Thursday, July 23, 2009

Arrest, Apology Demand, and Reflection of Henry Louis Gates Jr.

[Editor's Note: This piece is cross-posted at where I have responded to at least two posters and given new information from the original 911 call. I addressed someone who says white people are confused about black people because of rap music. You connect the dots. I have a headache. Read the comments section at this link.]

America entered the new year knowing it had elected the first African-American president but also seeing video of a white BART police officer shooting Oscar Grant, an Africa-American, in the back, killing him as another officer pinned him to the ground. In May, on YouTube, the world watched a black EMT being choked by a white Oklahoma state trooper against the EMT's ambulance while a patient awaited transport to the hospital inside. And this week it's Cambridge Police arresting Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a "preeminent" African-American scholar, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor of Harvard University, Mass., and editor-in-chief of, at his own home near Harvard Square.

After hearing on his radio that a woman had called the police saying she saw two black men trying to push in the front door of her neighbor's house, a police officer arrived at Gates's home. The professor had just called his real estate company to say his front door had been damaged. Gates, arriving at his home with a driver and luggage following a trip, had trouble with the front door's lock. He and his driver were the two black men the neighbor had seen "breaking in."

Two accounts of what happened at Gates's home are on the record regarding what happened, the police officer's and Gates's. The officer's account has Gates screaming the word "racist" for no apparent reason other than a white cop showed up at his home and also indicates Gates threatened to go after the cop's job. Gates's account says Gates suggested the cop has mistreated him because he is black after the officer refuses to give Gates his name and badge number. Both accounts agree that Prof. Gates produced his driver's license and his Harvard University ID, that he is who he says he is and that it was indeed his house. And yet, the police officer arrested Gates for disorderly conduct.

When Oscar Grant was shot to death, people wanted to know, "Was Grant a criminal? Did he have a record?" When the trooper choked the black EMT, people wanted to know, "Who really had the right-of-way on that Oklahoma road? Isn't it true the black EMT was wrong to go first?" And now, after learning that a 58-year-old black Harvard professor of slender build, who requires a cane to walk, is arrested at his own home, some, who assume the officer's story must be true, are saying, "He shouldn't have said that to the policeman, who was only doing his job" and also declaring that Gates's position as a college professor with no criminal record should not be a factor at all in the story. Others say looks like racism, smells like racism, we say "racism."

Yesterday, the day after the arrest story broke, Gates and the Cambridge Police Department issued a joint press release stating they have come to an agreement. Neither will pursue legal action. Everybody wins!

The City of Cambridge and the Cambridge Police Department have recommended to the Middlesex County District Attorney that the criminal charge against Professor Gates not proceed. Therefore, in the interests of justice, the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office has agreed to enter a nolle prosequi in this matter.
The City of Cambridge, the Cambridge Police Department, and Professor Gates acknowledge that the incident of July 16, 2009 was regrettable and unfortunate. This incident should not be viewed as one that demeans the character and reputation of Professor Gates or the character of the Cambridge Police Department. All parties agree that this is a just resolution to an unfortunate set of circumstances.
As can be expected, neither of the parties involved may dictate to the American public how to perceive them or their actions. For instance, PPR_Scribe poses a series of "what if questions" while Field Negro says, "Yes, that educated Negro, caved," and a white columnist at assumes the professor's willingness not to sue means he's guilty of something.

After reading the tweets of Princeton Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell on Monday and her opinion that Gates is not a radical by any means, I was not surprised to learn the Harvard Professor did not pursue legal action. I considered that he may fear damaging his reputation, something that could conceivably happen through a campaign of lies and innuendo, the kind typically heaped upon people of color who speak out against racial injustice.

Today at The Nation, under the title "Skip Gates and the Post-Racial Project," Harris-Lacewell expands on her impressions of Gates, saying:

Over the past several days a strange characterization of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has emerged. Many are portraying him as a radical who easily and inappropriately appeals to race as an excuse and explanation. This image of Gates is inaccurate. In fact, more than any other black intellectual in the country Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was an apolitical figure. This is neither a criticism nor an accolade, simply an observation.
Gates is the director of the nation's preeminent institute for African American studies, but he is no race warrior seeking to right the racial injustices of the world. He is more a collector of black talent, intellect, art, and achievement. In this sense Gates embodies a kind of post-racialism: he celebrates and studies blackness, but does not attach a specific political agenda to race. For those who yearn for a post-racial America where all groups are equal recognized for their achievements, but where all people are free to be distinct individuals, there are few better models than Professor Gates. (Melissa Harris-Lacewell)
While people stew in and chew up this juicy story and what appears to be the potential hero backing away from the justice many people of varying ethnic backgrounds hoped he'd pursue, the big-fat lawsuit, Prof. Gates has tossed another chunk of meat into the pot. Agree to not press charges? Yes. Agree to forgive and forget? Not so fast.

Gates has publicly "chastised" the police officer who arrested him and demanded an apology while simultaneously offering the officer the chance to educate himself about black people.

If he apologizes sincerely, I am willing to forgive him. And if he admits his error, I am willing to educate him about the history of racism in America and the issue of racial profiling … That’s what I do for a living. ...
... “The police report is full of this man’s broad imagination,” Gates said in response to a question on whether he had said any of the quotes in the report. “I said, ‘Are you not giving me your name and badge number because I’m a black man in America?’ . . . He treated my request with scorn. . . I was suffering from a bronchial infection. I couldn’t have yelled. . . I don’t walk around calling white people racist.”
Gates continued, “I’m outraged. I shouldn’t have been treated this way but it makes me so keenly aware of how many people every day experience abuses in the criminal justice system ... No citizen should tolerate that kind of poor behavior by an officer of the law. . . This is really about justice for the least amongst us.”
Because of his arrest, Gates said he plans to make racial profiling and prison reform central intellectual and political issues he wants to explore. He’s also considering a new documentary on racial profiling.
“Because of the capricious whim of one disturbed person . . . I am now a black man with a prison record,” Gates said. “You can look at my mug shot on the Internet.” (Source of photo and quote:

When I heard the story of his arrest, I posted on it Monday as "Wary of White Cop at Door," including links to the police report and an update with Gates's statement, as presented by his attorney and colleague Charles Ogletree. Gates's story is very different from the officer's account. As I've watched the drama unfold, my perception of what happened has not changed. I still believe that with the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard professor, we saw more evidence that some police officers feel people of color, in particular African-American males, should not challenge them.

And now we are left to watch and see if what could be called a "crash" moment for Gates--his direct encounter with the new face of racism in what he hoped would be a post-racial society, his incident that hits most who experience similar incidents in the gut as the racially-motivated negation of their achievements and social status--whether his confrontation with this white cop will impact his work to enlighten our so-called post-racial world. Will Gates shake the naive with truth? A black president in the White House is one bold step for mankind but along America's racism trail, it's nowhere near the finish line.

Additional Reading:

Nordette Adams is a BlogHer CE and the African-American Books Examiner. Visit an overview of her latest writing at


Blue State Cowgirl said...

While there is clearly a racial element to this, I think the problem is more a police problem. Somewhere along the line Officer Friendly stopped thinking he was there to serve and protect and started to act as if he had great powers over ordinary citizens.

Years ago, when I worked at a TV stations, I was routinely stopped by troopers as a drove home late at night. It always annoyed me and I would always challenge the police officer: "Why are you stopping me?" Because I knew they were required to have a reason, even if it was only a broken tail light. Inevitably, I'd be told, "Well, it's late and I wanted to check who was on the road." Then I'd argue and say, "That isn't cause to stop me." Since I'm a small blonde woman, it was greated with nothing more than slight annoyance on the part of the officer.

Then one night my brother, a long haired musician, picked me up at the studio after one of his gigs. We were pulled over. I was about to say something, but I wasn't driving. Steven was pulled out of the car made to walk a line, questioned harshly. I was surprised, that instead of challenging the officer, he hunched his shoulders, refused eye contact and became very deferential.

Afterwards, I asked him why he didn't challenge the officer as he had offered no reason why we were being stopped. Steven replied, "If you have long hair, you stay as non-confrontational as possible. You don't even want to know what happens if you even look like you are thinking of questioning a police officer."

Apparently, just driving home from work was a routinely scary event due to the police.

Blue State Cowgirl said...

Here's an interesting hypothesis in this post (

What if it had been Bill Gates instead of Henry Gates?

Vérité Parlant is Nordette Adams said...

Actually a number of elements at play other than race, but the incident was compounded by race. I think it may also reflect the climate I've seen in college towns. Unaffiliated locals feel like they are considered to be less important than the people affiliated with the college. I imagine the Harvard climate may be worse because it is one of the most prestigious schools in the world. So the cop may have also been reacting to "Harvard" made more offensive to him as "black man at Harvard."

Many cops over history, not all but quite a few, black, white, and brown, have abused their power. Black people also have stories of black cops being abusive to black people. So, yes, it's a cop problem or should I say man with testosterone poisoning problem? Feels he must be in charge of the world.

Inspector Clouseau said...

We have three observations about the Harvard professor incident:

1. We find it interesting that the fact that this was the professor's home was evidently not established early on way before the dispute escalated;

2. We find it fascinating that the versions of two members of society, who most would ordinarily view as responsible and honest citizens (this obviously does not include politicians), would vary so dramatically from a factual point of view.

3. Finally, considering that the reading and viewing public were not present at the scene (and thus have no first hand knowledge), and that there is no video tape to our knowledge of the sequence of events and what was said, how so many have formed conclusions, and made assumptions, about who did what and who was wrong.

There are some things which Professor Gates might have considered upon the arrival of the police, no matter how incensed he may have been.