Saunders

The prof, the cop, yo mama

Staff WriterJuly 28, 2009 

Lord, I am so, so disappointed in Henry Louis Gates, the former Duke University professor whose confrontation with a Cambridge cop caused a commotion recently.

Disappointed that he got ticked off when the police officer demanded he step out of his own house and speak with him?

Nah. I'm disappointed that Gates, a Harvard professor, couldn't come up with a better putdown than "yo mama," which is essentially what Sgt. James Crowley alleges Gates said. He supposedly responded with "Yeah, I'll speak with your mama outside," which prompted Crowley to slap on the cuffs and set off an imbroglio that reached all the way to the White House.

Gates said he felicitously produced two pieces of identification. Crowley said he was combative. You know the Golden Rule that says "He who has the gold rules"? Another irrefutable law of nature states that he who has the gun and the badge rules -- at least until you get into court. You don't need to be an esteemed professor to know that absolutely nothing good can come from talking back to a cop, especially if you're black and the cop is white. Of course, if the cop had been black, we wouldn't be having this conversation: Gates -- an expert on African-American culture -- would have known not to say anything about a black cop's mama.

Masonic Stokes, a retired senior Raleigh police officer with 30 years' service, said insults came with the territory: "I got insulted all the time. Of course the racial thing came up, but as long as they didn't threaten me, I kept my cool."

I asked Stokes, who is black, if he kept his cool when suspects said something about his mama.

"That would irritate me," he admitted, laughing. "You know, they say we're supposed to keep six feet distance, but that's when I'd move a little closer and hope they'd do something stupid."

Barring Gates threatening the officer, Stokes said, "When he found out that was his home, the officer should have left."

Of the hundred or so times I've been stopped by police, I have never talked back to one or said anything about their mamas -- not even when the Vass cop had my then-10-year-old son and me sitting outside my Jaguar on the side of the road, literally, for nearly an hour after stopping me for a blown headlight. Oh, I talked about his mama, his grandma and all his ancestors under my breath once I drove away, but I chose to use that as a teaching moment for my son for when he's stopped by police. The lesson: Be cool.

The president hopes the country can use the Gates-Crowley incident as a teaching moment, too. One thing I already know is that having a police officer demand identification after responding to a burglary call -- even when you're inside your house -- is good police work.

What if a burglar had broken in and met the officer at the front door with "Move along, officer. Nothing to see here"?

When the burglar alarm at my house went off at 3:57 a.m. two weeks ago, the police didn't arrive until 4:06. I armed myself and went outside to investigate, until I realized my family would have a hard time convincing a jury that the cops who shot me in the dark knew I was the homeowner, not a burglar.

So I stepped back inside and waited. Boy, was I glad when they got there. The officer, with gun drawn, apologized for being late. I was less than thrilled, but I certainly wasn't going to tell him to go apologize to his mama.

barry.saunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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