On Friday, July 24 in the Southern Political Report,Tom Baxter wrote about President Obama’s comment regarding the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The president said the Cambridge police officer had acted “stupidly.” Baxter reflected on how unusual it was for Obama to be so unguarded in his comments, especially since he has bigger fish to fry, namely health care reform.
Obama has since back pedaled, admitting his choice of words was wrong. He even phoned the arresting officer, Sergeant James Crowley, with kind words to take the sting off. But sadly, this is not likely to quell the 24/7 Obama critics. To their way of thinking, Obama has not performed one decent act since the day he left his Kenyan birthplace.
However, it should strike others that Obama’s reaction was guided by a sense of decency. To take in the news that one of the country’s foremost academics was arrested at his home for being loud and rude to police officers who suspected Gates was unlawfully breaking into that home was most sobering. What gives? Henry Louis Gates? The man who wrote “Colored People” and co-authored the brilliant encyclopedia on African and African American people, “Africana,” is suspected of burglary? How ridiculous is that? So, Gates, being human, reacts by making accusations he would phrase some other way in the classroom or on PBS. And he’s arrested by a Cambridge police officer, also quite human, but not seen in as sympathetic a light to most as Gates. Obama felt much sympathy for Gates as an individual, a friend and a black man in America who appeared as just another hood when not attired as a Harvard professor.
No doubt Gates was surprised and seriously peeved at the policemen’s presence. And he lost control. So while technically illegal, his actions were understandable. In fact his arrest brought to mind a day in 1981 when I was falsely accused of a crime by an overzealous Atlanta policeman in Piedmont Park.
I was hosting three friends who came into town to discuss strategy for the rapidly failing record retailer that had long employed us. Soon it became apparent our strategies would fail so it was off to the Braves game, the golf course, Stone Mountain and other fun spots to ponder how long we could hold on to our jobs. On one of the days we went to Deacon Burton’s for a late and very heavy breakfast. Afterwards it was decided we should work off the eggs, grits, biscuits and fried chicken. Piedmont Park was close by. We could toss the frisbee to each other.
In those days people were still allowed to drive their cars into designated areas of Piedmont Park. Usually the restricted areas were gated off. So I drove my friends along a paved stretch not far from the Piedmont Avenue side of the park. We grabbed the frisbee and off we ran up the hill. Barely five minutes after we began to play, one of my friends pointed below to a police officer checking out my car, taking notes all the while. And this is where I really relate to Professor Gates. Instead of walking down the hill and asking the officer if I could be of some help, I blurt out, “What’s the problem?”
The cop wasted no time in getting nasty and threatening. He said I was in a restricted area and the only way I could have gotten there was to have driven my car on park land. I told the officer that was nuts, quickly telling him how sensitive I was of our parks and the environment in general. He pointed out mud tracks on the car’s tires. There was the proof, never mind that the downtown connector was undergoing serious construction in the Midtown area, making for many more dirty cars than usual in the city. I haughtily pointed that out to him and that was all it took. He grabbed me, put me against the patrol car, frisked me, said I was under arrest and began to apply the handcuffs. I was not aggressive but I made it difficult for him to put on the handcuffs. That really made him mad. He shoved me in the back seat and said we were going downtown. Downtown? Where all the lights are bright? No, downtown, where lawbreakers go. Downtown. The jail. This was most sobering. I began to speak quietly and explained several times to the officer how I had driven on to the stretch of pavement he accused me of driving through the park’s grass and mud to reach. He was put off by my not being more eager to participate in the day he had planned for me. However, on a whim, he decided to call the park sanitation’s crew to see if they had left a gate open that someone like me could have driven through. Yes, they had, he was told. Sorry about that.
So off with the cuffs and out of the police car I climbed. Still he gave me a ticket for parking in a restricted area. After failing to get anyone with the City of Atlanta to lend a sympathetic ear (after all, I lived two miles north of the city limits then), I went ahead and paid the ticket. The anger festered but I took no action as I had other problems. Within two months, me and my frisbee playing pals would be out of work.
Generally, I have a dubious view toward police officers. What they do is valuable to the community. Many of them risk their lives to protect us. They have their good days and their bad days. Some really surprising days. Think of the LA policeman in “Crash.” Like most people, I want them to protect me and mine and I want them to leave me and mine alone.
President Obama surely wants police officers to do right and be respected. Something about being Commander in Chief makes one more favorably inclined to those in uniform. But many in uniform make mistakes, some stupidly so, and whether it’s self-defeating or not, it’s tempting to call them on it.