Since writing my two previous posts on the subject, I've seen more coverage that looks at the Gates incident in terms of abuse of police power. Jonathan Simon has some interesting things to say on this subject at PrawfsBlawg:
But while the police officer symbolically represents the nation, the police view themselves as a "band of brothers" (quoted in Michael Wilson and Solomon Moore's story on police citizen encounters in today's NYTimes) sworn to protect each other over any other citizen or the public in general when that comes into conflict. Moreover, most citizens of any color who deal with the business end of policing in the streets comes to understand this perfectly well. This is my final paradox. The public and political adoration of the police coexists uneasily with the fact that this powerful armed society within a society exercises huge and mostly unreviewable power over all Americans as individuals.
For all these reasons it would take an Obama to make this a truly teachable moment for America. But it would have to be a 45 minute "moment" and not a quip at the end of a press conference. Is this the right time for that moment nationally? Probably not.
If you didn't catch Stanley Fish's commentary (Déjà Vu All Over Again), it provides some useful background as we think about the internal narrative that might have shaped Gates's reaction to his encounter with Sgt. Crowley.
One of the first things Gates did [when he arrived at Duke Univsersity] was buy the grandest house in town (owned previously by a movie director) and renovate it. During the renovation workers would often take Gates for a servant and ask to be pointed to the house’s owner. The drivers of delivery trucks made the same mistake. The message was unmistakable: What was a black man doing living in a place like this?
Of course, as Gates was accusing Crowley of racism, I can imagine Crowley fuming because he has worked to combat racism in policing. But, again, I don't think we can determine what, exactly, was in each man's mind.
What troubles me more is that one man has the power to throw the other in the jail over a clash of narratives that infuriated both men. No matter how loud, rude, aggressive, insulting or stupid a cops gets, there will be no disorderly conduct charge against him. Every citizen is supposed to have the ego-strength to silently and submissively accept infuriating stupidity from a police officer if that's what Officer Friendly is serving up that day. A Gates cannot place a Crowley under arrest if Crowley behaves like an infuriating jerk, but Sgt. Crowley can jail someone for the committing the offense of narcissistic injury to a cop.
Maybe that was the narrative in Obama's mind when he described the arrest of Gates as "stupid"--not "racist"--"stupid." But as Jonathan Simon suggests, it would take more than an offhand quip at the end of a news conference to explain that to a nation that tends to idealize its armed government employees.