Sunday, July 14, 2024

Some of the discourse online today about a mayoral statement.

There’s been furor online – of course – about the Friday arrest of a Harvard student on hallucinogens who was naked in the middle of Massachusetts Avenue and incapable of responding appropriately to police officers, one of whom punched the student several times during a struggle to get him in handcuffs. The fury is directed mainly at Mayor Marc McGovern for a statement he made about the arrest, which is under internal investigation by the police department.

It’s a safe bet nearly all of these comments come from far outside Cambridge, likely directed by the right wing rage media. It’s an equally safe bet that a significant portion of the commenters haven’t read the mayor’s full statement, let alone the news behind it. (A few of the tweets make that pretty clear.) And these days, it’s a fairly safe bet that among the commenters are Russian trolls whose job it is to keep Americans at each other’s throats over nonsense and incapable of dealing with the important stuff.

We stand behind the mayor and his comments. He gave a measured response that doesn’t accuse the officers of acting incorrectly, but makes it clear that it’s appropriate to look closely at what happened – a level of scrutiny most everyone faces during extraordinary, attention-getting actions at their job, whether they’re truck drivers and school teachers or accountants and hair stylists. (Or politicians.)

Disturbed by “disturbing”

Sure, the mayor says that “What is shown on the video is disturbing,” but the angry commenters seem to have missed the paragraph immediately above, where it’s explained why:

“As a social worker who has worked for decades in therapeutic schools, I have personally had to engage in physical restraints. They are chaotic, violent and dangerous, and should only be used as a very last resort. To those witnessing a physical restraint, as well as for all involved, these incidents can be traumatic.”

To the tweeters, the real sin McGovern commits is failing to support the actions of a police officer automatically, no matter what. But police officers are human and as subject to emotion, bias and lapses in judgment as any of us. They have a challenging job, but that doesn’t exempt them from review; that’s not how our society works.

There is anger at McGovern for bringing up the student’s race and mentioning Black Lives Matter. Even discarding his own feelings, he is mayor of the whole city, including people of color who brought it up first; he is responding to and replying to concerns. It’s the mayor’s job to think about the well-being of all of his constituents, making sure all are heard and represented.

There is anger at the student for “bad behavior” and for “disobeying” police and for being high in the first place – presumably because he’s the first person in history to get high and freak out, or at least the first college student to do so. Victim-blaming can be fun, tweeters, but it lasts only until the blamer becomes a victim. (One commenter has “watched the video” and doesn’t even believe the student was punched, even though it’s part of the official police report. We have our first truther!)

The Obama outrage

The situation has stirred up memories of the last police-involved issue that involved race and drew nationwide attention, the 2009 arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Cambridge officers, at least in part because Cambridge Police Department training was updated after that incident to help avoid police controversies such as these.

It’s also now reminiscent of another aspect of the Gates arrest: the firestorm of outrage that greeted President Barack Obama when he said Cambridge police “acted stupidly” by arresting the esteemed professor. Boiling down what Obama said to a sound bite did what sound bites usually do, which is eliminate nuance and context. While the nuance and context of what Obama said matters (we’ve talked about this before), it’s also pretty clear that he would have drawn criticism regardless for the same reason a tiny contingent of Americans are blasting McGovern – for acknowledging that police officers are human. They can make mistakes. Their mistakes can give people criminal records and affect lives irreparably. In the worst cases, their mistakes can get people killed. In the very worst cases, those mistakes can be based on anger and bias as well as fear. Again: Because they’re human.

But here’s the thing about Obama’s comments in 2009, and why we should be smarter about how we read McGovern’s comments today (and everyone’s): In arresting Gates, Cambridge police did act stupidly.

Even if you buy the argument that the young officer with a gun, training, experience and backup was “in fear” of a 62-year-old college professor with a cane, as the case was made at the time, it was stupid to call for even more police backup after it was proved no crime was taking place. It was stupid to arrest someone for no reason other than being cranky. It was stupid because it served the public and the police department’s mission not at all while costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring together a panel of experts to examine the issue, raising tensions for months and diminishing Cambridge’s reputation internationally and the police force’s reputation locally.

What else the statement says

There was no legitimate reason for Obama’s comments to have whipped up the frenzy they did. Nor are McGovern’s comments truly outrageous.

Here are some things McGovern said in his full statement that the tweeters ignore:

bullet-gray-small“Policing in Cambridge is far ahead of many communities across the country.”

bullet-gray-small“Responding officers verbally engaged the man in an attempt to deescalate the situation, but at some point during this interaction, they felt the man had become a danger to himself and others.”

bullet-gray-small“When confrontations cannot be averted and include the use of physical force, we must be willing to review our actions.”

Sounds pretty reasonable.

And at least one commenter did understand what McGovern said: