Commentary & Forums, Pedagogy

Steering the Teachable Momentum of the Gates Arrest in an Anthropological Direction.

Public discussion of the Gates arrest is all over the place: people with a stake in race issues insist on speaking about race, analysts of governing technologies attempt to bracket race and focus on procedure, libertarians focus on citizen rights, etc. The aggregate effect has been to generate an argument in which the various sides work on reinforcing their respective positions by talking past each other, seemingly avoiding confrontation over any potentially conclusive point of direct disagreement.

For the purpose of teaching anthropology, I think this public cacophony could be channeled into a good class discussion of the nature of social facts, and some of the ways that “symbolic relays” operate in contemporary American culture to structure the outcome of politically tense situations.

For example, we could take a page from the sociology of policing and start from a theoretical distinction between what the police do and what policing does. This means that we can look at “the police” ethnographically – as individuals acting in real-time contexts – and thereby describe them as engaged in an order of interaction (Goffman’s “interaction order”) which exists at several removes from the larger institutional level in which “policing” functions as an element in the reproduction of macro-historical social order. This distinction is a useful framework for asking questions about how these two levels of phenomena – real-time social action and institutionalized social facts – actually relate to one-another in particular instances. In this case, we have a situation where a central point of dispute is whether or not the social fact of race is relevant to the situation on the ground. To focus discussion of the event onto the cultural dynamics by which larger issues are made relevant to social action, we can usefully borrow Marshall Sahlins’ concept of the “symbolic relay,” i.e. symbols which are deployed to “endow the opposing local parties with collective identities and the opposing collectives with local or interpersonal sentiments. In the occurrence, the small-scale struggles are transformed into abstract and irreconcilable causes-to-die-for, their outcome depending now on the larger correlation of forces” (quoting here from the abstract to his short 2005 paper in Anthropological Theory titled “Structural Work,” (password required) more extensive discussion of the concept can be found in his 2004 monograph Apologies to Thucydides). It is, in other words, cultural work that imbues day-to-day events with larger historical significance.

A classroom exercise could be developed around analyzing how various tropes and categories are mobilized by various commentators and participants in the event as “symbolic relays” to frame the larger historical significance of the event of the arrest itself as being “about” race, common-sense, civility, class, citizenship, police procedure, etc. As cursory examples, consider:

“This isn’t about me; this is about the vulnerability of black men in America,” (Gates).

“[Y]ou probably don’t need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who’s in his own home,” (Obama)

“Gates, as a citizen, has the right to challenge the authority of the police – all Americans have that right.” (http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2009/7/25/752126/-Disorderly-Conduct)

“Gates automatically “profiles” white men in uniform as a threat to his outsized ego, even when they are trying to protect his own house!.” (http://www.pr-inside.com/was-barack-obama-crying-in-his-r1407475.htm)

“A good cop respects your rights when you show them their rights. A bad cop tries to convince you to do something stupid so they can put you in jail… They will take advantage of your belligerence, they will take advantage of your anger, they will take advantage of your fears.” (http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jNR4dcq5sivgbez2rttRVWtTMXoAD99JQMJG0)

“The report alleges that Gates became belligerent and yelled at the officer that “this is what happens to black men in America.” The report further states that Gates called the officer a racist and declared that the officer had no idea whom he was ‘messing with.’ Assuming the prosecution could establish that those factual allegations are true – which Gates vehemently says it could not – it does not appear the government would have any realistic chance of proving its case in a courtroom.” (http://blogs.masslawyersweekly.com/news/2009/07/22/making-legal-sense-of-the-gates-arrest/)

From the obvious point that people disagree as to what this event is “about,” we could move to a finer-grained discussion of how and why various accounts diverge, what kinds of audiences they might be aiming for, and what kinds of pragmatic purposes they might be intended to serve. Ideally, the discussion would leave students with a deeper appreciation for the complexity of the socio-cultural processes which are involved in forming prevailing interpretations of the larger significance of events, and how the work of cultural mediation (i.e. the deployment of symbolic relays) is embedded in and inflected by political and economic circumstances.

Cited references available online

Sahlins, M. (2005). Structural work: How microhistories become macrohistories and vice versa Anthropological Theory, 5 (1), 5-30 DOI: 10.1177/1463499605050866

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Anthropoliteia In the News 7/25/09

The Henry Louis Gates Affair

Besides the fiasco that occurred in and outside the home of prominent Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.– and that’s been burning up the news wires, television talk show circuit and radio waves (and being covered more exhaustively by our own Brian Lande, or socdeputy to you all)–there’s actually been some other news in the world…

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, anthropologist and crime fighter

Topping off any blog on the anthropology of policing is news that UC Berkeley anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes was instrumental in the uncovering of a kidney-trafficking ring in New York and New Jersey.  Scheper-Hughes reportedly provided FBI officials with the name, address and phone number of Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, who appearently promised Moldovan villagers manual labor jobs in the U.S. before coercing them into “donating” their kidneys.  Both Somatosphere and Savage Minds have more extensive coverage of the affair, including an extensive audio interview between Scheper-Hughes and WNYC’s Brian Lehrer (at Somatosphere).

The View from France

Although French news wasn’t immune from the affair that burned up this side of the Atlantic, several other issues made note this week:

  • New French Minister of the Interior Brice Hortefeux announced the forthcoming unification of three police departments (Hauts-de-Seine, Seine-Saint-Denis and Val-de-Marne) under the control of the Prefect of Paris.  The move, which has historical precedent, is due in large part to response problems during the series of banlieue riots that have occurred outside Paris over the last several years.  At least one police union, SGP-FO, has applauded the move.
  • The controversy over the non-lethal arm known as the Flash-ball continues.  This week Stéphane Gatti, the father of the man injured in the Parisian suburb of Montreuil (see last week’s In the News), circulated an open letter on the internet denouncing police use of the arm.  In response, the Green Party proposed a law which would outlaw the use of the flash-ball, a move which quickly drew a response from all three major police unions.
  • French recruits to the Police Nationale are finding, increasingly, that the language of Moliere is no longer sufficient for conducting their everyday work.   What happens when a flic needs a Polish translator?  Eric from the blog Police Nationale Recruitement has some interesting insights.
  • This all is as news has come out that recruitment of all gardien-de-la-paix agents for next year will be canceled, for the first time ever.  the Minister of the Interior cites budget deficits, while union leaders point out that this will cause administrators to rely more on the less-paid, less-trained, less-job secure adjoints de sécurité (and more heavily minority-staffed) to do the same job.
  • Maurice Grimaud, Prefect of Paris during the May 1968 uprising, died.

“How many volts would you like with your waffle?”

Continuing our discussion of the use of tasers by police forces around the world, several officers from Gwinnett County Georgia find themselves in hot water after the appearently tased their waffle house waiter, whom they had repeatedly “teased” in previous encounters. “Miles told investigators that he only “spark tested” the Taser near the employee’s back “just to scare him a little bit,” according to the internal investigation file,” the Atlanta Constitution-Journal reports.

Police Tech

Other police technologies were also in the news.

  • The Economist has an article on using an underground radar system to locate illegal drug traffic at the border
  • British police canned a text-messaging program after it recorded an average of only 3 messages per day since its inception in March
  • The police of Seine-Saint-Denis, outside of Paris, will soon be equipped with individual mini-cameras which will be mounted on their ear and be about the size of a bluetooth device.
  • The Maryland Transportation Administration, provider of public transportation in the land of The Wire, announced, and then retracted, its desire to use microphones to record all conversations of trains and buses…
  • …while the town of Tiburon, CA announced that it will photograph every car that comes through town, and then use the license plate information to solve crimes. “As long as you don’t arrive in a stolen vehicle or go on a crime spree while you’re here, your anonymity will be preserved,” said Town Manager Peggy Curran. “We don’t care who you are and we don’t know who you are.”

Security before it happens

Friend of this blog and uber-cosmopolit anthropologist Limor Darash has an article in the new American Ethnologist in which she outlines the assemblage of biosecurity/threat responses she calls a “pre-event configuration.”  You can read more about it at Vital Systems Security.

“A bad economy is not good for the murder rate”

In what should be a surprise to no one, a team of researchers plan to publish a study in The Lancet that show that murder rates in the EU go up at a rate of about .8% for every 1% increase in unemployment.  As a result, the team suggests that social and economic services might, in fact, save lives: “The analysis also suggests that governments might be able to protect their populations, specifically by budgeting for measures that keep people employed, helping those who lose their jobs cope with the negative effects of unemployment, and enabling unemployed people to regain work quickly. We observed that social spending on active labour market programmes greater than $190 per head purchasing power parity mitigated the effect of unemployment on death rates from suicides, creating a specific opportunity for stimulus packages to align labour market investments with health promotion.”

Police Locally

In more local news (well, local to some of us) UC Berkeley finally named its new police chief.  Assistant Police Chief Mitch Celaya will take over on August 1st from UCPD Chief Victoria Harrison, who is set to retire.  Ceyaya, a member of the UCPD since 1982, had been one of two finalists (along with David Kozicki, deputy chief for the Oakland Police Department) for the position.

In a June interview, Celaya gave a broad outline of his philosophy for policing Berkeley: “Besides loving my job, the campus culture, and the communit…. I am in tune to the culture and what people expect from the department. I would like to enhance the interactions with the student community. Some students feel that they have not developed relationships with us and we want to change that, working with the Associated Students of UC Berkeley and setting up mentor groups.”

Gates redux

And just in case you still haven’t got enough of the Henry Louis Gates Jr story:

  • The New York Times has an interesting article on the training police officers receive in order to handle verbal abuse and insults in tense situations–and whether or not such training is helpful
  • Peter Moskos, at Cop in the Hood, has a post detailing the technique, apparently used in the gates case, whereby a police officer invites an emotionally-charged individual outside, where he is then arrested for disorderly conduct.
  • Jonathan Simon (of Governing Through Crime) offers some historical context, over at PrawfsBlawg, for the Gates affair before considering whether obama should use this as a “teaching moment” as gates has suggested.  Simon’s answer?  Probably not.
  • Finally, the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s blog, Brainstorm, has two articles of note on the issue.  One by anthropologist John L. Jackson Jr., which attempts to “connect dots between Gatesian accusations (of race-thinking) and a cop’s defense (of colorblindness and racial neutrality)” and another post, which offers a passage written by Gates himself in 1995, which tries to explain how police are perceived in black communities: “It’s a commonplace that white folks trust the police and black folks don’t. Whites recognize this in the abstract, but they’re continually surprised at the depth of black wariness. They shouldn’t be. …Wynton Marsalis says, “My worst fear is to have to go before the criminal-justice system.” Absurdly enough, it’s mine, too.”

Citations Available Online

SAMIMIAN-DARASH, L. (2009). A pre-event configuration for biological threats: Preparedness and the constitution of biosecurity events American Ethnologist, 36 (3), 478-491 DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1425.2009.01174.x

Stuckler, D., Basu, S., Suhrcke, M., Coutts, A., & McKee, M. (2009). The public health effect of economic crises and alternative policy responses in Europe: an empirical analysis The Lancet, 374 (9686), 315-323 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(09)61124-7

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Obama Tries to Defuse Gates Controversy

A series of articles and reports have come out today based on Obama trying to diffuse the Gates controversy: See NPR’s story by clicking here. Also listen to Sgt. Crowley tell his side of the story,  Sgt. Who Arrested Gates Tells His Story. Also listen to one of my favorite civil rights attorney’s, John Burris, discuss race and policing with two police chiefs. Burris has prosecuted  many police officers for misconduct and civil rights violations. He is notable for his involvement in the Oakland Rider’s scandal (a group of corrupt OPD officers) and was co-counsel in the Rodney King trial. Listen to “Black and Blue: Police and Minorities” from NPR’s Talk of the Nation.

One of Burris’s points is that police officers come to a call with expectations framed by the information that dispatchers give them. In part this is because officers also form stereotypical expectations about situations they go to, e.g. B&Es. Burris also makes the point that I have made, which is that respect is a major issue of urban policing especially between male cops (black or white) and black men contacted by the police. Burris recommends what cops call “verbal judo” which is just a “tactical” name for respectful communication. This is becoming a very popular style of discourse in law enforcement and is now part of the police academy curriculum training and is available as free training through the Learning Portal at the  California Peace Officer’s Standards and Training Commission.

Portland Or, Police Chief Rosie Sizer, also gives a very cogent explanation of how and why cops handle angry people the way they do when they respond to a scene. She  addresses why new specific policies for dealing with “angry people in their own home” is not practical and the importance of training doctrine and officer maturity for preparing officers for the vagaries of police experiences. Sizer describes Portland PDs in-service training for dealing with “jerks” on the force. Some officers, she said, are “jerks” all the time, but minorities perceive that officers rudeness as racially motivated.

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Gates Arrest Updates

Sgt. Crowley refuses to apologize to Gates:

http://www.thegrio.com/2009/07/cop-defends-his-actions-in-gates-arrest.php

Dr. Boyce Watkins: “Consider this before crying ‘racial profiling.’

http://www.thegrio.com/2009/07/i-am-not-al-sharpton.php

Sgt. Crowley taught courses on how to prevent racial profiling:

http://www.thegrio.com/2009/07/officer-who-arrested-gates-is-profiling-expert.php

A less than scholarly comment:

I am very disappointed  by President Obama’s claim that the Cambridge PD’s actions were “stupid.”. Obama, himself, said that he was unaware of all the facts of the case. The bottom line is that Sgt. Crowley is getting publicly hung out to dry for doing his job. There is no evidence that he is “stupid.” Gates is able to leverage his status and reputation  in a way that is preventing any real debate about what happened or any logical or sensible discussion of racial profiling. This is one of the most inane debates about race and police that I have seen in years. People with power will listen to Gates, who will listen to Sgt. Crowley?  Will Crowley be judged only in the court of public opinion or will any real investigation be conducted to determine if his actions were inappropriate?

I disagree with how he handled his call, but hindsight is alway 20/20. Hindsight, as anyone who has actually had to testify in court knows, is not the standard by which a persons actions are judged. No one has asked Crowley why he did what he did at the time. Further, Crowley’s own past actions seem to indicate that he is not a racist. He has taught courses at the police academy for approximately five years on how to prevent racial profiling. He has rendered first aid to save the life of an African American in 1993 (albeit a famous athlete). The fact that I would not have handled Gates’ outbursts the way Crowley did does not mean that he did anything outside the bounds of the law.

Being an officer is tough emotional work. Day in and day it is spent with people who lie to you, disrespect you, call you names, and frequently try to hurt you. Through it all, officers are expected to take their ego bruising and be the bigger man. But officers are human beings too and sometimes a citizen or suspect crosses the line and an officer reacts in a way that is less than ideal. It happens but does not equate to racial profiling.

What saddens me the most is that Gates is using the term “rogue policeman” for Crowley. I have seen rogue cops in action, and reported them. They don’t act like Crowley. Rogue cops engage in a systematic pattern of misconduct in which illegal searches and seizures are conducted, state laws and departmental policies are regularly violated, and other officers and the public are put in harms way. Thus far there is no evidence that Sgt. Crowley is that kind of officer.

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Commentary & Forums

Henry Louis Gates Jr., Researcher of Racial Profiling, Arrested.

NPR Article on Gates Arrest

Henry Louis Gates Jr., a prominent Harvard professor who studies racial profiling, was arrested for “loud and tumultuous” conduct after officers responded to his residence to investigate a possible “B&E” (breaking and entering). Supposedly a white female passerby saw gates and his African American driver trying to force open the front door. Gates had just returned from a trip to China to find his door swelled shut.

A Cambridge PD officer arrived to investigate. At this point the stories that the PD and Gates offer begin to differ. Gates claims tat he was arrested for no reason and that the officers were there because of racial profiling. The PD maintains that they had to investigate a crime and that Gates did not allow an officer into the house to investigate. Further the PD says that Gates  did not provide a state issued ID, only a Harvard University ID. While the officer was trying to obtain ID, Gates allegedly began asking for the officer’s badge and name. After the officer entered the house and obtained proper ID he threatened the officer, “You don’t know who your messing with.” Gates followed the officer outside and continued to berate him. At that point the officer arrested Gates for a public disorder crime (read the Gates Arrest Report).

Is this racial profiling as nearly everyone claims it to be? Racial profiling means that an officer stops, detains, or arrests a person solely on the basis of their race. Or is this a case of racial discrimination? That is, was Gates singled out for disparate treatment by the Cambridge Police, or more specifically Sgt. Crowely? Would  a white professor have been treated the same way?

Based on my professional experience I cannot say that I find the police report satisfactory. In CA, anyway, there would be little or no precedent to make an arrest. I would also hope that an arrest report dealing with “sensitive” person would have more detail. That the District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges does not help. It does not mean that Sgt. did not have probable cause for an arrest, but it does imply that the case could not have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. It also looks really bad from a public relations point of view.

But is this profiling or discrimination? I don’t think that can be adjudicated from the report or Professor Gate’s version of the events. From a working deputies point of view I can agree with many aspects of how Sgt. Crowely handled the situation. He has the right to detain a person for a reasonable amount of time to investigate a possible crime in progress. A person coming to the door and saying they are a resident is not sufficient to satisfy in most officers minds that no crime is occurring. Asking  for Government issued ID that proves someone is a resident is a common investigative technique. Someone refusing to give ID while legally detained is a real problem. It is generally problem to start arguing with an officer and deman

For example, last night (7/21/09) I responded to a noise complaint of a party with underage drinking.  I walk around the house, establish that there is unreasonably loud noise and I can smell the odor of alcohol coming from the residence. I look through the window and see people who look to be under 21. I knock on the door and a person under 21 answers the door. I ask to come inside after explaining why I am there. I am denied. I request identification from which ever minor lives at the house. The woman who answered the door first tells me “get out of my house” and then refuses to give me identification.

What to do? I explain again that I have to conduct an investigation and determine whether or not minor’s are being furnished with alcohol. I also need to make sure the noise is lowered. I explain that I have a right and an obligation to be in the house. The 19 year old proclaims, “My dad is a lawyer and you should leave.”  I also explain the consequences for impeding the investigation and finally gain the compliance of the white rich 19 year old daughter of a lawyer.

The point is this, I did whatever I could to de-escalate the situation and not make an arrest. My job was to stop the noise and ensure not alcohol was being furnished to minors. If I can get out without an arrest, I have done my job. Could it have escalated to an arrest, absolutely. But I give this example so that others will see some of the reasoning behind why the Gates incident could escalate to an arrest without original crime being founded. But this still doesn’t answer the question of whether Gates was discriminated against. I also don’t think that the claim that Gate’s arrest is prima facie evidence for “profiling.” That is not a logical argument (P.1 Gates is a black man. P.2 Gates is a well respected black man. P.3 Gates was arrested. P.4 Sometimes black men are arrested because of their skin color. C.1 Therefore Gates was arrested as a result of racial profiling.)

Are there other explanations for what happened other than racial profiling? Yes. Based on what we know, the officer did not profile. He had a witness who had facts about a specific suspect. The officer did his job and investigated. However, does that mean that the witness, a white woman, was not influenced by race? Social psycholoical research shows that people are influenced by unconscious biases regarding race. Likely the white witness was hyper-vigilant in her assesment of Gate’s trying to get into the house because of deeply embedded stereotypes about black men being criminals. This is very likely the case, but that is not the same a profiling by police.

It is also equally possible that Gates, tired from  a trip back from China, was exhausted and irratable and escalated the situation. He may have also been frustrated, as a black man who has dealt with a legacy of racism, that a white police officer was trying to enter HIS home. It is also possible that the Officer escalated the situation by not receiving the deference he expects from a upper middle class black man. You ask me and this can equally well be explained as being about masculinity. Could this not have been any more about two men in a pissing contest than it was a story of racial profiling? Gates committed the crime of “contempt of cop” and was arrested. The role of deference in relations between men, especially in police-citizen encounters, has been very well described by sociologists and criminologists. When either party feels disrespected, tensions rise and arrests are more likely.

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