Sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint the precise beginning of a historical movement or phenomenon because all too often there’s no way to know what or who actually “lit the fuse.” For example, did the Civil War start when rebels fired on Fort Sumter or did it really begin with the election of Abraham Lincoln; did the Second World War begin on September 1st 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland or did it start when the Treaty of Versailles was signed leaving the German people destitute, humiliated, and angry? We can pinpoint when the Cold War ended, but when did it begin, was there a date, a time?
Similarly, what was the genesis of the current racial strife in America, and when did it begin, because only a fool believes that it all started with the death of St. George Floyd. Something tells me the current status of unrest in this country has a lot more to do with 2020 being a presidential election year than sympathy for a convicted felon with a mile-long rap sheet.
And while racial issues go back centuries, they tend to raise their ugly even more prominently when politicians inject themselves into matters better left to their own devices. Which leads me to wonder if perhaps this contemporary attitude of blaming the police first could have begun over what should have been an innocuous event that occurred in July 2009.
Allow me to refresh some memories. An iconic moment in American race relations took place on July 16th 2009 when then President Barack Obama injected himself into a civil matter in Cambridge Massachusetts, when his friend, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., was charged with disorderly conduct after a confrontation with a local police Sergeant, James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Force, who was responding to a 911 call.
The facts of the case were still in dispute when the president revealed his bias by telling Chicago Sun-Times reporter Lynn Sweet, “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.” Obama later said, Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here. I don’t know all the facts.
There were two take-aways for Americans from that encounter. The first was when the president said, “…the police acted stupidly.” Coming from the President of the United States, this was an enormously powerful message, especially in the black community. The second was that the wronging of a black man was serious enough for the President of the United States along with his Vice President to take time away from such mundane issues as healthcare, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia threatening Crimea, a faltering economy, failing trade deals and illegal border crossings, etc. to have a “Beer Summit,” amidst a media circus.
Now we can speculate how the president’s comments back in 2009 affected race relations in this country or how it affected the relationship between the black community and the police. But I’ll go way out on a limb and suggest that I don’t think it really helped lower temperatures or that it was conducive to reconciliation.
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