalen’s attorney, I’d say the President, Gates, and Crowley displayed lack of common sense in this situation, and Whalen acted like a champ.

This entry was written by and posted on July 30, 2009 at 12:53 pm and filed under Blog.