Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Professor, policeman and pigs

This "Dash Between" column written by Alana Baranick was originally posted on ObitsOhio.com on July 30, 2009.

The recent race-relations debate sparked by the arrest of renowned Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is black, by Sgt. James Crowley, a white police officer, is not really a black-white thing.

It’s a blue thing. A police thing. It’s nothing new. And it’s not limited to white police profiling black men.

"It is unwise for anyone of any race to raise their voice to a law enforcement officer," Al Vivian, a diversity consultant in Atlanta who is black, recently told the New York Times.

Regardless of their respective portrayals of what happened, public reports given by both Crowley, a Cambridge, Mass., police officer who teachers a police academy course on avoiding racial profiling, and Gates, a relatively short, middle-aged intellectual, who walks with a limp and the aid of a cane and is known for his documentaries about African American history, indicate that the sergeant arrested the professor because Gates yelled at him in an unfriendly manner.

Similarly, a 19-year-old man from the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, was taken to court in 1971 for insulting a police officer in the neighboring community of University Heights, Ohio.

The 19-year-old’s race was not mentioned, so I’m assuming he was white. Back in those days, an African American would have been identified in newspapers as “colored” or “Negro,” while being Caucasian was treated as the norm.

The policeman, whose race also was not given in published reports, was issuing a speeding ticket to someone else when the young man passed by and called the law enforcement officer a pig.

Nine days later, the youth appeared in Shaker Heights Municipal Court, which also serves University Heights, and pleaded no contest to the charge of abusing a police officer.

He was fined $500 and sentenced to 30 days at a local prison, but Judge Manuel M. Rocker decided some creative sentencing would be more effective.

The judge suspended the jail sentence and reduced the fine to $100 on the condition that the pig-calling youth spend three hours in a pigpen. He assigned Ray Repko, whom he described as the nicest patrolman in the Shaker Heights Police Department, to escort the young man to a farm in Portage County, Ohio.

Judge Rocker’s reasoning: After spending a couple of hours with the super-friendly patrolman on the long drive to and from the farm and communing with pigs in a pigsty, the young man should be able to distinguish the difference between a pig and a police officer.

Patrolman Repko, demonstrating just how nice he was, reported later that the kid did not actually sit in the pigpen for three hours. Instead, he sat outside the pen, observed the pigs, fed corn to one and got a tour of the farm.

“He realized what he said was wrong,” Repko told the Plain Dealer. “He was sorry. Actually, he’s a nice kid.”

Judge Rocker told reporters that his creative sentencing was designed to let the public know that “we’ve got a sense of humor too” and that jailing folks who insult the police “just irritates the situation rather than doing some good.”

The Gates-Crowley incident shows Judge Rocker’s statement to be true.

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