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The Monitor's View

Gates vs. Crowley

Assumptions and disrespect can escalate a tense situation – and more so when the law, a suspect, and race are involved.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / July 23, 2009

From Harvard University this week you can hear the voice of Rodney King, who asked in the throes of the 1992 Los Angeles riots: "Can we all get along?"

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Mr. King, an African-American, was brutally beaten by white police officers in 1991 after King physically resisted arrest following a freeway chase. The incident was caught on video. When the officers were acquitted a year later, the riots erupted.

Last week's arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., a renowned African-American professor at Harvard University, by a white police officer occurred under entirely different circumstances. But it raises a similar question about race relations – and human relations generally.

When people don't know anything about each other, when they make assumptions, when they show disrespect, that's when emotions in a touchy situation can escalate.

That's when people may not "get along."

In the days since the Gates arrest, many Americans have read or watched the media accounts; studied the amateur photo of the open-mouthed, angry professor in handcuffs on his front porch; downloaded interviews and police reports.

What they find are two vastly different perspectives of the arrest. They also know much more – in retrospect – about the circumstances when Sergeant James Crowley went to investigate a suspected break-in at a handsome house in Cambridge, Mass.

As he approached the house, Sgt. Crowley did not know that Prof. Gates, who was inside, had had trouble getting into his own front door, and that's why he had been reported by a passerby as trying to force entry; he did not know that Gates had just arrived home from a business trip in China and was fatigued and inconvenienced by the stuck front door; he did not know that Gates was a renowned Harvard professor and not a criminal.

What is known about Crowley? In an interview with WEEI radio in Boston on July 23, the sergeant explained that it was for his own safety as a police officer and father that he first asked Gates to step outside, as mid-day burglaries are not uncommon in that area. He didn't think the neatly dressed Gates looked like a burglar, but perhaps Gates might be unaware of an intruder in the home.

Crowley is fully backed by his union, is apparently well-respected by black and white officers alike, and once administered CPR to a black Boston Celtics player, the late Reggie Lewis.