Race, Power, And The Law

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THE PLANK JULY 23, 2009

Race, Power, And The Law

As people continue to get worked up about Obama's comments on the Henry Louis Gates story, I think it's important to remember what the president didn't say. He did not call the behavior of James Crowley, the arresting officer, racist. He did call Crowley's behavior stupid. And, really, I think it's hard to reach any other conclusion when you consider that Crowley arrested Gates after he realized Gates was "breaking in" to his own home. That's stupid--and Obama's right to say so. Even if Gates did act belligerently toward Crowley, you'd hope Crowley would be professional enough not to respond by slapping cuffs on Gates and taking him down to the station. The "contempt of cop" charge--which is what these disorderly conduct charges are often nicknamed--is really nothing more than an absue of power by the cop.

And, while I realize there are all sorts of issues of race tied up in the Gates case, I think that the power dynamics involved are getting short shrift. Even if you're white, any time you have an encounter with a police officer, the officer has the upper hand in terms of power, since he's the guy who has the power to arrest you. After that initial encounter, however, that power dynamic can be reversed--at least if you're sufficiently rich, accomplished, and connected, as Gates is. (If you're not those things, that power dynamic will probably never change.) Which is why, at this point, Gates clearly has the upper hand over Crowley in terms of power. The irony is that Crowley's initial abuse of power has now put him in the position of being largely powerless.

Of course, Crowley is going to have his defenders, who are now in the process of turning him into some sort of conservative hero. And when you read sympathic (non-ideological) profiles of Crowley like this one from the Globe, it is hard not to feel a little sorry for him. But that's when you need to remember that if Crowley had behaved differently at Gates's home--back when Crowley was the one with all the power--he wouldn't be in the situation he now finds himself in. And it does make you hope that, now that Gates clearly has the upper hand, the professor will behave differently--and more responsibly--than Crowley did. What's that line from Spider Man?

--Jason Zengerle

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