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.
But this is all after the fact. In the heat of the moment, when people don't know anything about each other, it's easy to make assumptions based on personal or cultural experience.
From Gates's account, Crowley is guilty of racial profiling – of assuming that Gates is a suspect simply because he's black.
The professor assumes that Crowley is a racist white cop, demanding identification even after being told by Gates that he lived there and worked at Harvard, then following Gates into his kitchen as he retrieved identification. Crowley, says Gates, refused to give his name and badge number (Crowley countered today that he gave his name twice; and then when he was reaching to get his own ID, Gates turned and walked to the kitchen).
"Is this how you treat a black man in America?" Gates says he asked repeatedly, as he followed the officer out the front door, then was arrested for disorderly conduct – despite multiple warnings of arrest if he did not calm down.
From the start, said Crowley, Gates was "very upset." In his police report, he described Gates as "exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior, in a public place, directed at a uniformed police officer who was investigating a report of a crime in progress."
Cultural and historical references came into play for Gates, a historian of racism. One of out nine young black men are in American prisons, and Gates decries the criminal justice system as "rotten." He told the Boston Globe that when he moved to the mostly white Boston suburb of Lexington in 1991, he promptly visited the police station.
"I wanted them to see my black face," Gates told the Globe. "I would be driving home late from Harvard. I had a Mercedes. I didn't want to be stopped for 'driving while black.'"
What seems obvious (one hopes this is more than mere assumption), is that both men felt they deserved to be treated with respect and neither believed he got it.
"You don't know who you're messing with!" Gates told Crowley, according to the police reports, which also said he went verbally after Crowley's mother.
Crowley, meanwhile, arrested a man whom he had established to be rightfully in his own home. (The charges have since been dropped.)
Both men overreacted. But the arrest, while apparently legal, was a step too far – an escalation by a law enforcement officer who was not facing a meaningful breach of the peace.
Giving a stranger the benefit of the doubt, treating him or her with respect, putting yourself in the other person's shoes – these are the societal manners that allow people of varied backgrounds to "get along."
They sound like simple rules, but they are often difficult to practice. Add an armed officer, a suspect, and race, and the challenge triples.