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.
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.