Gates case evokes black men’s stories

When Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested almost a year ago on July 16, 2009, after breaking open the front door of his own home, I knew immediately how I would have responded had it been me.

The answer is below, but before that, the reason for bringing it up: the release last week of “The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates and Race, Class and Crime in America” (Palgrave Macmillan).

The author is Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, who served as Gates’ lawyer and as an intermediary to President Obama, Ogletree’s former law student and protege. Obama became embroiled in the case after declaring that the Cambridge, Mass., police “acted stupidly” in the arrest, quickly leading to a round of clarifications and beers at the White House.

What could have been a truly participative national dialogue on race ended up as a private gathering of Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Gates and the man who arrested him, Sgt. James Crowley. Though the world wasn’t told and will therefore little note nor long remember what they said there, we can never forget what they drank there. The president had a Bud Light, Biden a nonalcoholic Buckler, Gates a Sam Adams Light and Crowley a Blue Moon. Truly, the audacity of hops.

Now, Ogletree renews the conversation on race, made further discomforting by throwing class into it. It’s a necessary ingredient when the arresting officer is a 9-to-5 workingman and his perp a world-renowned scholar, and the law professor gives corner to both sides.

“There are no winners here and no losers,” Ogletree said on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” last week. “It was two individuals who both gave no ground, and one had the power — the ultimate power of arrest.”

He is Gates’ lawyer, of course, and so makes the case for his client. After reviewing the facts, he lays out, in the stories of 100 accomplished black men comprising nearly half the book, evidence that — guess what? — maybe we aren’t imagining being profiled after all.

I say we because my story is one of them. Here is what I shared:

While I have unquestionably experienced bigotry, only rarely am I pulled over, and I would attribute barely a handful of those incidents to racial profiling. That’s partly because I am biracial — the son of a black and Jewish couple — and, as Sen. Harry Reid inartfully said of our president, light-skinned with no Negro dialect unless I choose to use one. But that’s not the only reason.

I had an experience when I was about 16. In the 1970s, our neighborhood on the Near North Side of Chicago was, in a word, unsafe, with me standing out as a good kid. One day I was walking through a vacant lot separated from our house by a fence when two police officers approached. Our house was frequently broken into and vandalized, and I was usually the one calling the police, but I had never seen these officers before.

“Freeze!” one officer yelled.

I didn’t think he could possibly have been talking to me and I looked around, still walking toward them, and asked, “What?”

“Freeze!” he yelled louder.

At that point I stopped, but got angry and started talking back. “Why are you bothering me? I didn’t do anything.”

“Freeze!” he yelled a third time, then crouched, pulled his weapon, and aimed it dead at me.

I did freeze but was still astounded. Anyone in the neighborhood would know I was no threat, and my house was right next door. I remember trying to talk to them and being patted down by the second cop. In any case, it took a minute before they were satisfied and let me go. Ever since then I have been extra obedient around cops no matter what the circumstances.

Mine isn’t the most dramatic account — actor Blair Underwood tells of an officer’s gun pressed against his temple — nor the most demeaning. Though it happened decades ago, others tell of indignities continuing today. But the lesson stays with me, and I immediately thought of it when I heard of Gates’ encounter.

My reaction? Yeah, he was right; he was in his own house, for heaven’s sake. But he still should have shut up. I’m alive to say that.


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