The end of the week controversy over Professor Henry Louis Gate's arrest in Cambridge, and President Obama's own comments on that arrest, may have presented the nation with a "teaching moment" about race and policing (Gate's words quoted in the NYTimes story by Peter Baker and Helen Cooper). It has already been one about the national importance of police power since the "war on crime."
First, the idea tha President Obama erred by making a "neighborhood story" into a "national" one is wrong historically. Policing the neighborhood has been a national issue since the mid-1960s. Every president since LBJ has posed as frequently as possible with large phalanxes of uniformed local police. The politicians who have most sought public police support, including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Rudolph Guliani, have all reaped national benefits. If President Obama did something different it was varying from the tone of reverential solemnity and adoration in describing the "boys in blue". I will leave it to our linguists to parce whether the President's use of the phrase "stupid" was a mistake that opened the door to class conflicts, I suspect that no matter how carefully he had crafted his message, anything recognizably critical would have been met by the kind of response it has. The first paradox than is that police operate locally but since the "war on crime" became a national crusade, police have become what the military is in foreign wars, a sacralized metaphor for the national public itself. Sgt. Crowley, once surrounded by the national police community and the deeply ingrained media love affair with the police (anchors are almost as eager as politicians to pose with them), is actually the equal of President Obama in stature.
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