Wednesday, July 29, 2009

More on the Arrest of Professor Gates

There’s been lots of comment about Professor Gates's arrest in the media, which, as far as I'm concerned, is all to the good. I can't think why anyone would want to dampen down the discussion. It's fine to have a black man in the White House, an important positive development, as I've said, but that doesn't change the facts, one, for instance, being that black and Hispanic men make up almost 60% of the jail population in the USA. And it's not because they are born wicked. I’m not suggesting that some of them don't deserve to be there (though some of them don't), but that disproportionate presence is one symptom of a lot that's amiss where matters of race in North America are concerned, especially matters that impact black men.

And not talking about it, or ratcheting down the discussion isn't going to make that set of problems go away, by any means.

It's interesting to note, in the comments that have been made on many of the articles online, that ordinary folks repeatedly say that they need to be deferential with the police, a deference that clearly arises out of fear. I learned too that a great many police officers “demand respect”, especially when they are in uniform. More on that in a bit.

A couple points have emerged to fill out our picture of the incident. Seems Sergeant James Crowley, the arresting officer, felt threatened. He mentioned being aware of having to protect himself because his wife and children needed him. I can absolutely appreciate that. But it's fair to point out that Professor Gates is an older man who uses a cane, and that he had just come back, ill, from a long and tiring trip. So, a strong, armed young man was facing an older, sick man, who uses a cane and has done for a long time. Hmmmn. There’s a picture online of Professor Gates in hand cuffs. Worth a thousand words!

Where respect is concerned, I have two observations.

I was a teacher in another life. It's my experience that respect is not to be demanded, it's to be deserved. It was my business to earn my students' respect: by my own demeanour, by how I treated them, by my insisting that the circumstance in which we all learned reflected the fact of this mutual respect – a clean classroom, no rowdy behaviour, everyone having a chance to speak and be heard, etc., etc. The person with the authority is the one who sets the tone, calibrates the nature of the interactions.

True, my life may not have been on the line (not at that time, anyway), but a cop is like a soldier, and threats to life and limb are part of the territory. It's a hazardous job, and those who take it on know that up front. That defusing of bad situations is a cop skill as much as a teacher skill. (Malcolm Gladwell has written insightfully about this.)

Secondly, those who are likely to confront the police with “disrespectful” behaviour are often the people who most need their protection. They are people who are old folks with dementia; they are people who are mentally or physically ill, or temporarily off-balance, or inebriated, or high on dope. (Yes, drunks and dope heads are citizens too, and deserve protection.) Nor are the police without recourse. They have Mylar vests, guns, billies, tasers – the latter having, in too many cases, turned out to be lethal weapons in their hands.

Sadly, the instances of police shootings of innocent people are far too many. FSJL mentions a truly alarming one in his comments on our last post. Here in Toronto, the Asian man who was mentally ill and who was shot to death on a trolley downtown, his weapon a small hammer in his hand, comes to mind. So also does the case of the African-Canadian man, clad in colourful regalia and brandishing a wooden sword, who was shot to death by police on St Clair Avenue. Both were non compos mentis; neither posed a credible threat to anyone, least of all the police, at any time. And, more recently, there is the case of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski tasered to death just 24 seconds after being confronted by police in Vancouver International Airport.

It’s not that I’m without sympathy for the job that policemen do. As a young man, my father worked in Tower Street Prison. But there’s a reason that policemen carry guns, and we trust them to do so. And that’s precisely why it’s fair to expect them to be the ones who always keep their cool: if they lose it, the results may be irreversible. Nor does respect inhere in “Yes, officer. No, officer.” That respect is transient and superficial. The real respect is a community’s continuing trust in and support of their law officers.

Unless of course we are to degenerate into a Wild West in which we are all armed and dangerous…


Jdid said...

I too noticed the whole deferrence to policemen thing amongst the general public. seems to me we are almost as fearful of our protectors as we are of criminals.
fear that our police protectors will abuse us, will think we are one of the bad guys, will make it seem like we are one of the bad guys, we will offend them somehow and end up in jail.
reminds me of slave days somehow. not only be respectful but somehow dont talk back to massa, dont stare him in the face. a bit scary i think

FSJL said...

"The police are not here to create disorder, the police are here to preserve disorder" -- Richard J. Daley, sometime Mayor of Chicago.

clarabella said...

Hi jdid: Verrrry scary! And it needn't be so. Part of the problem is of course, that the days of the constable armed only with his billy club are gone...

clarabella said...

Hi FSJL: Righty-ho then. We have it from the mouth of a representative of the people, one who ought to know, one to whom the police are answerable. Enough said.