Picnic Table Summit: Obama, Gates, Crowley To Meet at White House

Robert J. Brown
Diversity and Mediation Expert
Wednesday, July 29, 2009; 3:00 PM

The chief White House spokesman said a Thursday meeting of the president, a Harvard University scholar and the policeman who arrested him will be "about having a beer and de-escalation." Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that the session, weather permitting, is planned for 6 p.m. at a picnic table outside the Oval Office. "The president wants to continue to take down the temperature a bit," Gibbs said.

The Picnic Table Summit (44, July 29)

Robert J. Brown, a diversity and mediation expert, former special assistant to President Richard M. Nixon whose responsibilities included community relations and civil rights and recipient of the National Urban League's Collins Award for outstanding service, was online Wednesday, July 29, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss the meeting and the national debate over racial profiling and race relations.


Robert J. Brown: I'm here today to talk about the problem we face in the country and was brought about by the related matter in Cambridge with Prof. Gates and police Sgt. Crowley. As a former policeman, former federal agent and former assistant to President Nixon, I was confronted with negative police actions and it has an impact on you -- what you believe, where we are in the country and where we're going.

When I was assistant to President Nixon I was stopped by two policemen who said I was driving recklessly, although I had just come out of a hotel parking lot and had only driven a block and a half. The white policeman was very negative to me and ended up putting me under arrest and taking me to the police precinct although I had broken no law and had not talked in a belligerent manner in any way to him. It ended up the next few days in all of the newspapers in Washington. It was quite a revelation for me although I had been arrested several times during the civil rights movement and had been threatened with arrest as a federal agent in New York. So I've had quite a number of experiences with this sort of thing over a long period of time.


Woodbridge, Va.: What are the chances that both guests will politely listen to the other, but still deep down believe they were right and the other was wrong?

Robert J. Brown: As a former policeman I strongly believe that when you're in someone's house and if they don't attack you physically and are just talking, that's not the kind of arrest any policeman would want to make. It is a question of judgment and I don't think that's very good judgment for any policeman anywhere in America ... to go into someone's house and bring them out in handcuffs, knowing they had not committed any crime except being very verbal about the policeman being in the house.


Detroit, Mich.: In realistic terms: What does success look like here?

Robert J. Brown: I think it would be a success for everybody and for the country as well as the president and the parties involved if we came out of this with a renewed effort to get more training for police across the board in terms of diversity and community and race relations. We need more training to teach people how to treat other people, in particular with people like law enforcement who are on the front lines.


Perceptions: TV news has responded to this story with pieces on how black parents (try to) teach their sons to speak respectfully to police officers to avoid confrontation. But I'm a middle-aged white female, and my parents taught me the same lesson. For that matter, treating everyone with a sufficient degree of respect to avoid useless confrontation was a requirement of our household. There are productive ways to speak up about poor treatment; snapping at the offender is almost never one of them. So I don't get this as a special burden for minority parents; it's good parenting, period.

Robert J. Brown: I believe that's good parenting advice and it's good for for all people no matter what race you are or where you come from.

I don't think the meeting at the White House with President Obama will be awkward for either Gates or Crowley and I think Sgt. Crowley has shown some measure of maturity and I think Prof. Gates understands the dynamics of what's happening here probably better than anybody in the U.S. -- that some type of additional training is needed for all of our government and quasi-government and private sector because those of us who happen to be black -- and I've been black a long time -- you run into all kinds of inequities, indecencies and snubs -- whether you're in a grocery store or department store, you can't help but notice it -- so there's a lot of understanding needed.

I think we've avoided a lot of these examples over the last 20/25 years. The whole race relations situation has gone down, down, down because there were those who felt like we didn't need it. What happened in Cambridge is a wakeup call for the country.


Potomac, Md.: Do you think President Obama should have weighed in on this issue?

Robert J. Brown: I think that it would've been better if he had given it a little more thought and gotten a little bit more advice and counsel; however, I think the way he has handled it so far has been brilliant. I also feel that there's a great sincerity about President Obama in this field because he has been confronted by the same kinds of inequities that most black people have been faced with. So naturally he would have the kind of sensitivity that no other president has ever had.


Atlanta, Ga.: Should there be a national set of procedures for police conduct and procedures

Robert J. Brown: Most police departments have rules and regulations and codes of conduct already. The problem is that many of them don't have the kind of sophistication, the training, etc., and that's a problem. I recall many years ago when we were having huge racial problems in the country there was established a huge community relations department in the Justice Department in Washington. The first director of that department was Gov. Leroy Collins of Florida. I think some variation is probably needed now as much as it was then but in a much more sophisticated way.

Back then you had a lot of demonstrations in the street and much violence but today it's more subtle but it's still there and we're still grappling with it. It has not gone away and there need to be some major ways to deal with it.


Columbia, Md.: I'd like you to answer the first question you posted but responded to with a non-answer. The question was about the likelihood that both men will say all the right things on Thursday but leave still thinking that they were in the right. As a mediator, do you find that this happens with some regularity, or can a short one-time meeting really bring about a change in thought and, through that, action?

Robert J. Brown: Good question. I don't think a one-time meeting is going to change the course of what happened in Cambridge and what continues to happen in almost every part of the country. I think there has to be some special major effort given to this matter by the president and Congress and the major players in the private sector -- they have a huge responsibility in this.

I don't think we should wait until we have a whole series of "new" race-related problems. We can no longer push this kind of thing under the rug; it's out there and we're going to have to deal with it. People need to be aware of the problem. We're a wonderful, great country with marvelous people but we have to work at it.


CruxOfTheFear: It's no surprise that the intersection of law enforcement and the black community is a major fault line, since it is quite clear that violence by and against black Americans, especially young males, is much more common than in any other major segment of our society.

For example (if really needed) black males 14-24 comprise about 1 percent of the population but in 2005 committed more than a quarter of the nation's homicides. Sources: Racial differences exist, with blacks disproportionately represented among homicide victims and offenders (U.S. Department of Justice)

"In 2005, offending rates for blacks were more than 7 times higher than the rates for whites."

So long as this horrific reality remains a major feature of African American life, is there really any serious possibility that police will not treat young black men with more caution (and, yes, more suspicion) than they do others?

Secondly, I believe one of the main reasons so many law-abiding black male adults have their own tales of police harassment is that officers sometimes fail to explain why subjects have been stopped, especially after it is determined they are not the people being sought. Without an explanation, the default setting of many black men is to ascribe most stops to "racial profiling" instead of considering the real possibility that police were indeed responding to a real incident or a genuinely similar description of a vehicle and its occupants. Lacking information, "DWB" is the inferred explanation.

Is it a regular part of law enforcement training to offer explanation for stops? Will black men in America, on average, even believe such explanations from cops? Or are black men and police officers (even black police officers) destined to a future of perpetual suspicion?

Robert J. Brown: Young black men are an endangered species. If you go to the jailhouses and detention centers all over America you're going to find them full of black men. This problem is going to have to be dealt with like many of us had to growing up. It really comes back to a family thing -- training, discipline and all that. I think the reason why you have huge dropout rates among young blacks is that they don't have the discipline. I came from a poor area and a poor family but I couldn't even talk about leaving school because my grandparents and in particular my grandmother that raised me would not permit it under any circumstance. We had discipline. In many ways that's why many of us were able to go to college.

There are probably many ways to get beyond this. All of us have a stake in it. It affects everyone and we're all paying for it. We must get together in a massive effort to do something about what's happening in this country.


Midwest: What do you think of the comment from Colin Powell that it would have been good if "some adult supervision would have stepped in" before Professor Gates was arrested. Powell was clear that both men erred in the situation--but I'm not sure who else could have defused it at ground zero?

Robert J. Brown: There were other policemen there and having been a policeman I would have told Sgt. Crowley that since we know that this is Dr. Gates's house, let's move out of here; we have no reason to be here now and let's not get into anything in this house. There was no reason for Mr. Crowley or any policeman to go into the man's house and bring him out in handcuffs and take him to the precinct.

If there had been some physical altercation then that would have been a reason to arrest Gates in his house but since there was only conversation and a lot of verbiage from Prof. Gates there was no reason to take him out in handcuffs. No policeman in his right mind and who is not letting his ego and his head get in the way is going to take a man out of his own house in handcuffs because of something he said. Every house in America is a man's castle. Our whole system of laws is based on that. You have to be careful with how you treat people in their own homes.


Robert J. Brown: I appreciate the opportunity to talk about his important matter and it's something that President Obama and the heads of our major corporations in America are going to have to deal with. Thank you for your questions and comments. I hope that I have been able to shine some light on this subject.


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