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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