So here, the questions are: What did Gates actually say? If he was addressing the officer, where those statements intended to provoke the officer to react violently? Could the statements have provokes another bystander to violence?
Of course, the decision as to whether or not a particular incident such as this amounts to a crime happens later, in court. At the scene, practically speaking, the officer has the discretion to arrest and charge disorderly conduct as he sees fit. That charge may or may not hold up in court, and often it doesn’t. Realistically the officer would probably not face any backlash (unless the accused happens to be a prominent Harvard professor.)
Regardless of your take on this incident -- and I believe that the arresting officer, James Crowley, was probably in the wrong -- I think it's fair to say that the president of the United States should not be weighing in on a matter that involves his own friend. The president admirably acknowledge his own bias, but he really should've stayed out of it publicly -- even if he was asked about it directly.
More importantly, has anyone else noticed that this is pretty much the premise of the film Amos & Andrew?
Update: The Gates police report (via The Smoking Gun).
Earlier, a friend suggested to me that the president's comment was not a "big deal." I don't exactly disagree with that -- the amount of media coverage this comment has generated is absurd. But I also take Connor Friedersdorf's point:
Isn't it notable that six months into his presidency, the most prominent advocacy President Obama has done on behalf of minorities mistreated by police is to stand up for his Ivy League buddy? Somehow I imagine that Professor Gates would've fared just fine absent help from Harvard's most prominent alumnus.
Whereas if President Obama spoke up at a press conference on behalf of people wrongly imprisoned due to "testimony" by police dogs, or advocated for those sexually assaulted by an officer, or spoke against prosecutors who block access to DNA testing, or called out the officer who choked a paramedic, or objected to the practice of police killing family pets, or asked the Innocence Project for a clear cut case of injustice to publicize . . .
I think, most importantly, the president's comments were politically imprudent.
President Obama tends to come across as a uniquely fair-minded person -- a characteristic that will likely help him achieve many of his policy objectives -- but trivial incidents like this could easily undermine that public impression. Why even cultivate the illusion of a conflict of interest?
I agree here with Tyler Cowen:
Most of all, engaging with the incident has been one of the few major tactical mistakes of the Obama Presidency. Presidents (and many others) make big mistakes when they "respond" to people with much lower status than themselves, in this case the policeman and his ilk. The net effect is to lower the status of the Presidency and this will prove especially important when Obama is trying to pass a controversial health care plan. Today he looks less "post-racial" than he did a week ago and although it was only one slip it won't be easy to reverse that.
Update II: President Obama backs off of his comments:
This has been ratcheting up, and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up. I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department and Sgt. Crowley specifically. And I could've calibrated those words differently.