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Even Skip Gates, even in Cambridge, even in 2009

By Ric Bohy

July 22, 2009 at 9:18am

Although the city of Cambridge, MA, yesterday dropped disorderly conduct charges against the distinguished black Harvard professor and scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., calling his arrest “regrettable and unfortunate,” outraged pundits and bloggers are calling it something else.

At the least, some say, Gates’ arrest July 20 was racial profiling. At worst, say others, it’s proof that the “post-racial” America that elected President Barack Obama is a mirage.

As the police report described the incident, Gates was arrested at his Harvard-owned rental home after a woman called 911 to report “two black males with backpacks on the porch.” One of them, she said, was “wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry.”

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The police further said Gates refused to provide identification and yelled “this is what happens to black men in America” after a white cop – later identified as Sgt. James Crowley – told him they were responding to a break-in call. Gates then threatened the cop, police said, and he was arrested for “exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior.”

Gates, in a prepared statement released by his lawyer, Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree, told a different tale:

He had just been driven home from Logan International Airport after returning from China, where he was filming a PBS documentary, Faces of America. When Gates and the driver tried to go in the front door but found it stuck, Gates used his key to go in the back door, turned off his security alarm, and tried again to open the front. Helped by the driver, he forced the door open and the driver carried in his bags.

While on the phone reporting the damage to his rental office, he saw a uniformed officer on his porch. The cop asked him to step out, but Gates stayed inside and asked why he was there. When he was told about the 911 report, Gates told the officer it was his home, and that he was a Harvard faculty member.

The officer asked him to prove it, and Gates turned to go into his kitchen to get his wallet. The policeman followed, and Gates gave him his university ID and driver’s license, showing the address. When Gates asked for the cop’s name and badge number, he went outside and the professor “was astonished to see several police officers gathered on his front porch.”

“Professor Gates asked the officer’s colleagues for his name and badge number. As Professor Gates stepped onto his front porch, the officer who had been inside and who had examined his identification said to him, ‘Thank you for accommodating my earlier request,’ then placed Professor Gates under arrest. He was handcuffed on his own front porch” and taken to the Cambridge Police Station, where he was held for four hours and released.

The city’s own statement said the incident “should not be viewed as one that demeans the character and reputation of Professor Gates or the character of the Cambridge Police Department.”

Not good enough, said the Rev. Jesse Jackson. “The charges have been dropped, but the stain remains,” he said, according to Reuters. “Humiliation remains. These incidents are so much of a national pattern on race.”

Toure, a columnist for The Daily Beast, was not so diplomatic. In a piece entitled Skip’s Racist Wakeup Call, he wrote that “this particular instance – legendary Harvard professor Henry Louis ‘Skip’ Gates, Jr., arrested on his own front porch – tells you that even if a black man is a brilliant, famous, rich, classy, Harvard professor who’s 58 years old, walking with a cane because of hip-replacement surgery, and ensconced in his own Cambridge home during the day, he can still be arrested. (W)e can put all that kumbaya we’re-post-racial crap in the toilet.”

Although Ogletree’s statement said Gates would have no further comment “at this time,” the scholar spoke for himself on the pages of The Root, an online magazine where he is editor in chief.

“I would sooner have believed the sky was going to fall from the heavens than I would have believed this could happen to me,” Gates said. “It shouldn’t have happened to me, and it shouldn’t happen to anyone.

“I’ll be meeting with my legal team, and we will be deciding what kind of legal action I should take. I haven’t made the decision yet. But I am determined that this experience, my experience, as horrendous as it was and as outrageous as it was, be used for the larger good of the black community. There are one million black men in the prison system, and on Thursday I became one of them.”

Gates added that he “thought the whole idea that America was post-racial and post-black was laughable from the beginning,” continuing, “There’s been a very important symbolic change and that is the election of Barack Obama, but the only black people who truly live in a post-racial world in America all live in a very nice house on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Gates is director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, and the Alphonse Fletcher university professor. He is the author of many scholarly works on the African-American experience, including Colored People: A Memoir and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man.

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12 Comments

  • #1.   Julie 07.22.2009

    This is mind blowing. There is truly no safe haven for people of color in our nation. Constant profiling and the fear of being harmed by those that are sworn to protect is unacceptable. Wonder how this policeman feels now that the entire country knows how STUPID he is.

  • #2.   Ozone 07.22.2009

    I can only imagine the verbal abuse that “Skip” laid on the officer. I agree w/#2.
    Show your ID and be glad your neighbors called 911…but we all know
    That didn’t happen. This isn’t profiling…it’s common sense and an egotistical
    Harvard friend of Barack screaming over race. Bull.

  • #3.   Scoop 07.23.2009

    Agreed….arrogant aristocrat probably knew exactly what he was doing…reverse race baiting the cop.

  • #4.   Elliana 07.23.2009

    You guys are a bunch of idiots. He didn’t show his ID? yea I am sure of that. Anyways me and you both know that racial profiling does exist in this country, thats exactly why more black people are stopped than white’s in this country there is evidance for that so google it buddy. How about the black people that get picked on just because their black in New York C’mon they would have gotten away with it but guess what they messed with the wrong black guy this time.smh

  • #5.   Dave 07.23.2009

    Everyone knows that no matter who you are, keep your mouth shut and just do as the officers say. This goes for white people, yellow people, brown people, black people. The only people that get a slap on the wrist are celebrities. Doesn’t matter how distinguished the prof might have been, all cops are dicks. You back talk to them, they’ll cuff you. So basically shut up and do as you are told and then say all you want after they leave. This is not about race. This could have happened to anyone. The cop didn’t like what he was hearing and wanted to teach Skip a lesson. Done! Now stop this race crap.

  • #6.   Geoffrey 07.23.2009

    This type of thing happens everyday. Cops hide behind their badges and treat people (especially non-whites) unfairly. The police are suppose to serve and protect. You don’t have to be a dick just because you have a little bit of authority.

  • #7.   Chris 07.23.2009

    I just want to say, what Obama said was STUPID! A man in power does NOT comment without knowing the facts. I am of mixed race, and I’m sorry to say, that a large population of black people are so damn ignorant and if it’s a black person in question, they always come to their rescue…even the PRESIDENT!! that’s totally screwed up! This guy Skip Gates, is a life-long RACIST and such a stupid asshole! Racism will always exist with assholes like these! What transpired is called PROTOCOL!!!! I just don’t understand why there’s so many black people who are racist?

  • #8.   Maven 07.23.2009

    I totally agree with Chris. The only way this incident can be race related is Gates baiting the cops. I don’t care how puffed up you are and full of yourself, you should not be confrontational with the police that are operating on limited information regarding the situation they are in. Even after Gates properly identified himself, he should have thanked the cops for their actions in attempting to protect his home. When a police officer is questioning you its “Yes Sir (or Officer), and No Sir (or Officer)” In this day and age Gates and anyone else who can see and hear should know that much regardless of one’s race. If ANYONE was truly wrong in the maelstrom of commentary surrounding this incident it has to be B. Obama, what a truly stupid thing to say. This entire incident is Much to do about Nothing to borrow from Wm Shakespear.

  • #9.   Ben Anderson 07.23.2009

    The headline you chose to use for this “story” is pathetic. Gates behaved like a juvenile, race baiting punk from the moment the cop arrived at his house, and while his bad behavior may not have merited arrest, he certainly deserved to be bitch slapped.

  • #10.   George B 07.25.2009

    Gates is from a Black elite and is therefore untouchable in Cambridge. If not for affirmative action, he would be teaching at a community college in Cleveland. The police officer was investigating Gates breaking into his own house and the elitist Black history professor from Harvard thought he is above the law. Apparently, this was the first instinct of our president as well.

  • #11.   KT 07.30.2009

    You people and your comments are proof that racism exist. I think Gates was wrong and that the cop isn’t a racist which is more than I can say for some of the commenter s on this site. I guess it proves that blacks and whites whine a lot and play the race card.

  • #12.   Larry C 08.02.2009

    I came to this site expecting to see a non-bias presentation of public information…Instead, the first read I look at, re Gates, the reporter ( ? ) perpetuates a false report of the 911 caller describing ” two black men with back packs ” which has since been debunked by the actual playback of the tape which has no such remark being made during the call…The media is in such a rush to stir up a racial angle that the facts become irrelevant to the story line…

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