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Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the importance of well-lubed door locks: Amended

Tuesday morning I authored the post below about the hubbub surrounding the arrest, and subsequent dropped charges against Harvard University Scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his Cambridge, Mass., home, after a neighbor called 911 and said suspicious looking black men (Gates being one of them) were breaking into Gates' home. Gates said when police arrived and asked him for ID, he provided it and proved it was his home. Police say, Gates repeatedly berated the initial responding officer and loudly suggested the officer was harrassing him for racist reasons. The officer says he warned Gates to be quiet and eventually arrested him for a form of disorderly conduct. In my initial post I said that if the officer was right, then Gates's anger was misdirected and should have been aimed at the neighbor who failed to recognize him and called the police in the first place. But after re-reading the police report, it's clear that Gates had let himself into his home using a key on a rear door. And only after his driver forced the front door open did police enter. He ID'd himself by both his account and that of the police. The fact that he may have raised his voice and said rude things to the officer doesn't warrant arrest. People should rude things to police everyday on the street and don't get arrested for it. Given the totality of the circumstances, the officer, after confirming Gates' ID, should have simply left.

If you haven't heard about this story, here's the abbreviated version:

Last Thursday Henry Louis Gates Jr., a prominent Harvard University professor, returned home - his house is literally steps from campus property - from a weeklong trip to China and apparently could not get his front door open. So he let himself in through the back door, and tried the front door from the inside. Still no luck. So Gates went back outside and back to the front door, where he and possibly his driver put their shoulders into the front door and forced it open.

A neighbor, Lucia Whalen, a fundraiser for the Harvard Crimson, saw Gates force the door open and called Cambridge, Mass., police, who sent officers right over.

I know what you're wondering: Why didn't she recognize Gates as her neighbor? Or if you're cynical, you're thinking: Maybe she did recognize him. He he he he he!

One officer approached the house, and according to the officer's written report, when he asked Gates to ID himself, Gates asked "Why, 'cause I'm a black man in America?"

The officer's report says Gates continued to berate him and accuse him of racism. The report says that Gates followed the officer outside, and that the officer, after warning Gates twice that he was getting too loud, arrested Gates for "loud and tumultuous behavior in a public space., AKA disorderly conduct.

Gates says it didn't happen like that. He says when his front door wouldn't open, he let himself in through the back and tried the front door again. It didn't work, so he went back outside and forced the front door open. Then the police arrived and asked for ID. He says he gave them ID, but that the officer didn't seem to want to believe it. So when the officer asked Gates to step outside, Gates demanded to know the officer's badge number and name. And a short time later he was arrested. Gates says Harvard campus cops were there too, and they acknowedged that they knew him but told him they couldn't intervene 'cause the house was on city property, outside their jurisdiction.

Phew! And that's the abbreviated version.

First, I'm a fan of Gates' academic work. He's the preeminent scholar of African American history in this country, in my opinion, and some of his work has helped me put into context segments of black history that I didn't fully understand when I was younger. And if Gates' version of this story is true, then I understand his frustration: you comply with the officer's requests for ID proof, and you get arrested anyway. That's not right.

But if the officer's version is true, Gates was behaving like an ass. And no matter who you are or how right you are, you don't need a Ph.D to know that if you hound a cop - a sworn officer with arrest powers - he will arrest or ticket you if for no other reason than to teach you a lesson. I count among my personal friends and friendly acquaintances a couple dozen police officers. And they all admit to that philosophy: give them too much grief and they'll ticket or cuff you, just because.

But let's get to the heart of the matter: Regardless of whose version is true, Gates' anger was misdirected. If anyone, I'd have been ticked off with my neighbor.

We live by each other, and you're gonna call the police and report me as suspicious?

I don't know all my neighbors on my block personally. But I know what most of 'em look like, and they know Mrs. B and me. And as much as we all see each other coming and going, I can't imagine one of my neighbors calling the cops and reporting me as suspicious, even if I was forcing open my door. Of course, I have a high wall of shrubs around my front yard so they wouldn't see me breaking into my house. But I digress!

If a neighbor did report me in the same scenario - regardless of her motivation - I would want the cops to come and investigate. After that though, I'm with Dr. Gates in the sense that once I prove my ID, get out. I've just returned home from a 15 hour flight. I'm feeling ill. I've proven that I live here. Please, go away. I'm with the cop though, in the sense that you can't get mad at the guy for doing his job.

So, all things considered, does Gates have anyone to be angry with - the cop or Whalen? Was this racist overkill, as Gates alleged? Or was this just bad luck of the draw? I like Dr. Gates, but I'd say it was a combo of possibly-knuckle-headed neighbor and bad luck of the draw.

UPDATE: As I finished writing this post, CNN was just reporting that the Cambridge Police have dropped all charges against Gates in this arrest.

And there you have it.

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I was hoping you'd pick this one up. Many news sources have widely conflicting reports.

As soon as the cop saw the address on the drivers license and doesn't apologize and leave Gates should rightfully be pissed at the cop.

As for being mad at the neighbor? Definitely not. Neighborly behavior is a two way street. I have lived in places where I knew my neighbors to the left and right, but probably couldn't identify the primary occupants of the house across the street. If I had seen someone across the street force a door, I'd call the cops. That makes me a good neighbor, not a bad one.


I have to agree with Wavemancali; the police had a responsibility to investigate a possible break-in, but once they ascertained that he lived there, that should have been the end of it. The police had no business harassing him further.
Just my opinion.

Frog Prince

All Henry Louis Gates Jr. had to do was show his ID but instead he showed his ignorance.

Jack Flannigan

Two different tales pertaining to one incident. Only two people actually know what happened and what was said, the policeman and the prof. Only one can walk away from this knowing that he told the truth. Leave it at that.

the sarcasticynic

"Why, 'cause I'm a black man in America?"

Sounds like a challenge to me.

James B.

WavemanCali, I hear ya about the neighbors. Still not sure I agree on that point. Or maybe I have too much faith in my neighbors to recognize me.

BobG, succinct and to the point. You and WavemanCali may make me change my tune yet, at least in terms of my tentative scolding of Gates.

Frog Prince, it's comments like yours that make me wish people would read my posts twice. Or maybe I should write them more clearly. I gave both sides of the story. You assume the police officer's story is the true version, and that's that. Well, if you need to take a side...

Jack Flannigan, I wish Frog Prince had read your comment before leaving his.

Sarc, if it's true that Gates said that - he says he didn't; the cop says he did - then I agree with you. No offense to cops in general, but in my former life as a crime writer I met lots of cops who would make stuff up in a police/incident report without a second thought if they believed a falsified account would save them some grief. Not saying that happened in this case, but I am saying I've followed Gates' career. I haven't followed the officer's career. If I'm going to err via assumption, I'm going to do it in favor of the person I'm familiar with. Or, I won't assume anything and will give them each equal benefit of the doubt until I hear something that gives one or the other an edge. I will say this, in the officer's incident report he says he arrested and cuffed Gates after Gates followed him outside to the street, to his squad car. In the picture of Gates being led away after his arrest, it shows the officer leading him down the steps of his porch in cuffs. That aligns with Gates' version of the story. Advantage Gates.

the sarcasticynic

It would take a lot of gall for a police officer to quote a suspect saying, "Why, 'cause I'm a black man in America?", but as you've stated, you've met a lot of cops.

James B.

Nice try, Sarc. I didn't say I've met a lot of cops. I said I (also) know a lot of cops. There's a difference. One word. But the word you chose suggests my knowledge of some cops behavior is superficial, because I've (only) "met" a lot of cops. I've met hundreds of cops. And I know dozens very well. And I agree it would take a lot of gall. But, while I am one of the most vocal police supporters I know (of), I have seen plenty of cops with that much gall and more. Again, I can cite you chapter and verse in dozens of "true crime" stories that I'm personally familiar with, in which police officers falsified things ranging from written accounts in police reports to evidence. So no, I don't really see it as much of a stretch that a police officer could make up a quote like that. All that said, 90% of the cops I know well, know casually, know professionally, and have observed on the job have demonstrated high honor and integrity. Maybe that was the case here too. But again, there are different sides. And I'm not inclined to just automatically give the police officer the benefit of the doubt.

James B.

Sarc, I owe you an apology. In my reply to you just now, I missed the fact that I did use the word "met" in my first reply. I got huffy and shouldn't have. The fact is, in the post itself I wrote about "knowing" lots of cops. So I guess in my haste to respond to you I merged the two thoughts. You were right. I did say I'd met lots of cops. Sorry 'bout that.

the sarcasticynic

No prob.


If you have a door that requires that you lift or tweak or pull up on the door handle to unlock it, LEAVE IT LIKE THAT. A lock like that is ten thousand times as hard to pick as a nice, smootly operating lock. Remember that.

(no, I was not a B&E man, I worked for a locksmith)

R Su

First off, the man just came off a long plane ride across the entire globe, returning home from China. He was ill, tired, more or less blocked out of his home with a busted door, and then this dumb-@ss busybody thinks that a diminutive elderly gentleman is a thug home invader? And the boneheaded cop who comes racing to the rescue gets an attitude after it's proven that he's addressing the homeowner?! I think Professor Gates can be forgiven for being irritated in this. The public servant deserved the dressing down and he needs to be formally reprimanded and retrained and he needs to give Gates the long-overdue apology he should've been offered immediately.


@R Su

As you can see by my above comment, I agree with you, as soon as the cop saw the address on his license, Gates deserved an apology and the cops should have immediately withdrawn.

But I really disagree on your assessment of the neighbors. I just watched a fora.tv piece 2 months ago (on Lincoln and Race) where Gates was the main speaker.

He's not a diminutive frail old man. He's a fair sized guy, looks damn good for his age. He's 58, I would have placed him just from the piece I saw at about 50. His driver was helping force the door as you've seen James say.

If he doesn't interact a lot with his neighbors, I still call good neighbor on this one. Two guys forcing a door, what's the neighbor going to do? Walk over and say hey guys, umm whatcha doing? In these days of home invasions whether the guys are black, white or any other color, that's just a bad idea.

James B.

R Su, I'm still kind of on the fence about the neighbor. I still think she may have been a little hasty. But I wasn't there.

Wavemancali, in an interview with The Daily Beast today, Gates said he wasn't upset with the neighbor and would hope any neighbor would call the cops if they thought a house on their block was being broken into. He says his beef is with the cops.

BTW, he may not look frail. But he is like 5'7" and a buck sixty-five maybe. And we walks with a cane.

Again, I'm on the fence about the neighbor, 'cause I don't talk to many of mine, but I see and exchange waves w/them all the time. And I can't see them making the same call to 911 if they spotted me trying to force my door open.

the sarcasticynic

If cops showed up at my door under the belief that I didn't belong there, and then after showing my ID I were to harass the officers shouting, "Why, 'cause I'm a sarcastic man in America?" and continued to badger said officers, then yes, I would expect them to react in an official manner to legally contain the situation. First Amendment be damned, I still think this did not have to escalate the way it did, and there's only one man to blame.


He should never have been arrested in the first place. It sounds like the case of a racist neighbor to whom, evidently, all black men look alike, compounded by a racist cop or at the very least, a cop who was more intent on being right than on determining the facts.

It was shameful, and the fact that this could happen to a man of Gates' stature should serve to heighten awareness of the obstacles faced by less prominent black men every day. Further, I'm sure that Gates believed that he had long since left behind being subject to being stopped at lights and all the other nasty ways black men are regularly harassed, plus he is not a young man. It's hard to imagine someone in that situation not losing his temper and venting his frustration, but in the absence of violent behavior on his part, the officer should not have escalated things by arresting him. The guy has also refused to apologize, which adds insult to injury.

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