Bob Dylan and Professor Gates: one more time

What with going off on a sentimental tangent about Mr. Limbaugh in that last post, I forgot to make one more point that I had intended to make about Bob Dylan’s encounter with the police and that of Professor Gates. I did already touch on it in previous posts but just wanted to emphasize it one last time before dropping the subject.

It is regarding the time-line of the events. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. had his encounter on July 16th, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Bob Dylan was picked up on July 23rd in Long Branch, New Jersey. That is, exactly one week after Gates’ blow-out and arrest. It should be recalled that Gates’ arrest was not huge national news overnight. It took a few days to build. But one week later, on that Thursday, July 23rd, when Dylan was walking in the rain and admiring the architecture in Long Branch, the Gates story was certainly big news, and all over the media. In fact, the press conference in which President Obama famously declared that the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly” ( something from which he later back-pedaled) was held the day before, on July 22nd.

So, as I said in an earlier post, the Gates story was peaking in the news just as the incident with Dylan was taking place. Dylan, as we know from interviews, pays pretty good attention to the news, even if he casts a jaundiced eye on a lot of it. But there is no way that Dylan wasn’t aware of this story.

So, this is simply something to add to the mix when thinking about Dylan’s mindset that day, and how he chose to deal with his own situation. Like Gates, Dylan had done nothing wrong, and yet was being questioned and asked to verify his identity by police, who had arrived on the scene in response to another citizen’s concerned telephone call. Knowing what had gone down with Professor Gates, and the furor still going on over it, Dylan might have used it as an outrage-multiplier. It’s easy enough to see how someone would do that — and no doubt some people across the country did do it around that time. He could have said, “What the hell is this? What do I have to prove? What are you gonna do — arrest me for nothing, like you did that professor?” A lot of people would’ve said that, and much worse.

As we know, Dylan took a different approach, one based on empathy for the cop’s situation. As a result, we didn’t even hear about the incident till Friday, August 14th — three weeks later. (I don’t know what in particular made it public at that time — of-course the police records are public information — but I suspect it may have come from Long Branch business administrator Howard Woolley, who was heavily quoted in the first story from the Associated Press.)

For the sake of it, and before leaving the topic behind, let’s throw into the mix Christopher Hitchens’ recent column inspired by the Gates’ affair, and his own story of taking a nighttime walk in a California suburb this summer:

Suddenly, a police cruiser was growling quietly next to me and shining a light. “What are you doing?” I don’t know quite what it was—I’d been bored and delayed that week at airport security—but I abruptly decided that I was in no mood, so I responded, “Who wants to know?” and continued walking. “Where do you live?” said the voice. “None of your business,” said I. “What’s under your jacket?” “What’s your probable cause for asking?” I was now almost intoxicated by my mere possession of constitutional rights. There was a pause, and then the cop asked almost pleadingly how he was to know if I was an intruder or burglar, or not. “You can’t know that,” I said. “It’s for me to know and for you to find out. I hope you can come up with probable cause.” The car gurgled alongside me for a bit and then pulled away. No doubt the driver then ran some sort of check, but he didn’t come back.

This is almost identical to Bob’s situation — even in the respect of Hitchens being an old white guy too — except that in this case we don’t know that any call had been made to the police. We can probably assume that there wasn’t — that the mere fact of someone moving about with their legs in some California suburbs is sufficient to arouse suspicion in a passing police officer. Hitchens chose to stubbornly (but apparently not obscenely) assert his rights. The police officer let it go on meeting that resistance, probably satisfied at that point anyway that this guy made an unlikely robber or burglar. Hitchens goes on to doubt that he could have gotten away with this, or that he would have tried it, had he been a black man.

On the other hand, if Hitchens had reacted by saying, “Don’t you know who I am?!” (and his mug is a little better known, from TV, than that of Professor Gates) and loudly accusing the cop of violating his rights, then things also might have ended rather more unpleasantly.

And if he had claimed to be Paul McCartney, out on tour, perhaps the police officer would have wanted to give him a ride back to his hotel…

Also see Ron Radosh’s blog on the subject of Dylan’s encounter with the police, in which he picks up on some of what’s been said hereabouts.

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