Jul 23, 2009

Henry Louis Gates: arrest 'regrettable and unfortunate'

house of Henry Gates
The Cambridge home of professor Gates

The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, has called the arrest of African American scholar Henry Louis Gates jr "regrettable and unfortunate."

The incident occurred when Cambridge police responded to a burglary call. A neighborhood woman mistakenly believed that professor Gates and an associate were burglars trying to break into his (Gates') home.

In fact, the professor had just returned from China where he was researching the genealogy of cellist Yo-Yo Ma. On arrival he discovered he was locked out of the house. The professor and his driver began pushing on a door to try and get access. This prompted the call to police from the neighbor.

When you follow the sequence of events, you have to wonder if the treatment meted out to Gates would have happened if a white subject had been involved.

The police report describes Gates as "exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior." How accurate this description is is open to question. Certainly the professor was understandably upset as most of us would be if we were ordered out of our homes and handcuffed.

The arresting officer, sgt Crowley, asked Gates to step out of the house. Gates did the right thing by not immediately complying. If he had complied with the order before showing his identification, he could have placed himself at risk. Let's not forget the case of Amadou Diallo who reached for his ID in a public space and was riddled with 42 police bullets. There is very good reason for black men in the US to show extreme caution when dealing with police in situations where misunderstandings exist and emotions run high.

At some point in the proceedings Gates provided identification that proved he was the resident of the home. Sgt Crowley's report indicates that he knew he was dealing with the lawful resident of the house. So why would he choose to escalate the situation, instead of simply saying "Just doing our duty professor. Have a nice day" or something along those lines.

The professor made repeated requests for the arresting officer's name and badge number but was ignored.

Henry Gates arrest


Professor Gates was handcuffed on the porch of his home, put into a cruiser and taken off to the local cop shop to be "processed."


Henry Gates mugshot
Prof Gates

Once the identity of Gates had been established, the onus was on the officers in attendance to defuse the situation - not escalate it. It isn't against the law to shout at police officers, especially when you are the legal occupant of a home and believe you are being handled in an unjust fashion.

The best article I've come across on the arrest is titled The Stupidity of the Gates Arrest by Lawrence O'Donnell jr. It appears in Time Magazine - here. A few paragraphs are worth repeating:

There is no crime described in Crowley's official version of the way Gates behaved. Crowley says explicitly that he arrested Gates for yelling. Nothing else, not a single threatening movement, just yelling. On the steps of his own home. Yelling is not a crime. Yelling does not meet the definition of disorderly conduct in Massachusetts. Not a single shouted word or action that Crowley has attributed to Gates amounts to disorderly conduct. That is why the charges had to be dropped.

In classically phony police talk, Crowley refers to "[Gates'] continued tumultuous behavior." When cops write that way, you know they have nothing. What is tumultuous behavior? Here's what it isn't: he brandished a knife in a threatening manner, he punched and kicked, he clenched his fist in a threatening manner, he threw a wrench or, in the Gates house, maybe a book. If the subject does any of those things, cops always write it out with precision. When they've got nothing, they use phrases that mean nothing. Phrases like tumultuous behavior.

Unless you confess to a crime,or threaten to commit a crime, there is nothing you can say to a cop that makes it legal for him to arrest you. You can tell him he is stupid, you can tell him he is ugly, you can call him racist, you can say anything you might feel like saying about his mother. He has taken an oath to listen to all of that and ignore it. That is the real teachable moment here — cops are paid to be professionals, but even the best of them are human and can make stupid mistakes.


Sgt Crowley apparently is a 'poster child' for the dept and has himself instructed officers on the hazards of racial profiling. He is also human and prone to error like the rest of us. Unless some hitherto unknown facts emerge - on the face of it, this looks like a case of overreaction that has the appearance of racial profiling.

Professor Gates says the incident has inspired him to work on a documentary about racial profiling.

BBC report - here.

Article about the Gates' incident by Lawrence Bobo on the Root - here