Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A classic example

The Seattle Times is carrying a New York Times story by Abby Goodnough:Was arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. an act of racism? His Harvard colleagues think so. Gates lives only a few blocks from Harvard Square. According to Gates's lawyer (also a professor at Harvard), he arrived home from a trip to China and found his front door jammed.

He forced the door open with the help of his cabdriver, Ogletree said, and had been inside for a few minutes when Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department appeared at his door and asked him to step outside.

Gates, 58, refused to do so, Ogletree said. From that point, the account of the professor and the police began to differ.

According to his lawyer, Gates told the sergeant that he lived there and showed his Massachusetts driver's license and his Harvard identification card, but Crowley still did not seem to believe that Gates lived in the home, a few blocks from Harvard Square. At that point, his lawyer said, Gates grew frustrated and asked for the officer's name and badge number.

According to the police report, Gates initially refused to show identification.

In the report, Crowley said a white female caller had notified the police around 12:45 p.m. of seeing two black men on the porch of the home, at 17 Ware St. The caller was suspicious after seeing one of the men "wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry," according to the report.

A spokesman for the Cambridge Police Department did not return a call seeking comment. But in the report, Crowley said that as he told Gates he was investigating a possible break-in, Gates exclaimed, "Why, because I'm a black man in America?" and accused the sergeant of racism.

"While I was led to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence," Crowley wrote in the report, "I was quite surprised and confused with the behavior he exhibited toward me."

Gates ultimately followed him outside, the report said, and kept yelling at him despite the sergeant's warning "that he was becoming disorderly." Crowley then arrested and handcuffed him.

Gates was held at police headquarters for several hours before being released on his own recognizance.

"He is cooperating now with the city to resolve this matter as soon as possible," Ogletree said, adding that Gates wanted the charges against him dismissed.

Police officers are notorious for reconstructing events in their reports to justify their behavior after the fact. But even if I were inclined to take the cop's version over Gates's (which I'm not), there's no getting around the officer's arresting Gates-- in his own home-- even though he says he believed that "Gates was lawfully in the residence." One would expect the officer to have been apologetic on learning his mistake. Instead, he apparently expected apologetic, deferential behavior from the person he has falsely accused.

Ogletree said that Gates had "never touched" Crowley, but did "express his frustration at being subjected to the threat of arrest in his own home."

Well, duh. So it's illegal, now, to complain about being harassed in your own home? It's easy to imagine the scene: just arriving home after a long trip, from the other side of the world, exhausted and jetlagged. Wanting a bath or shower. And probably just to crash. Do you think that officer would have treated a white male executive as he treated Gates? "Disorderly conduct," out on the street, usually means not leaving the scene when the police tell you to, or asking questions they don't want voiced in their hearing. It's one of those flexible charges that can be arbitrarily flung at anyone who's being an inconvenience to the police. But what does "Disorderly Conduct" actually mean when you're inside your own home, whichh been invaded by police on a spurious charge?

Second, I wonder why Gates's neighbor didn't recognize him. And why, at noon, with a taxi driver helping him and presumably his luggage sitting nearby, the obvious explanation didn't occur to her.

And third: even if this doesn't offer one of those classic examples of racial profiling, the vile racist comments on the Seattle Times site make it impossible not to see this in terms of racism.

For the record? I once had to break into my house, when I got locked out. It never once crossed my mind that a neighbor might report me to the police for doing that. (Though of course it sounds as if Gates didn't actually "break into" his house: having unlocked the door, it jammed. Wooden doors do that sometimes.)


Josh said...
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Josh said...

I've been following the Skip Gates saga all day. Seems to me Lucia Whalen, the Harvard Magazine staffer who reported two strange men of color trying to force a door in her neighborhood, might be the most overtly racist player here (two middle-aged men in suits, one sixtyish and hobbling on a cane, come to a suburban house in a Lincoln Town Car at noon, force open a door, and start taking a pile of luggage in? Not your standard B&E).

If Gates lost his temper with the cop (or leveled any kind of accusation at him), it's not inconceivable that this was the kind of cop who'd arrest any insufficiently deferential citizen. One hears more and more often about white people getting arrested and assaulted for "uncooperative behavior" as well--remember the paraplegic white woman in Georgia who was tasered for failing to obey a cop's order that she stand up? Without wishing to disrespect the various members of the Harvard community who have been victims of police profiling, I think one can saw that there really are some equal-opportunity thugs out there.

What's most frightening, as Bérubé observes in the comments at Crooked Timber and Nisi at Angry Black Woman, is the tenor of the comments at the blogs and newspapers about this incident. A great many people, liberals included, are saying "Why would anyone doubt the honesty and comprehensiveness of the police report?" We're really an authoritarian society, aren't we?

Josh said...

Excuse me, I was thinking of a quadruplegic white man in Florida. Although I probably should not have tried to make my point by bringing up the abuse of a pwd, since I was trying to argue that authoritarian tactics were being used on members of groups that might formerly have been thought at less risk of such treatment. Remember June Jordan saying something that boiled down to "Watch closely what They're doing to us: They'll do it to you before long."

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I think Josh is onto something with the "insufficiently deferential" concept, but I still think race comes into it. I suspect a white cop will react much faster to a black man who isn't sufficiently deferential than to a white man.

And for all those good liberals who think the cops wouldn't lie in a police report, I offer a great price on a bridge in Brooklyn. I mean, hell, if they're that gullible ...