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Aug 04 2009

When lese majestes collide

By now everyone must have heard about the Henry Louis Gates Jr. flap, where the Harvard academic had a confrontation with a Cambridge police sergeant James Crowley, when he was seen by neighbors breaking into his own home when could not open his front door. What should have been a simple misunderstanding that was quickly settled ended up with Gates being arrested and even president Obama being dragged into it as well.

As might have been expected, people have focused on the race aspect of the incident (Gates is black, Crowley is white) and the class aspect of the town-gown divide (Gates being perceived as a member of the privileged Harvard faculty and Crowley as working class).

So were race and class factors? In America, any encounter between people of different races always carries with it a racial subtext. That is inevitable and unavoidable. Underlying this whole episode is the almost universal feeling among black people that police treat them far worse than they do white people. Black people are always conscious that actions that would be seen as innocent if done by white people are viewed with suspicion when done by blacks. This is because black people of whatever status in society have usually experienced an incident where they were personally treated negatively by the police and other security personnel, even though they were totally innocent. This feeling is so strong in the black community that it explains the rare verbal misstep that Obama made when, instead of keeping out of the fray because he did not have all the facts (and he should not feel obliged to comment on every incident anyway), he ventured the comment that the police acted ‘stupidly’ in this incident.

It is a rare white person who has had that kind of negative experience at the hands of the police. At the risk of over-generalizing, white people, especially those in the middle and upper classes, tend to look on the police as their friends and protectors, while black people tend to look on them as a necessary evil.

Class conflict is a trickier issue in the US, since it is less spoken of by the general public but, like race, is always present in any encounter between people of different classes. Police officers in general get infuriated when people try to intimidate them with the “Do you know who I am?” and the “I know important people and can make life hard for you” class-based rhetoric that some people try to use to intimidate officers who are merely doing their duty, in order to avoid being charged with some minor offense.

So while race and class had to be factors in the Gates-Crowley incident, the real question is whether race and class played a greater role than usual here. That is hard to say, without knowing more about the people involved and the details of the incident. And since much of the contentious elements of the exchange occurred when only Crowley and Gates were present, we might never know.

What I would guess is that over and above the race and class issues, what escalated the confrontation between Gates and Crowley is that for each person the encounter created a sense of lese majeste, which Merriam-Webster defines as originating as “an offense violating the dignity of a ruler as the representative of a sovereign power” but now is used more generally as “a detraction from or affront to dignity or importance.”

Gates is an academic superstar and people outside academia may not be aware of how deferentially such people are treated in the normal course of their work lives. Although in any administrative flow chart of a university, faculty members like Gates are at the bottom of the hierarchy, ranking below their department heads, deans, provosts, and university presidents, in reality they are more famous, more powerful, and more valued by their institutions than their nominal superiors. They carry a lot of clout and every one around them treads very gingerly for fear of giving offense because such people will be quickly snapped up by rival institutions if they are not accorded the proper respect. So Gates is used to being treated like royalty and it must have been galling for him to be treated and talked to like just an ordinary person, let alone an ordinary black person.

Police officers are also used to people being very deferential to them. First of all, they are armed and can easily injure or even kill you. They also have the power to arrest, harass, taser, or otherwise make life very difficult for you. So most people, even if they are innocent and think that they have been wrongly stopped or questioned by the police, will talk to them politely, even obsequiously, so that they do not give the police an excuse to book them. When people do challenge police, the charge of ‘disorderly conduct’ can and is routinely invoked against them, as was done against Gates, since this is a very elastic term that gives a police officer wide latitude with which to arrest someone, even if the challenge consists of merely expressing annoyance or anger. The phrase ‘disorderly conduct’ is sometimes referred as being a euphemism for the crime of ‘contempt of cop’.
See this Colbert Report clip of police tasering people, including a 72-year old great-grandmother, who did not show sufficient ‘respect’ to the police officer.

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Can anyone doubt that the feisty great-grandmother was being punished with a tasering purely because the police officer was offended by her act of lese majeste?

People who are routinely treated with excessive deference, such as Gates and Crowley, are the ones who are most likely to overreact to perceived affronts, unless they are highly self-controlled or have a well-developed self-deprecating sense of humor. It is very likely that what triggered Gates’ outburst against Crowley was the thought that he, a famous academic, used to being kowtowed to, was being asked to show his identification in his own home by a lowly policeman, an act that, while not unreasonable under the circumstances under which the officer was summoned, he would have perceived as an act of lese majeste. It is very likely that what triggered Crowley’s use of the disorderly conduct arrest charge was that Gates talked back at him and demanded his name and number, again an act that while not unreasonable, would have also been seen by him as an act of lese majeste.

What is surprising is that Gates, whose field of study is race, seems to have been taken by surprise by being treated the way other blacks are routinely treated. This may be because, as Ishmael Reed suggests, Gates has benefited professionally from being a leading proponent of the view that America is now a post-racial society, which is why he reacted so angrily to the way that most black men are used to being treated all the time. Reed says that Gates actually got off easy. “If a black man in an inner city neighborhood had hesitated to identify himself, or given the police some lip, the police would have called SWAT. When Oscar Grant, an apprentice butcher, talked back to a BART policeman in Oakland, he was shot!”

All in all, it is an unfortunate incident, symptomatic of what happens when two self-important people prick each others’ ego balloons, resulting in an absurd situation in which the president ends up having to invite them both to the White House for a highly publicized beer, further feeding their already inflated sense of self-importance.

POST SCRIPT: Larry Wilmore on the Gates incident

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4 comments

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  1. 1
    peter lafond

    Regarding the Gates/ Crowley incident I believe this is a good time to understand what the phrase, ” just doing my/ his/ her job. The pro Crowley folks ,more or less repeated the mantra- he was just doing his job. Well- what was his job? I think now is a good time for police departments and their unions start a public relations campaign as at to what a citizen is supposed to do when confronted by law enforcement.

    Ie he is something to help us all out: if you are ever pulled over always keep your hands in plain view preferably on the steering wheel- and when you roll down the window use your right hand ( driver ) or left hand ( passenger ) I gurantee you will probably get a break of some sort police dislike not seeing your hands at all times. hope that helps ya

  2. 2
    bubhha

    “It is a rare white person who has had that kind of negative experience at the hands of the police….”

    You only need to watch a few episodes of the television show ‘Cops’ to see whites treated with disrespect and suspicion.

  3. 3
    Bruce

    Thanks Mano – I have been trying to wrap my head around this minor and annoying story, and your analysis rings truer than all others I have read (except maybe my lord and savior Rush Limbaugh!)

  4. 4
    Mano

    bubhha,

    It is not that white people are never treated thus. The Colbert episode shows white people at the receiving end of tasering. It is that black people are routinely treated with suspicion, while whites are not.

    Rather than look at those sensationalizing TV shows, I would suggest that you either look at the statistics or ask both black and white people of your acquaintance what their experience has been with the police. You might be startled at the difference.

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