During Wednesday's press conference, President Obama responded to a question related to the arrest. Here is a transcript of his comments:
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. Recently, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested at his home in Cambridge. What does that incident say to you and what does it say about race relations in America?The Responses from the Right
OBAMA: Well, I should say at the outset that Skip Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here. I don’t know all the facts. What’s been reported though is that the guy forgot his keys, jimmied his way to get into the house. There was a report called in to the police station that there might be a burglary taking place. So far, so good,
right? I mean, if I was trying to jigger into -- well, I guess this is my house now, so...
... it probably wouldn’t happen. But let’s say my old house in Chicago.
Here, I’d get shot.
But so far, so good. They’re -- they’re reporting. The police are doing what they should. There’s a call. They go investigate what happens.
My understanding is, at that point, Professor Gates is already in his house. The police officer comes in. I’m sure there’s some exchange of words. But my understanding is, is that Professor Gates then shows his I.D. to show that this is his house and, at that point, he gets arrested for disorderly conduct, charges which are later dropped.
Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.
As you know, Lynn, when I was in the state legislature in Illinois, we worked on a racial profiling bill because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately. And that is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in the society.
That doesn’t lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that’s been made. And yet the fact of the matter is, is that, you know, this still haunts us.
And even when there are honest misunderstandings, the fact that blacks and Hispanics are picked up more frequently and often time for no cause casts suspicion even when there is good cause.
And that’s why I think the more that we’re working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we’re eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody is going to be. All right? Thank you, everybody.
Commentary regarding Obama's statements regarding Gates's arrest are just emerging, but many conservatives have questioned Obama's position. Here are some of the conservative responses.
Conservative William Kristol believes that Obama should not have "attacked" the police for behaving "stupidly":
Does [Obama] really know enough about what happened to say that? Maybe it was Professor Gates who behaved stupidly, or at least arrogantly. He is, after all, a Harvard professor. I was once a Harvard professor, and my instinct is to side with the Cambridge cops.William A. Jacobson
Conservative blogger William A. Jacobson takes issue with Obama's description of the arrest and argues that Gates sealed his own fate with his "verbal assault" on the police:
Gates wasn't arrested for being in his own home. He was arrested after police reacted -- maybe overreacted -- to Gates' verbal assault on the police. Obama's statement did not leave open the possibility that Gates caused the problem not by being in his home, but by overreacting to police officers investigating a complaint of a burglary in progress.American Power Blog
And the immensely conservative blog American Power defends the police activity by defending the general use of racial profiling and describing Gates as a belligerent:
[Black] dudes commit the most crimes, and profiling is perfectly legitimate as a crimefighting tool when the odds are that a certain demographic is prone to particular types of criminal activity. I frankly can understand the fears of people flying cross-continental airliners when they see Middle Eastern and Muslim passengers on board. Individuals from those groups have committed the most heinous crimes on Americans. Fear and worry when "profiling" people like that makes sense.[Editor's Note: This is way beyond "politically incorrect." Compared with this, KKK literature is "politically incorrect."]
That may be politically incorrect. But take that away, and we're left with Henry Louis Gates' belligerence, which included the comeback, "I'll speak with your mama outside," when the policeman requested that Gates step outside.
The blog also contends that Obama's comments reflect the fact that he is a "Harvard-trained radical."
Obama's comments characteristically give a little to the left, right and middle in an effort to appear balanced and moderate. Obama concedes that Gates is a "friend." He states that he does not know all of the facts. He admits that the parties probably exchanged some tough words. He praises progress in United States race relations. He does not say that race motivated the police -- a charge the most whites are reluctant to believe about police. He speaks about race in an abstract fashion, detached from the question at hand, mentioning only the history of race in the United States and his work on "racial profiling" as an Illinois legislator. Finally, he puts in a good word for all of the honest cops who simply do their work without engaging in racial profiling.
It is really difficult to disagree with these comments. There is a history of racial profiling, which continues today. Also, the city and the police department officially stated that the situation was "regrettable and unfortunate." Although I suppose that rational or intelligent (as opposed to "stupid") behavior could lead to "regrettable and unfortunate" results, in this context the official statement reads like a subtly worded admission of wrongdoing (or stupidity). Furthermore, the District Attorney has declined to prosecute the case "in the interests of justice," which again suggests an admission of impropriety (not simply a generalized exercise of discretion not to prosecute).
Jacobson, however, faults Obama for not leaving open the possibility that Gates overreacted, which led to his arrest. Jacobson contends that most people would not yell at police, and that Gates sealed his own fate by not following this general pattern. First, the official statement from the city and police department counters Jacobson's effort to place blame with Gates. Furthermore, although Jacobson's description of how people react to cops is probably accurate, I take issue with the implication that cops should be able to make arrests or act out of racial biases (or both) without passionate verbal protests.
Police officers frequently arrest people who "take issue" with the officers' behavior and after the individuals demand identification, badge numbers, etc. Gates stated that he was only arrested after he demanded such information and criticized the officers. Verbal protests and requests for information, however, should not justify an arrest. The First Amendment gives people a right to question police. It also allows people to protest racism. Furthermore, the laws in many jurisdictions actually require police to disclose their badge numbers and names to individuals subject to an interrogation or arrest. When people ask for this information or simply "bad mouth" cops, this does not constitute disorderly conduct. Law enforcement officers are not above the law or criticism.
While some people might escape arrest if they remain silent in the wake of police misconduct, the law does not mandate this approach. Anger is a very natural response to racism, perceived and otherwise. And while whites have probably been arrested for protesting police conduct, I doubt that many whites have been suspected of burglarizing their own homes. This point, however, is noticeably absent in many of the critiques of Obama's statements. Being a suspect at home is aggravating enough. Being a suspect at home due to racism is infuriating. Being arrested for "disorderly conduct" after becoming infuriated and expressing this anger does not remove race from the equation. Instead, an arrest under these circumstances actually centralizes the subject of race.