Friday, July 31, 2009

Cambridge Cop Accidentally Arrests Professor Gates Again During White House Meeting

WASHINGTON—Upon arriving late to his meeting with President Barack Obama and famed African-American intellectual Henry Louis Gates, Cambridge police officer James Crowley once again detained the distinguished Harvard scholar after failing to recognize the man he had arrested just two weeks earlier, White House sources reported Thursday. "When I entered the Oval Office, I observed an unidentified black male sitting near Mr. Obama, and in the interest of the president's safety, I attempted to ascertain the individual's business at the White House," Crowley said in a sworn statement following the arrest. “The suspect then became uncooperative and verbally abusive. I had no choice but to apprehend him at the scene for disorderly conduct.” Witnesses said that Sgt. Crowley, failing to recognize Gates on their flight to Logan Airport, arrested the tenured professor in midair, once again at the baggage claim, and twice during their shared cab ride back to Cambridge.
(Source: This week's Onion Magazine)

Just a bit of healthy humor for the weekend . . . I've written several serious posts about this subject, so it's time for some humor. It's what psychologists call "healing with humor". . .

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Dialogue on Race, Civil Rights and Criminal Justice Has Begun

Kudos to President Obama for showing both leadership and humility by retracting his previous statement that one-sidedly condemned the actions of the Campbridge, Mass., policeman ("police acted stupidly") and issuing a more balanced statement aimed at healing the wounds and bridging the rift. On Friday, Obama admitted he had previously used a poor choice of words. He added that this incident could have been avoided by more responsible behavior on both sides. From his ad hoc press conference:

I want to make clear that in my choice of words I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically -- and I could have calibrated those words differently. And I told this to Sergeant Crowley. I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling Professor Gates out of his home to the station. I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well. My sense is you've got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them were able to resolve the incident in the way that it should have been resolved and the way they would have liked it to be resolved.

Where in today's world do you have humble leaders who publicly admit their mistakes? We are blessed to have a President who values truth and honesty to the extent of doing the "unthinkable" and admitting they are sorry for making a past statement.

But the President did not stop there. This incident merely scratches the surface of an issue that goes to the heart of America's shameful past. Regardless of whose description of the events leading to the arrest is more accurate (and I submit to you that the truth is somewhere in the middle), this incident cannot be viewed without remembering that we are a society still recovering from the festering wounds of slavery, segregation and discrimination. The President, of course, realizes this, and he thus rightfully seized upon the opportunity to address the issue from an educational perpective, calling the incident a "teachable moment":
My hope is, is that as a consequence of this event this ends up being what's called a "teachable moment," where all of us instead of pumping up the volume spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity.
Some commentators, such as Jonathan Capehart in today's Washington Post, argue that the brutally-honest discussion we need to have about racism and discrimination will never happen. Capehart claims that Americans are not willing to talk frankly and openly about the fear and misunderstandings, the anger and the resentment, all those things that have combined to make racism a "corrosive cancer of the soul."

I beg to differ. The conversation has already begun. The huge amount of media attention and commentary this case has garnered indicates the conversation is in full swing. People across the nation (and all over the blogosphere) are making their opinions heard. Racism - especially America's shameful past - is openly discussed and criticized. The arrest is bound to shed light on discriminatory police practices (and I am not making a judgment call whether this actually happened here because I did not research all the facts) and make everyone more aware and better prepared to combat racism - whenever it rears its ugly head, whether in overt or covert manifestations.

There is a significant amount of research out there, particularly regarding disparity in arrests, bail decisions, convictions, and sentencing (See, e.g. Attorney Richard Dieter's article The Death Penalty in Black and White: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides). But it has not drawn the attention it deserves because the public neither reads law review articles nor attends academic conferences. However, now that the issue is in the limelight it is inevitable that the general public will discuss and converse about these issues. The most recent statements by the President and Professor Gates clearly show they intend to encourage all segments of society to participate in this complicated and uncomfortable conversation openly and honestly.

Last but not least, stay tuned for the upcoming conversation in the White House over some beers between President Obama, Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley. This is bound to be a watershed event, a "teachable moment." Gates said he is a fan of Red Strip and Beck's. We still don't know the preferred brews of Obama and Crowley.

Addendum: The planned White House sulha indicates Gates will not pursue a Section 1983 claim against the police. A Section 1983 claim refers to a claim under 42 U.S.C. §1983 which creates a private right of action against individuals who, acting under color of state law, violate federal constitutional rights or statutory rights. All the more power to Gates for wisely avoiding a confrontational lawsuit that would be counterproductive, and choosing to walk the wiser and more courageous path of a face-to-face meeting over beers to heal the wounds, mend the fences and educate the general public.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Don't Mess With Cops

The unfortunate arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his own home has set off a a media brouhaha, triggering a storm of reactions. Even President Obama chimed in yesterday, and answered a reporter's question relating to this incident with the following observations:

But I think it's fair to say, No. 1, any of us would be pretty angry," Obama said. "No. 2, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home. And No. 3 — what I think we know separate and apart from this incident — is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately, and that's just a fact."

The problem is that President Obama hastily rendered judgment ("police acted stupidly") before all the facts became known. It seems unfair - indeed a moral violation (not a legal one) of the concept of due process - to condemn the police before hearing and analyzing policemen's version of the sequence of the events. Now that the policeman's account of the incident is being published and given due attention, the whole incident looks completely different:

But Sergeant Crowley said Thursday that he was only protecting himself when he asked Professor Gates, whom he did not recognize, to come out and identify himself. Daytime break-ins are not unheard of in the neighborhood, he said.Sergeant Crowley described the woman who reported the possible break-in — who works at Harvard Magazine, on Professor Gates’s street — as “reliable,” and said that while the professor did not “look like somebody who would break into a house,” his tone was troubling. In the police report he filed, Sergeant Crowley said Professor Gates had refused to step outside and, when told the sergeant was investigating a possible break-in, said, “Why, because I’m a black man in America?” According to the report, Professor Gates also accused the sergeant of being racist and yelled that he “wasn’t someone to mess with.” Sergeant Crowley said he tried to identify himself several times but the professor was shouting too loudly to hear.

President Obama was right only in his Point No. 3, namely that there is much to be improved on the serious problems of race and the criminal justice system. But with all due respect to the President, the whole incident may very well have been avoided had the professor heeded the advice given by Neely Tucker in today's Washington Post.

I have read many commentaries on the Skip Gates story, but Tucker's is the wisest of them all. The following words of wisdom speak for themselves:

When the Cops Are Called In, Anger Is a Dangerous Weapon to Brandish

By Neely Tucker, July 22, 2009

One of the common-sense rules of life can be summed up this way: Don't Mess With Cops.
It doesn't matter if you are right, wrong, at home or on the street, or if you are white, black, Hispanic, Jewish, Muslim or whatever. When an armed law enforcement officer tells you to cease and desist, the wise person (a) ceases and (b) desists.

The End.

Like Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., I am interracially married, currently live in a predominantly white neighborhood, have a healthy respect for armed men wearing uniforms, and have had the police come to my house in a confrontational manner, doing the job they're paid to do.

It happened when our house alarm went off at 2 a.m. a few months ago, on a night the electricity was off and the neighborhood was dark as pitch. WANH!! WANH!! WANH!! It sent my wife and me leaping out of bed. I sprinted downstairs with a baseball bat, our Rottweiler and a flashlight to confront any possible intruder. I checked all the windows and doors, the dog yawned, and it quickly became apparent that there was a short circuit from a rear door.
My wife called the alarm company and gave them the code for a false alert.

Then two cops showed up.

The first thing they did was ask me to step outside. The second thing they did was to ask me for my identification, to prove that I lived there. They were demanding and they were not friendly. They kept their flashlights in my face. They did not take my word for it that it was my house, though I was as white as they were.
Once I showed them my driver's license with the address, they asked if anyone else was inside, and then they asked if they could look around the place.
I was irritable in that middle-of-the-night kind of way, but it did not occur to me that they might be picking on us, the salt-and-pepper couple on the block. What occurred to me was that they got a call about a home alarm going off and they had to secure the premises before they could leave. And I was thrilled to have them search the entire house, because my wife's 9-year-old daughter was murdered in a home invasion in Silver Spring six years ago. The police came running then, too, but it was too late.

So I told them about that, and they then politely told my wife what they were doing, and they swept the house, room-to-room and closet-to-closet, and then walked the back yard as well. They came back to the front door, these young white cops, and assured my African American wife that there were no bad men in the house or on the property, and that we were safe.
And then they left.

I tell that story to tell this one: The guy who owns the house across the street, another white guy, rents out the place. One time when it was empty, he went over there late one night to do some work on the interior, turned on all the lights. A neighbor noticed the lights on in the empty house and called the police, who pulled up a few minutes later.
He got angry at them for asking them to prove he owned the place. Yelled. They yelled back. Threatened to arrest him. Only the intervention of our next-door neighbor, vouching for the guy, ended the situation.

America can be a funny place, and it can be mean and hard. Bad things happen to good people who are white, black, Hispanic, Jewish, Muslim or whatever, and some of those things are caused by people breaking into houses. The police, when they show up at a residence or a liquor store, don't know what's what or who's who. The good cops are there to have people (a) cease and (b) desist. The bad cops still have a badge, a gun and the legal authority to haul your butt downtown.
So you want to make friends, join the glee club. You want to yell at people who are lousy at their jobs, go to a Redskins game. But, all things considered, Don't Mess With Cops. It usually works out better that way.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Weekly Portion: What Makes A Land Holy?

The weekly portion read on the Sabbath this week contains two parashot (portions): Matot and Masei. (They are read together this year, while in most years they are read on separate Sabbaths.) This Sabbath falls in a special period in the Jewish calendar called The Three Weeks - a time of remembrance of the destruction of Jerusalem that begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz (this year July 9) and ends with the fast of Tisha Be'Av (this year July 30).

The content of these two parashot has no connection to the destruction and the exile, but the haftarah (the practice of the supplemental reading from the Prophets following the reading of the weekly portion) of today contains powerful admonitions to the Jewish people and prophecies of the destruction. The haftarah is taken from Jeremiah Chapter 2. The Haftarah selection is always one that is related to the subject of the weekly Torah reading or the festival or event being celebrated. If we look at the topics covered in Chapter 2 of Jeremiah, it appears that there is no connection between the content of the parasha and that of the prophecy by Jeremiah.

There is, however, a remarkable verbal association between one of the verses in the parasha of Masei and a central verse in Jeremiah's rebuke. Among the many ideas mentioned in this week's portion is a stringent warning against shedding blood. And in the warning against shedding blood, which comes after the verse that states that blood spilled defiles the land, it states:

Do not, therefore, defile the land which you will inhabit, wherein I dwell: for I God dwell among the Israelites.
(Numbers 35:34).

Note that God does not dwell in the land, but among the Israelites. It is that fact which makes the land significant: God dwells among the people of Israel only if they make Him dwell among them. God does not dwell in the land automatically. This explains the warning: "Do not, therefore, defile the land which you will inhabit."

Had God dwelled in the land because of the sanctity of the land, how could the land have been defiled by anyone? But here we are told unequivocally that it is possible that the Israelites will defile the land.

Fast forward 800 years after Moses. The prophet Jeremiah prophesied not about what should be done and what should not be done; rather, he described what the conditions were like and what was being done. Jeremiah said:

You entered and defiled My land, and made My heritage an abomination.
(Jeremiah 2:7).

The same land which is known as God's land and inheritance has no immanent uniqueness, and man's action can defile God's land and make His inheritance an abomination.

Jeremiah spoke to later generations as as well, as his teachings contain eternal messages. And that verse in Jeremiah is directed at us as well. On the one hand, we are aware that the people in Israel in the last 100 years have returned and are rebuilding a national home in this land, which they consider God's land and inheritance, while on the other hand, this does not prevent them from endorsing and declaring holy that which both the Torah in our parasha and the prophet Jeremiah regard as acts of defilement and abomination.

There is nothing more dangerous than cloaking acts of violence, discrimination and dispossession in the garb of holiness. The land itself does not have any inherent quality which sanctifies everything done in it, but only that which is done in it in accordance with the principles of justice and fairness can impart holiness to the land. Just as our actions can make the land holy, they can also defile God's inheritance. These words apply to us. We should always be mindful that our actions in the land are making the land holy and not defiling it. If there is any meaning to religious rituals associated with the period of the Three Weeks, it is this theme - do our actions in the Land of Israel sanctify the land or defile it?

(Based on the book by Yeshayahu Leibowitz: Accepting the Yoke of Heaven - Commentary on the Weekly Portion)

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Weekly Portion: Lessons in Religious Fanaticism

The weekly Torah portion of this week, Pinchas, provides an opportunity to discuss a concept of significant importance to societies with strong religious convictions- in general, and to the Israeli society - in particular.

The beginning of this week's Torah portion Pinchas is a direct continuation of the end of the previous portion, Balak, which featured the affair of the daughters of Moab, with whom the Israelites whored, and which involved the worship of the idol Pe'or. That affair climaxed in the act of Zimri, who blasphemed the God of Israel and scorned His prophet, Moses, by having sexual relations in public with a Midyanite woman. In response to this act, Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron the Cohen, brandished his sword and stabbed Zimri and the Midyanite woman, brutally severing their bodies and killing them in front of all the Israelites.

Pinchas's act is described in terms of religious zealotry. Pinchas committed this act in the name of God, for God's honor which had been desecrated. In other words, he wanted to carry out God's judgment by himself and bring about the blasphemer's punishment. At the beginning of this week's portion, the Torah states that because of this Pinchas and his descendants have been granted a covenant of peace with God. The radical zealot, who in his zealotry for God sheds human blood, is the very same person who is granted God's covenant of peace!

What is the meaning of this covenant? Doesn't it seem strange and ironic that a man who killed two human beings without the authority of the law receives a covenant of peace? One way to interpret it - the religious fanatical way - is to claim that this covenant is a retrospective blessing by God. Another way, however, is to say that God's covenant was given to him to prevent this from ever happening again: Pinchas (and his descendants) are now sworn peaceniks who - by virtue of this covenant - cannot possibly engage in this kind of violence. From this we can deduce that a person is not permitted to be zealous for God and carry out extreme measures such as these unless he is someone who is wholeheartedly a man of peace - shalom - and who is faithful to God and man.

Now this parasha of Pinchas has a very close parallel, one which is well-known and part of the consciousness of all generations, in the figure of the zealous prophet who arose about 500 or 600 years after Pinchas--the prophet Elijah. He too is zealous for God, and it is because of this that he kills the false prophets of the Ba'al and the Ashera. The parallel between these two events and these two figures is so strong, that not only was the story of Elijah adopted as the haftara for the parasha of Pinchas, but in the aggadic tradition, the two characters are fused into one, and Elijah is none other than Pinchas, who miraculously remained alive for 500 or 600 years.

We have a long tradition that the prophet Elijah is the harbinger of peace, and the concluding verse of all the books of the Prophets in the Bible is a verse about the prophet Elijah, who will come back and reconcile fathers with sons and sons with fathers - and will bring peace between the generations. Again, we have the same contradiction: the zealot, who out of his zeal for God even sheds blood, is none other than the harbinger of peace.

This is a problematic topic both ethically and religiously. Who is permitted to be a zealot for God? Who is permitted to take upon himself the right to act in accordance with this zeal? An aggada (Midrashic story) presents this question very forcefully in the context of the deeds of Elijah.

Elijah kills the prophets of Ba'al and must flee the wrath of Isabel. He flees to the desert and is privileged to have God appear to him. God does not appear in fire or thunder, but in a still, barely-audible voice, and asks him:

Elijah what are you doing here?

Elijah answers:

I have fled from Israel, for "I have been very zealous for the Lord God of Hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and slain Your prophets with the sword and I had to flee for my life." (Kings I, 19:10)

Notice the justification: "I have been very zealous for the Lord." Elijah is given an answer by God who responds to each one of Elijah's arguments. On his comment that, "the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant," God says to him:

"Whose covenant did they forsake? Was it your covenant or Mine? After all, it was not your covenant, and who gave you the right to be zealous against those who have forsaken My covenant?

As to "they have torn down Your altars," God says to him: Did they tear down your altars or Mine? In other words: Let Me take care of My honor which is desecrated, and don't assume for yourself the authority to be zealous on My behalf. Elijah is then disqualified from being a prophet to Israel. God tells him:

Israel cannot withstand your zealotry. You were zealous at Shittim (this is a clear reference to Pinchas, who, according to the Aggada, is Elijah), and now you were zealous at Mount Carmel. You spilled blood there and you spilled blood here, in your zeal for God. That is a noble deed, but Israel cannot survive such zeal. Therefore, Elijah must find another person to be a prophet over Israel, and that is Elisha.

This has significance for all times. In every generation, but especially in our time, there are people who purport to speak in the name of faith in God, and assume for themselves the authority to be zealous on God's behalf. And the question is asked: Is their personality such, and are their qualities and their human and ethical level such, that they are worthy of being men of the covenant of peace-except that their zeal for God has forced them to carry out these severe actions?

Is there anyone who has these qualities etched so firmly in his soul to the extent that by his nature and essence he a "man of peace" devoid of any aggressive tendencies whatsoever? On the theoretical level, that man would be permitted, in extreme cases, to be zealous on behalf of God. But in the real world, we know that no such human being exists. Modern psychology teaches us that we all have in us some form of aggressiveness and violent leanings. Accordingly, the real meaning of this story is that no human has a right to carry out zealous acts of punishment in God's name. In other words, Pinchas was granted the covenant of peace to warn all others that they should never attempt to carry out zealous acts of violence in the name of God.

In summary, no person has a right to commit violent acts on the pretext of being zealous for God. If he is zealous on behalf of God, he is nothing but a murderer.

(Based on on my grandfather Yeshayahu Leibowitz's book Accepting the Yoke of Heaven - Commentary on the Weekly Portion)