The handcuffing, perp walk and arrest of Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates, Jr. is one of those can’t-believe-it news stories. It’s also irresisible grist for PR blogging heads like me.

That a prominent citizen could be arrested for trying to get into his own (OK, rented) home is a source of wonder. Sort of the opposite of evolution: In the Skipgate Breakin, so many things had to go south for the bizarre tableau to have occured. As of today, the story’s legs have grown legs. After President Obama launched into the middle of the whole mess — racial profiling, racism, “stupid” Cambridge, Mass., police, etc. — the White House tried spinning a retreat: The president didn’t actually mean that he thought the local police were stupid, but only that cooler heads should have prevailed).

But “stupid”was the word that the president, a wordsmith, used. One of the cooler heads that should have prevailed was the president’ — particularly in the  context of the press conference he summoned to lobby the nation to support his health care reform.

But Mr. Obama shot himself in the media with his improvisatory sniping at the Cambridge police department. By identifying himself with Professor Gates (‘it could have been someone like me!), he pushed his agenda off the front pages of the Washington Post and Boston Globe whose editors headlined Obama’s bashing of a local police force.  Points off for media relations.

Not that the president has been the only hot head. Professor Gates wasn’t what you’d call a model of civility, either. Furious at the gall of a local cop to continue to disbelieve Gates’ insistence on his very identity as a home owner, not to mention Harvard professor with an international reputation and a PBS documentary series, Gates head practically exploded. Who in his own best interests tells addressed a clealry agitated cop seeking an I.D. by dishing him with streetish disrespect ( “I’m gonna show my ID to your Mama”)?  Certainly not me.  Whenever a police officer has asked for my I.D., I am quick to hand it over — as well as I can from a fetal position.

As for the Cambridge cop  — from whom Gates has demanded an on-your-knees apolology for being a racist– it didn’t turn out to have been his best day, either. (The both-sides-can-share-blame interpretation was nicely said by a spokesperson for the Cambridge police.)  Yes, the police offier was only doing his job. But once he was able to determine that the angry gray-haired fellow was the rightful owner of the home, he would have done himself and Gates a big favor by hopping back in his  squad car and allowing the outraged professor to rage and fume.

But, Nooooo!, as they used to say on “Saturday Night Live”. The professor boiled over and his “tumultuous behavior” indicated a “disorderly person” charge — at least until the story hit the wires and the Cambridge Police saw the wisdom of dropping the charge.Boston Globe columnist Joan Venocchi framed the incident as a machismo moment — two tough guys facing off, one powerfully connected, the other one with handcuffs and a pistol.

In no time the tempest-in-a-teapot story went viral. Naturally, every public official and talking head had to weigh in — Massachusetts’ governor, an African American, identified with the outrage of a prominent citizen of color being racially profiled and harrassed in his own home; and Al Sharpton — whose wit is highly underrated — allowed that he’d heard of Black folks being arrested for driving while black, but until now he’d never heard of being arrested for being in your own home while black.

Whether Professor Gates carries through with his promise to sue the Cambridge police department is a matter for additional speculation. It has been said that tragedy is close to farce, but in this case the farce has it all over the tragedy. Of course, from a PR perspective — and an interpersonal one — there’s no greater tragedy than a damaged reputation. More than anything — race relations included — reputation seems to be all the rage here.

While this is an awful moment for the two principal players — professor and cop — it is a rewarding opportunity for a communications professor like me with no skin in the game. I think of sociologist Erving Goffman’s theory of dramaturgy  — that all the world’s a stage and we are but poor players upon  it. From that perspective, this was compelling theater as well as wildly inept mismanagement of what Goffman called “dramaturgical discipline,” an individual’s ability to manage his (or her) “face,” even when the sky is falling.  The sociologist was fascinated with the many strategies we all have for navigating potentially identity-damaging situations just like the one under scrutiny today.

More often than not, we are successful at deflecting the other guy’s suspicion and even hostility — a skill set that makes civil society functional in the end. But sometimes one or both parties fail to discipline their act, so to speak, which results in the melodrama that makes for great tabloid news and photos. The famous professor in handcuffs on his porch, mouth agape as if screaming nasty things about the cop and his mama. A public spectacle!  Fabulous!

While Gates has a good shot at collecting a fat settlement from the embarrassaed Cambridge Police — already dressed down by their governor and president — he may well take the high road and cool his rhetorical jets. It’s pretty clear that by appearing of the “Today Show” and hearing powerful people publicly take his side, he’s already perceived to be the winner in the face-off.

As for Officer Crowley — whose history of vicious racism includes attempting to save the life of Boston Celtics basketball star Regggie Lewis who went down in practice with a heart attack — it’s his reputation that has been cuffed and perp walked.

From my perspective, this is not a crisis but an incident which has the potential to become a crisis if either or both sides escalate it with bad language and law suits and more taunts of ‘yo mama’.  But I’m betting that, to quote another president, both parties to the dispute will, over time, get back in touch with the better angels of their nature.


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Filed under Academia, Crisis Communication, Politics, Public Relations

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