Whose 'Teachable Moment' Is This?

What will cops really learn from the Gates-Crowley affair?

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We’ve heard President Barack Obama say that the Gates incident is a “teachable moment.” As an attorney and educator, I love teachable moments. However, as a black mother of 24- and 19-year-old sons, I’m confused about what it is that we’re learning. In particular, what lessons will the Cambridge police—and police officers across the nation—learn from this whole experience?

For over 15 years, my family and I have been the only black people in our upper middle-class neighborhood. On at least three occasions, our home alarm system has falsely summoned the police. I am eternally grateful for the alacrity and courtesy of the police officers who arrive immediately to the scene.

Each time, the officers either waited outside my residence or in the foyer of my home as I retrieved my photo ID to prove that I was not an intruder. And every time, the police left after seeing my ID. Had I been followed in my home by the police, I might have felt disrespected. I might have requested a name and badge number, too.

Would I have been arrested for disorderly conduct? One conceivable lesson from the Gates case is that an officer can determine that nearly anything said is disrespectful if the officer doesn’t appreciate a person’s tone. Throughout their lives, I have taught my sons the importance of being respectful to authority figures and to cooperate with police. I have also taught them to report police misconduct should they ever witness it.

Now, as a result of the Gates case, I fear that our home alarm might trip again while I’m away. And I’m afraid that the lessons I have taught my sons over the years may conflict with what officers across America have learned from this national debate on racial profiling.

What if a police officer, having learned from the Gates incident, decides that it is now OK to follow my sons around our home while they get their IDs rather than wait at the front door as they have always done in the past? What if one of my sons can’t find his ID or takes offense to being criminally implicated in our home? If they forget the lessons I have taught them, what if one of my sons is arrested because he is deemed “disrespectful”?

I fear for them and other black and Hispanic youth who may now be victimized more frequently by police—police who have learned from this case that they can arrest anyone who questions police behavior.

And what exactly is the example that we are setting now? Are we teaching others that people must waive their constitutional right to freedom of speech when a police officer is in their home? Or are we going to insist on some finite lessons for police on what constitutes “disorderly”?

Now that President Obama has backed away from his initial reaction to Professor Gates’ unfounded arrest, will some other “rogue” officer assume that they can get away with similar actions? Something positive must come out of this mess. The only lessons here cannot be for minorities to learn to waive their constitutional rights, to accept the fact that requesting a name and badge number may be perceived as disrespectful.

Maybe Obama, Crowley and Gates will emerge from their meeting with requisite clarity on how to proceed from here on out. Perhaps all my fears are nothing more than the irrational worries of a mother with two black sons in a country so concerned with race. But in “teachable moments” like these, I believe that lesson should go both ways. Shouldn’t all of us learn lessons in mutual respect and fairness?

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