In unrelated but similar incidents, a trio of cultural luminaries were recently prevailed upon by authorities to prove their identities and explain their activities. The circumstances of the first event, involving Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., went down in history as one more scandalous abuse of white power against an innocent black man. In the second case, actor Shahrukh Khan, the “King of Bollywood,” was detained for questioning at a US airport; he and his fans attribute this outrage to the fact of his Muslim name. In the third incident, which went almost unnoticed by the media, musical icon Bob Dylan was stopped by local police, who failed to recognize either his face or his name, while he was walking through Long Branch, New Jersey. Of the three, only Dylan took the whole thing in stride, and was polite and accommodating. Only Dylan, generally perceived by the public as arrogant and reclusive, did not jump up and down demanding retribution for his wounded ego. In fact, according to ABCNews.com, Dylan was quite gracious: “He was really nice…and he said he understood why I had to verify his identity and why I couldn’t let him go,” said the policewoman who picked him up.
Noel Shepperd of Newsbusters smells a rat: Dylan-Gate happened one week after Gates-Gate, and he wonders if the story was deliberately buried. “Hmmm. So, Dylan was detained a week after Gates, was cooperative, and the issue was quickly resolved. And we’re hearing about this NOW? How might this have impacted the Gates-Sgt. James Crowley affair if it had been reported at the time it happened rather than over three weeks after the fact?…I guess when a white rock legend is detained by police for having the nerve to walk around a minority neighborhood, and cooperates fully with the authorities to quickly resolve the misunderstanding, it’s not a teachable moment.”
By contrast, Shahrukh Khan, along with much of India, reacted angrily to his detainment, which he called “absolutely uncalled for.” U.S. officials were accused of profiling him for his race and name, while authorities insisted it was a routine security measure. Another Indian actor, Priyanka Chopra, called the incident “shocking, disturbing and downright disgraceful. It’s such behavior that fuels hatred and racism. SRK’s a world figure for God’s sake. Get real!!”
Sound familiar? Of course: these are the words always used in these situations, including by Gates and his supporters when he was arrested. Later, when Gates had calmed down, he said “I am astonished that this happened to me; and more importantly I’m astonished that it could happen to any citizen of the United States, no matter what their race.” He added, “I want to do what I can so that every police officer will think twice before engaging in this kind of behavior.”
Was it “this kind of behavior” that led police to stop Bob Dylan for looking so eccentric? For wandering around in the rain, when most people run for cover? Dylan is one of those writer/artists famous for taking long meditative walks—it’s a tool of the trade. He was in Long Branch to do a concert, on tour with John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson, and went out dressed in one of his signature outfits–a hooded raincoat and sweat pants tucked into his shoes. When he paused to look at a house for sale, a neighbor alerted the cops to an “eccentric-looking old man.” New Jersey police officer Kristie Buble, a child of 24, asked Dylan for identification, which he predictably didn’t have; seriously doubting he was a rock star, she put him in the back of her cruiser, radioed for back-up and drove him to his hotel. Her sergeant met her in the parking lot and, after peeking at the suspect told her, “That’s not Bob Dylan.” (Had President Obama weighed in, he might have pointed out the cops’ stupidity for not considering times’ ravages on Dylan’s face of today as opposed to old pictures of him; see below.)
Luckily, someone on his tour bus parked nearby supplied his passport and he was released.
The Dylan incident has been treated as a joke by the media, who display their cleverness by quoting Bob’s own lyrics in their reports (which is why I’ve restrained myself here). In a way I can’t blame them: the situation is rich with comedic potential. But I’m outraged that American citizens, police or not, failed to recognize my generation’s greatest lyricist and musical visionary. After all, this is the guy who, forty years ago, warned that such occurrences would one day be commonplace. Maybe that’s why he seems to have been completely nonplussed by the incident.
If you ask me, there are several teachable moments here.