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Henry Louis Gates Jr., Sgt. James Crowley, Lucia Whalen: My last word.

By now, unless you live under a rock or in Iraq, you've probably heard about the hubbub surrounding the arrest a week-ad-a-half ago of Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The abbreviated version: Gates, upon returning home from China, where he'd been working on a documentary, found that the front door to his Cambridge, Mass., home - just steps from Harvard's main campus, was jammed. So, after he and his driver tried unsuccessfully to get the door open, Gates went to the rear of the house and let himself in through the back door. The driver continued to shove on the front door. An elderly neighbor saw the door-shoving, stopped a young woman passing by and asked the young woman to call the cops. The young woman, Lucia Whalen, did so, and told police that the older woman may have witnessed a break-in, but that she - the younger woman - saw that the men on Gates' porch (he and his driver) had suitcases, so perhaps they were trying to get the door open to their own home. At no point did Whalen tell police that two large black men with backpacks were breaking into the home, a mischaracterization (or outright lie?) that had been previously reported by Cambridge Police. Officers arrived at Gates' home minutes later and asked for his ID. He declined to give it at first, but eventually did, but not before berating Sgt. James Crowley and asking if he was being hassled for being "a black man in America." Gates followed Crowley outside (at Crowley's request), and continued to berate him, in spite of Crowley warning him twice to pipe down. Gates didn't pipe down. So Crowley arrested him. Hubbub ensued. A few days later, the charges against Gates were dropped by Cambridge Police.

First things first, apologies are owed to Ms. Whalen. I'd say that other writers and me owe her apologies for suggesting that maybe Gates should have aimed his anger at her from the beginning, instead of at the police, 'cause how could Gates' "neighbor" not recognize him in broad daylight? The problem is - and I can't speak for other writers - I voiced that opinion based on the written police report - written by Sgt. Crowley - and on statements made by Cambridge Police officials that Whalen was a "neighbor" and that she had called police about large suspicious black men on Gates' porch, who were apparently breaking into the home.

Anyone reading between the lines of those two factoids might "glean" that Whalen jumped the gun in calling 911. Turns out she's not Gates' neighbor. She only works at a facility nearby. Also, she called 911 because an actual neighbor stopped her and asked her to call. Finally, Whalen, contrary to the statements made by Crowley and CPD brass in the early days of this mess, did not mention Gates' race or that of his driver. On the 911 tapes, released today by CPD, Whalen tells a dispatcher she has no idea what race the men are, because she's standing too far away to tell. And only after the dispatcher asked her if the men were "white, black, or Hispanic," did Whalen reluctantly answer that maybe one of them looked "a little Hispanic," and she wasn't sure about the other.

So Lucia Whalen has gotten a bad rap. Whether the statements in the police report about Whalen being a "neighbor" of Gates' and claiming big black men were breaking into his house were lies or innocent errors on the part of the CPD remains to be seen. I believe in giving the benefit of the doubt, especially to people with difficult jobs like law enforcement. So I'll assume they were innocent errors. But surely I don't need to explain how the inclusion of those misstatements in the police report could alter the perception of this whole mess from the very beginning.

Otherwise, the rest of this story remains the same:

  • First, some media types were wrong to perpetuate the "racial profiling" theme in covering this story. It was unnecessary and inflammatory. You'd have to be an absolute moron to try to characterize this incident as racial profiling. The officers involved did not stop Gates or single him out, because of his skin color. They encountered him coincidentally, while responding to a possible breaking-and-entering call...at his house.
  • Second, Gates may have been justified in his righteous indignation, but he was wrong for going off on the cops and accusing and suggesting racism as their motive for questioning him. Plus, many cops will tell you that if you embarass them in front of an audience (in this case, Gates' neighbors, curious passers by, and other police officers), they may arrest or ticket you just because you pissed 'em off or because they're genuinely worried you're going to harm their credibility and authority with the gathering crowd. Even Gates admitted later that the police were just doing their job by responding to the 911 call. In an interview after the incident, Gates said he was actually grateful for the cops and that he did not believe Sgt. Crowley was a racist.
  • Third, after confirming Gates' ID and securing the grounds (making sure there was no burglar on the premises), Crowley and company should have saddled up and left right away, considering how agitated the whole mess had apparently made Gates. And you have to ask why the hung around. What was the point, to teach a limping man with a cane a lesson about minding his manners when dealing with the police?
  • Finally, Crowley was within his rights to arrest Gates, but he didn't have to.

If you dislike or doubt my last point, consider the wording of the Massachusetts statute under which Gates was arrested and charged: Chapter 272, Section 53 of Massachusetts' State Code,

Common night walkers, common street walkers, both male and female, common railers and brawlers, persons who with offensive and disorderly acts or language accost or annoy persons of the opposite sex, lewd, wanton and lascivious persons in speech or behavior, idle and disorderly persons, disturbers of the peace, keepers of noisy and disorderly houses, and persons guilty of indecent exposure may be punished by imprisonment in a jail or house of correction for not more than six months, or by a fine of not more than two hundred dollars, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

No matter what you think of him, I'm pretty sure Gates is not a "common night walker," "common street walker," "common railer," or "common brawler." Neither he nor Sgt. Crowley has suggested Gates was behaving in a "lewd, wanton, or lascivious" manner with Crowley or any of the women at the scene.

So, that leaves "disturbers of the peace." If Gates was indeed yelling at Crowley and yelling accusations of racism, no doubt, he was arguably disturbing the peace.

So was Crowley within the letter of the law? Sure, if his allegations about Gates' behavior are true...and are born out by something more credible than the police report that said Ms. Whalen was a "neighbor" who was concerned that big black men were breaking into Gates' house. But Crowley still wasn't required to make an arrest. It is discretionary.

I'll leave you with this personal analogy to hammer home my point: Several days ago, I stepped out of my back yard to roll my garbage can onto my rear swale, because garbage pickup was the next morning. But there was no room for my can on the swale, 'cause a mystery neighbor had dumped junk on my rear swale, taking up all my space. This annoyed me for the obvious reason. But it also annoyed me 'cause my fair city had done its once monthly bulk pickup a couple days earlier, removing a hacked up tree that I'd cut up and placed back there. Bear with me. There is a limit of 45 cubic feet of free bulk pickup once a month in my city. If you place more than that limit out for pickup in a one month period, the city charges you for the overage. My tree was definitely a good 45 cubic feet. So when I saw the junk on my property, I was not just angry that my space had been filled by junk that wasn't mine, but also that I could billed for the stuff.

But the mystery dumper was really no mystery. Over the past few years I've caught a couple different people from the home of a wack job woman whose back yard faces mine leaving things behind my house, 'cause I have lots of room, and they don't. Our yards are separated by an alley. Occasionally, I've asked them nicely not to leave stuff on my rear swale, explaining each time that I didn't want to get charged for their junk. This time, I didn't ask. I dragged the junk across the alley and left it on wack job's rear swale, making room for my garbage can on my own property.

The next morning my garbage was picked up and we all lived happily ever after...until Mrs. B called me at work a few hours later to tell me that wack job had just pounded on our front door, cussed her out, and demanded that we take the junk back. Mrs. B told wack job not to hold her breath. Wack job said she'd move the stuff back onto our property herself. Mrs. B cautioned that she was busy painting but if wack job persisted she'd call someone else to stop her from putting the junk back on our property. Wack job accepted the challenge.

So I got on the phone and sent over the police officer who supervises our part of our lovely 'hood.

When he arrived, along with a city code officer, the cop attempted to talk to wack job, who told him and the code officer to go and fornicate themselves. She grew increasingly agitated, and increasingly loud. She drew a crowd. The crowd looked disturbed and bothered by her rant. She grew defensive, eventually acknowledging in a round about way that she was responsible for the junk on my property. And she cussed the cop out over and over and over, finally flipping him off and walking away, shouting profanities as she went.

How did the officer respond, you ask? He took a deep breath, considered the circumstances - that the woman had been humiliated in front of neighbors who saw her admit to her sneaky illegal dumping, chuckled about her tantrum, gave her a verbal warning to behave, climbed back into his squad car, jotted down a few notes about the incident, and drove away.

I'm not guessing. The officer called me later and gave me a play-by-play.

And the code officer, who also took a brutal tongue lashing from the woman? He laughed it off too, also gave her a verbal warning, and drove away.

Her behavior fell well within the parameters of disorderly conduct. The police officer would have been more than justified if he'd arrested her. Her placing her junk on my property constituted illegal dumping. The code officer would have been more than justified ticketing her.

Both men had the right to cuff and cart her off, and cite her, respectively.

But both excercised discretion that says just because you can, doesn't mean you have to.


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Uhmmm. What's interesting to me is that you're still assuming the rest of Crowley's report, namely the sections about Gates' conduct, to be accurate. Why? It's apparent that portions of Crowley's report is fictitious, yet you are still giving it deference over Gates' own account. I think that you need to examine that. What's more, MA courts have consistenly held that yelling at a police officer (and we don't know that Gates did any of that) does not constitute disorderly or tumultuous conduct. Moreover, none of the tapes released today corroborate Crowley's version of events. In my opinion, I think that it's high time for some of the criticism, to the extent that this is still being discussed, to be directed towards Crowley, the Cambridge PD, and all of those tacky police unions that "rushed to judgment" in defending their colleague. This is not a police state. We should all be outraged at the abuse of police power here and the violation of our fellow citizen's first amendment and other rights. Period.


I find it interesting to note that no one has commented on the fact that Gates had just returned from China -- and probaby suffered from some form of jet lag. Therefore his response, whatever it was, was probably different than it would have been had he just returned from the grocery store. I am greatly affected by jet lag and so can sympathize....

I believe that the police officer overreacted and I think he probably exacerbated the tenor of the encounter, given the age and physical condition of Gates. What I mean is that Gates was hardly likely to respond in a physical manner and so the police officer felt safe in making a fool of him by arresting him. I'll bet he was really surprised when it turned out that Gates is a person of note and that the situation became highly publicized. I believe the police officer should be "written up" and reprimanded for his poor handling of this incident.

James B.

V,good comment, even if I don't completely agree with you. But don't worry. The part I disagree with isn't about first amendment rights. I agree with you that there is a First Amendment issue here. Does fussing at a police officer warrant arrest? Sure, in some cases, but probably not in this one. That being said, you're making a huge leap by saying I'm still assuming the rest of Crowley's report is true. I make no such assumption. The only deference I gave Sgt. Crowley is that his assertions in the police report about big black men with backpacks breaking into Gates' house, along with his assertion that the caller ID'd Gates' race, were mistakes and not outright lies. Even that's a stretch. Anyway, don't confuse what I'm saying is legal vs. what is right. Did you see my personal example at the end of this post? While Sgt. Crowley was able to make the Gates incident fit (barely) into a state statute that includes "disorderly" talk and behavior, he shouldn't have and didn't need to arrest Gates. If you read my prior post on this topic I couch all my comments about Crowley's claims against Gates with something to the effect of "IF Gates says what Crowley claims and in the tones Crowley claims..."

Classof65, good point. After a three or four hour flight I'm usually grumpy and tense. I can't imagine what I'd be like after a 10 or 12 or 15-hour flight. Now that the 911 tapes have proven the initial "race" claims made by the police to be false, I'm having my doubts about the rest.


James, I suppose that I based my criticism on bullet no. 2: "Gates may have been justified in his righteous indignation, but he was wrong for going off on the cops . . ." I would respectfully submit that even at this point, we don't know that Gates went off on the cops. There is no proof of this and Gates certainly would not characterize his interaction in this way. On the contrary, he's repeatedly stated that he did no such thing. Otherwise, I appreciate your clarification. And yes, I have been following your refreshingly blunt column as it pertains to this matter. Keep up the good work. I love your give and take. Most journalists, it would seem, are not inclined to so engage the everyday reader.

James B.

V, point taken. That second bullet point does suggest Sgt. Crowley's allegations about Gates' words and tone are established fact.

And thanks for the compliment. I think the give-and-take is the funnest part of this!


I've been following H L Gates arrest with keen interest and I have a question to ask. Is it possible that both the Cambride Police Dept and Sgt Crowley knew Skip Gates long before this incident occurred - implying? For a Sgt teaching Racial Profiling in Cambridge Massachusetts not to know about Skip Gates seems very odd. After all Gates may be considered a high priest in such matters and could have contributed to CPD profiling program.

I think this issue is worth investigating. Just a thought.

Jeni Hill Ertmer

Everytime I read one of your posts James, I think how wonderful this world would be, could be, if more people tried to practice the level of tolerance and understanding of ALL sides of an issue before going off the deep end! And I really enjoyed and appreciated your story of the trash pick-up problems as an analogy as to a better way of handling things. It could just be that there were errors made by both parties in the Gates incident and a little understanding on BOTH sides there could have prevented this situation from becoming more fodder for supporters of either side to use to build just a tad more animosity to our world. Keep up the great job you do at breaking things down and trying to simplify a really complex society.

James B.

Thanks, Jeni. As always, youre too kind. This one has been pretty complex.

James B.

Alglenne, sorry I missed your comment. Someone else suggested the same to me. I hear ya. I'm still on the fence though about the recognition factor. I mean, I've been a fan of Gates' academic work for years. I've read his books of history. I've seen him speak live. And yet, if I passed him by on the sidewalk, I don't know that I'd immediately recognize him. But your point is well-taken. I'll bet he could've contributed to any sort of racial program at the CPD. Who knows? Maybe after tipping a few pints, he and Sgt. Crowley will become fast friends.


Hope not, the beerfest, in my view is a bad idea. There's enough evidence out there which suggest Sgt Crowley has not been truthful about what happened. The scale of profiling is too wide and the professor should not settle for an easy gentlemanly settlement. That would be letting African Americans down, wouldn't it.


After hearing the 911 call, I'm really glad I called good neighbor. She sounded totally like what I'd expect a neighbor who doesn't know the occupants should sound.

After hearing the whole thing, including what little live broadcast traffic on the police band there was, I'm still standing by Gates on this one. It's obvious he showed ID quickly no matter how he acted. His name is on the airwaves very freaking quickly. If this audio is real time I'm moving there because from the end of the 911 call to the name of the Gates over the air is less than 3 minutes.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124870309847783787.html has a link to the 911 call and the police dispatch radio logs.


What a pleasure it is to discover and to read such a meticulous and thoughtful rendering of a very important story.

Thank you for the terrific writing and careful analysis, Mr. Burnett. You have gained a new reader.

What astonished me the most from this incident is the readiness of a majority of comment posters from a wide assortment of blogs to point the "race card" finger at Dr. Gates while discounting the details and facts of the case.

(There are too many examples to cite and frankly I'm too tired from reading them to have to regurgitate it in order to make my point.)

At the end of the day, it really saddens me that this is reflective of the larger picture of race in America. There's so much work ahead.


Hey James, just wish I had the time to research properly the number of information twists that this affair has taken.

My understanding is that Sgt Crowley did not write the report himself, why? Where did the idea of two black men with back packs come from, if not the police? Crowley claims he saw one man at the door, so where was the other 'the other black man'?

Seems quite certain that racial profiling was well and truly being exercised. The arrest, release and dropping of the charges proves the profiling event. Finally, if Sgt Crowley is so confidnt that he did nothing wrong, why were the chages dropped.

Thought I had posted this before!


One of the best things I have read by you Mr. B.

Thank you for the clarification about the "neighbor"

As for your wack job drama... I love the idea of "just because you can, dosen't mean you have to".


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