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July 24th, 2009
12:09 PM ET

The Cambridge cops, police power, and me

On Thursday, Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas defended the actions of Sgt. James Crowley.

On Thursday, Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas defended the actions of Sgt. James Crowley.

Marc Ambinder
The Atlantic

In college, some of my friends majored in history. Others braved the pre-med gauntlet. I graduated in 2001 with a degree in something or other, but my concentration was really in what you might call police scanner science. For three years, I covered the police beat for the Harvard Crimson, which was - is - the city of Cambridge's only breakfast table daily. When my friends would be out studying or dating, I'd be chasing cops. If the crime happened to be near Harvard's campus, I'd get there before they would, which occasionally proved disconcerting.

During my four years at Harvard, I got to know quite a few Cambridge police officers - black officers, white officers, Hispanic officers - and I became familiar with the tinder box that is racial politics in Cambridge. Take wealthy white (or nonwhite) patricians affiliated with Harvard, add liberal activists (not always so rich) who were attracted to the city because of its progressive legacy, add diversity that mirrors the composition of the United States, add blue collar, mostly ethnic white cops who were lifers in the police department...and it's not hard to see how racial sensitivities could be so acute. But in Cambridge, class sensitivities are often as touchy. Town-gown relations ebb and flow but always create tension between anything that suggests "Harvard" and anything that suggests "Cambridge." Cops tend to be working class joes and janes, and professors tend to be patricians. Intermixes like this happen often.

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Filed under: Henry Louis Gates
soundoff (59 Responses)
  1. Larry

    Barack 'the black' president has shown he is not an american president.

    July 24, 2009 at 7:22 pm |
  2. Frank Young

    In my 84 years I have learned several things. 1. Many police officers do not like to have their authority challenged with good reason. If the officer was as good as they say, he would have requested the black officer to explain the situation and nothing would have happened. 2. Blacks rightly resent being "profiled". The professor knew how to get the goat of the officer thus I would say both were wrong.
    I would also say that all of us need training on how to be civil to one another and get over this devide. 3. The president made a mistake of talking off the cuff so he was wrong. What keeps us from putting all of this behind us and try to get along?

    July 24, 2009 at 7:22 pm |
  3. Tyrone

    There was NO reason to arrest this America citizen... But I don't think it's racism it was stupidity and I'm the LAW and have the power over your life! That is what the Sgt. did! Professionaliam was out the door the situation was over....But this cop didn't like being call names.... I am a former correction officer Trenton State Prison .....Mercer County Dentention Ctr. and a private prison profanity piss roten milk name calling from convicted felons is on the daily! This cop then had the nerve to say that President Obama spoke wrong.......Bull this is the kind of leadershp needed in this country . That we as a country NEVER HAD! Police every where are supporting the decision of this white police officer and they were not there…they are doing the exact same thing Obama is doing judging the situation from their own point of view. Regardless if this police officer has african american and hispanic officers coming to his defense..the police community only sees the color BLUE when their own is in question. Those black better remember that white cop to date have murder 200 black offcer in the last 50 years

    July 24, 2009 at 6:52 pm |
  4. Marlene Webster

    Since the President is the highest police official in America, the Mass policeman should apologize to Dr. Gates. The president stated that the policeman should apologize. If he doesn't, that's insubordination so he should be fired.

    July 24, 2009 at 6:40 pm |
  5. gaynell la mothe

    honestly, does this have anything to do with finding jobs or iraq or anything really important? this situation happened to my dad years ago. I was at work, my 16 year son at home, calls me at work, says the police is at the door. I told him to open the door and let me talk to them. they tell me they are arresting my father, who at the time was eating. the officers said a hit and run took place and my father's car fit the vehicle's description, and they took him to jail. i got him out and of course it was not my father. i truly wish all this hooplah would have happen for my dad. i don't blame the gentlemen for going outside, i wouldn't either. big question, how many time do we have to hear this from every reporter on tv? why are there so many people doing the same news over and over, not necessary, there would be a lot of money saved. p.s. my brother was in katrina (that's when you had a heart, cooper) and things aren't right. why don't a few of you report this.

    July 24, 2009 at 6:12 pm |
  6. Marc C

    RL Lee, Unfortunately we can't answer the riddle. This is up to Sgt Crowley and Professor Gates. What we can do is know our rights with respect to police authority and show officers we have that respect. In return we can demand the same amount of respect. I believe Sgt Crowley (especially after all of the great stories) will have a hard time backing away and admitting any fault but I also believe Professor Gates will have the same hard time.

    July 24, 2009 at 5:30 pm |
  7. Marc C

    Debbie, I don't have the same understanding that you do about police officers as I only knew very few growing up. However, I am sure of the human factor – blue or no blue, conscious, ethics, and morality may play a large part in a police force but it also may not. I feel the larger issue is the seperation again of Americans. We all have to believe that there is largely good in us but there is also bad, the bad we have to fight against everyday. These two need to stop yeling, backing each other into a wall, and discuss the real issue. Whether Professor Gates was at fault, the question he and we needs to ask is "why so much hostility?' If Sgt Crowley let the professor get under his skin and took revenge by arresting an obvious man, he should admit to his mistake (in judgement only). We again need to understand from Sgt Crowley, "why so much hostility?"

    July 24, 2009 at 5:24 pm |
  8. Paul Ernest Show

    The problem is that a white officer is more likely to get offended and act more aggressively against a black man or woman than he or she would act against a white comment. Often, they are less likely to initiate an arrest on a white person than a black. I witness this all the time. I comment on it and my white friends see it. Police officers should give blacks the same slack the cut for white residents. They are not our disciplinarians. It is insulting, dehumanizing. On the other hand, we have responsibilty to obey the law.

    July 24, 2009 at 5:24 pm |
  9. Dawn

    People are getting tired of seeing the police treat citizens badly for no reason.Look at were officers went in to a jail cell and beat a female,were officers was robbing people down in Texas,also I seen on the news that a boy was held down and suppose to have been tazered but they ended up shooting him in the back.What I really am wanting to know is what this world is comming to when you see officers doing these things and see a lot of corruption going on and don't see anything happening to the officers because covering it up sure don't solve anything.Some newspapers are asked not to cover the negative that officers do only cover the good,but we the people need to know all that is going on.These bad cops are hurting the good ones and that is what really hurts and there seem to be a lot more bad then what they seem to be talked of.

    July 24, 2009 at 4:20 pm |
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