The Police, the Judiciary, and Stereotyping by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH

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by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
crossposted on
July 31, 2009

Much has been written about Prof. “Skip” Gates and his trial-by-Crowley. I have a few comments to add on the matter, possibly even an original thought or two. But first, I would like to share with you a long-ago personal experience with stereotyping and the cops, in this case the New York City variety, as a white person.

In the early 1970s, I took part in an unauthorized anti-war march from City Hall in New York City up Sixth Avenue. While it was unauthorized, the cops did not try to break it up, but rather controlled traffic as long as we kept moving. We reached about 39th Street and Sixth and came to a halt. Word went round that the march leadership was negotiating a peaceful end to it, through Bryant Park that lies on Sixth, between 40th and 42nd streets. At that point, needing to get back soon to my job at the Morrisania City Hospital, I left the body of the march and was watching events from the sidewalk on the east side of the avenue.

Everything remained peaceful until out of nowhere came a squadron of mounted NYC Police, charging into the crowd on horseback swinging their night-sticks with abandon. Watching this horror from the sidewalk, with others, I started chanting “these are (Mayor John) Lindsey’s cops.” All of a sudden out of the corner of my eye, I caught a helmeted cop running along the sidewalk where I was standing, swinging his club too. Before I knew what had happened, that club came down on my head and in an instant, I was the owner of a classic “bloody shirt.” Of course I was arrested, for “assaulting a police officer.”

I am 5’10” and although now, at age 72 and a triathlete for 27 seasons I am in pretty good shape, then I was in anything but. “My” cop, wearing a helmet and swinging that club, was about 6’2″, 220 lbs., in very good shape. But of course I had assaulted him. For him, I was the stereotypical “bad guy,” the right focus for a police riot, just the way many more anti-war protesters had been the focus of the much more massive and destructive police riot in Grant Park, Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. We were all stereotyped, with Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and the right to petition for the redress of grievances swept aside. To a cop with a stereotype in mind, words became a crime back then on that street in New York, as they did in Prof. Gates’ home in Cambridge just a couple of weeks ago.

When my cop brought bloody me into the station house that evening, the desk sergeant’s jaw dropped when he saw me and then my identification as a physician and City employee. The charges against me were not dropped immediately, however. And so, with a witness as to what had actually happened, we sued the city. My lawyer smartly made a deal rather than going to trial, because our witness was a low-paid city worker and pressure could be brought to bear. “We’ll drop our suit and you drop the charges.” And that was the end of it.

A footnote, however, on stereotyping and the New York City Judiciary in those days. While the negotiations were underway, my lawyer and I did have to make an appearance in court to request a postponement. The prosecution, hardly wanting to proceed with this one, was only too happy to agree to it. However, the judge went out of his way to sneer at me and actually be rude to my attorney, before the bench. After all, we were next-to-nothing low-lifes, against the war just like any other un-patriot was. If Coulter had been an adult back then, we would have [been] labeled as “traitors.”

It happened that while at my lawyer’s office preparing for that appearance in court, I got a parking ticket. In those days, one could get a ticket reduced or dismissed by going to Traffic Court, which happened back then to have been presided over by regular City judges, on rotation. And so, after my appearance in criminal court, I made another, wearing the same three-piece suit, in traffic court. You’ll never guess who the judge was. Well, yes you will.

I was the same person, wearing the same clothing, but in a completely different setting. And so, the Judge says, ever so politely, “And how do you plead, doctor?” Hoping simply to get a reduction in the fine, I said “Guilty, your honor, with an explanation.” That explanation would have changed the facts just a bit, but before I had a chance to try it out, this Judge who just a couple of weeks before had sneered at me and been rude to my lawyer in an entirely different setting, did not recognize me. Much to my surprise, he immediately sang out briskly, “charge dismissed, DOCTOR.” Stereotyping again, this time in my favor.

Turning to Prof. Gates, it doesn’t really matter whether he actually said the imprecation against Sgt. Crowley’s mother that all police-side witnesses say lead to the arrest. (He says he didn’t say it; Crowley said he did.) Yelling “yo Mama” or some such at a cop is not a violation of the law. But, all agree, it was not a smart move on the part of Prof. Gates, a small man with a cane facing a large police officer with a gun, because as everyone knows, Prof. Gates is black and the cop is not. Not racial stereotyping? Yo, mama! To “Driving While Black” and “Very Legitimately Walking in a White Neighborhood While Black” we can now add “Being in Your Own Home While Black, After Having Proved to the Cop that it was Your Home, if You Happen to Say a Few Words That Offend that Cop, if He Happens to be White,” as an arrestable offense.

I am not equilibrating my one-time experience with stereotyping with what happens all the time to black men in this country (see Charles Blow, “Welcome to the Club,” New York Times, July 25, 2009, p. A23). But I did have the experience, even if only once. Certain cops do engage in the practice, although fortunately there are fewer of them now than there were back in the day. Isn’t it odd though, that one who does, and one who, according to his own Chief of Police, obviously let his ego take over, is in charge of the Cambridge, MA police racial sensitivity training program? Maybe they do need to bring in for consultation the police officer from Atlanta, GA, one M. Tate (“As Officers on the Street Face Heated Words, Tactics Vary,” New York Times, July 25, 2009, p. A15), who said “I’ll take them yelling at me. Unless I’m hit or they get violent, I won’t arrest them for just yelling at me.”

Oh yes, even though Sgt. Crowley claims that he did nothing wrong, his Department dropped the charges very quickly. My guess is that his Lieutenant’s jaw dropped just as fast when he saw who Sgt. Crowley had arrested and for what reason, as that desk sergeant’s did in my case those many years ago.

Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor of 30 books. In addition to being a Columnist for BuzzFlash, Dr. Jonas is also a Contributing Author for TPJmagazine; a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad; a Special Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal Online; a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century (POAC); and a Contributor to The Planetary Movement.


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2 thoughts on “The Police, the Judiciary, and Stereotyping by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH

  1. Pingback: Exclusive: The Trivial and Asinine Nature of the Corporate Media by Gary Sudborough « Dandelion Salad

  2. Interesting insights. Is stereotyping possibly an engrained human trait? even if it is, it can’t be used to condone racial prejudice or the trampling of constitutional rights.

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