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Gates vs. Crowley

Assumptions and disrespect can escalate a tense situation – and more so when the law, a suspect, and race are involved.

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From Harvard University this week you can hear the voice of Rodney King, who asked in the throes of the 1992 Los Angeles riots: "Can we all get along?"

Mr. King, an African-American, was brutally beaten by white police officers in 1991 after King physically resisted arrest following a freeway chase. The incident was caught on video. When the officers were acquitted a year later, the riots erupted.

Last week's arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., a renowned African-American professor at Harvard University, by a white police officer occurred under entirely different circumstances. But it raises a similar question about race relations – and human relations generally.

When people don't know anything about each other, when they make assumptions, when they show disrespect, that's when emotions in a touchy situation can escalate.

That's when people may not "get along."

In the days since the Gates arrest, many Americans have read or watched the media accounts; studied the amateur photo of the open-mouthed, angry professor in handcuffs on his front porch; downloaded interviews and police reports.

What they find are two vastly different perspectives of the arrest. They also know much more – in retrospect – about the circumstances when Sergeant James Crowley went to investigate a suspected break-in at a handsome house in Cambridge, Mass.


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