Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A profile in ignorance

If not for the name of the principal, it would have been just another anonymous slight against an African American man, one of the uncounted such slights that go down in this country every single day.

On July 16, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., author, scholar, explorer, publisher, journalist, documentarian, a full-on Renaissance man (Harlem and otherwise), was arrested at his home in Cambridge … for the act of breaking into his own home. But what seemed to be just “one of those things” that happens from time to time in the modern world has assumed wider, societal dimensions for what it says about citizenship, law enforcement and the presumptive weight of race in America.

Gates (those of us lucky enough to have met him are asked us to call him Skip) had returned to Cambridge from China and couldn’t gain entrance to his home in Harvard Square, near Harvard University, where he is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

Gates’ driver, at the professor’s request, jimmied the lock to Gates’ front door, an act apparently observed by someone in the area, who called Cambridge police to report a burglary in progress.

In the official report, Cambridge police said an officer went to the tastefully-appointed two-story home near campus after a woman reported seeing “two black males with backpacks on the porch,” with one “wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry.”

By the time police officer Sgt. James Crowley arrived, Gates was already inside. Police said he refused to come outside to speak with Crowley, who told him he was investigating a report of a break-in.

“Why, because I'm a black man in America?” Gates said, according to a police report written by Crowley.

◊ ◊ ◊

But interviewed today by CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, Gates said he was met by a stony silence from Crowley during the incident.

“He wouldn't say anything. He was just very upset. He was trying to figure out who I was. He was looking at the ID. He didn't say anything. And I said, ‘why are you not responding to me? Are you not responding to me because you're a white police officer and I'm a black man?


“He turned, walked out — turned his back on me, walked out. I followed him on to my porch. It looked like a police convention, there were so many policemen outside …”

Gates was held, according to the Cambridge police report, for “exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior … directed at a uniformed police officer.”

The charges were dropped by the Middlesex County district attorney.

◊ ◊ ◊

The Cambridge Police Department, trying to calm the waters they’d roiled four hours earlier, released Gates, and the following statement:

“This incident should not be viewed as one that demeans the character of Professor Gates or the character of the Cambridge Police Department.”

Gates’ character would seem to be the same as anyone confronted with such a ridiculous situation: a righteous indignation. But being in the right has never been enough for black Americans, and especially black American men. What would seem to be unassailably evident applied to other Americans in this situation is viewed too often through law enforcement’s narrower and more statistically insistent lens of race, which often yields a resulting spontaneous calculus of suspicion. Too often for men of color in this country, the benefit of the doubt doesn't exist. And it didn’t exist for Skip Gates last Thursday.

The deeper problem isn’t with Gates’ response. The bigger matter is how at least the arresting officer, and apparently other officers at that “police convention” out in front of Gates’ home, failed to recognize the name and face of one of the nation’s most visible and preeminent men of letters, a man who lives hard by the 373-year-old university where he’s been a tenured and celebrated professor for 18 years.

The Cambridge Police Department failed not a test of character, but one of vision, not recognizing some of the people that give Cambridge its global distinction as a center of learning. We’re not talking about New York City or Los Angeles, with officers blanketing a vast, heaving metropolis of millions of people. The Cambridge police department’s 272 officers and 37 civilians are responsible for a city of about 102,000 people, almost 8 percent of whom are under nine years old.

◊ ◊ ◊

“Whether it was racially motivated or not, he was just amazed that the officer didn't look at the situation, take a deep breath and back off,” said fellow Harvard scholar Charles Ogletree, Gates’ friend and attorney, to WBZ.

“The police report doesn't make sense and certainly doesn't capture what happened to Professor Gates last Thursday,” Ogletree said.

To WBZ, Ogletree denied an assertion in the police report that there were two men in backpacks. “His driver was in a suit and a tie,” he said.

"The amazing thing is the officer just did not believe he was in his home rightfully, even though he saw the Harvard ID and drivers license with the address and a photograph."

As you’d expect, we haven’t heard the last of this. The Georgetown University scholar Michael Eric Dyson weighed in Tuesday on CNN: “There is a different universe around which black people and white people rotate. The axis is extremely different.

"If you were to subject to the experiences that professor Gates or that I have been experienced -- that I have experienced or many other millions of black people — you would have a different approach to the police and to the belief that discrimination has somehow eroded.”

Dyson jumped back in the game today on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” “White America would not stand by if this happened to their kids, to their husbands, to their children, to their menfolk who were constantly being herded up, looked at and profiled.”

President Obama, a friend of Gates, mentioned the incident at tonight’s health-care-dominated news conference, saying that the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly” in the incident.

◊ ◊ ◊

But it took Skip Gates himself to put it in perspective today. Interviewed by CNN, Gates made plain the persistent aspect of threat for black and minority men in America: “[W]hat it made me realize was how vulnerable all black men are, how vulnerable all people of color are and all poor people to capricious forces like a rogue policeman. …

“Because if this can happen to me in Harvard Square, this can happen to anybody in the United States."

The Cambridge Police Review Board, an external board of five civilians that investigates police misconduct, may start an investigation of the incident, WBZ reported.

Let’s hope that happens. There are 272 officers in the Cambridge Police Department — part of the 836,787 people the FBI identifies as sworn law-enforcement officers in the United States.

There has to be more than one way of looking at a black man.
Image credits: Henry Louis Gates booking photograph: Cambridge Police Department via WBZ. Gates arrest, Cambridge police arrest report: Stills from ABC News.

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