An Interesting perspective on the Henry Louis Gates controversy

A friend of mine from Chicago sent me the link to a story that ran in the Chicago Sun-Times. The headline is Oh, Henry! You’re Sending the Wrong Message. In the article she gives a very interesting look at the incident and she presents a good argument that is worthy of reading.

BY MARY MITCHELL Sun-Times Columnist

As a homeowner who has had a break-in, I can’t get too worked up over what happened to Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. Notable African Americans across the country are expressing outrage that Gates, who is considered to be a leading African-American intellectual, was hauled off to jail for trying to get into his own house. But let’s look at this from another angle. This is a case of no good deed goes unpunished. I wish someone had been watching when thieves broke into my house and made off with everything they could carry. But like so many other communities in America, we live in neighborhoods of strangers. That’s probably why the woman who called 911 on Gates didn’t simply walk over and ask if she could help. What she saw was two black men acting suspiciously. What Gates saw was racial profiling. And because complaints about racial profiling are so common, even without knowing all of the facts about Gates’ arrest, President Obama concluded that police “acted stupidly” and pointed out that “blacks and Hispanics are picked more frequently, and oftentimes for no cause.” Still, if you are a black man living in a prestigious neighborhood, you shouldn’t be surprised that someone would call police if they spot you on the porch trying to force open the front door. According to the statement released by Gates’ lawyer, Charles Ogletree, another heavy-hitting Harvard professor, Gates arrived from an overseas trip and found his front door jammed. “Gates then entered his rear door with his key, turned off his alarm and again attempted to open the front door. With the help of his driver, they were able to force the front door open,” Ogletree noted. Once inside, Gates called the real estate company about the damage to the door of his rented home, and that’s when he “observed a uniformed officer on his front porch.””When Professor Gates opened the door, the officer immediately asked him to step outside. Professor Gates remained inside his home and asked the officer why he was there,” Ogletree said. Let’s stop there. A lot of black men have been brutally beaten by police officers for not obeying a police order. But according to Ogletree, the police officer told Gates he was responding to a 911 call about a breaking and entering. As is the case with all confrontations between police and citizens, the versions of what happened differ. Gates claims that after giving the police officer his Harvard University identification and his valid Massachusetts driver’s license, he asked the officer if he would give him his name and badge number. “He made his request several times. The officer did not produce any identification nor did he respond to Professor Gates’ request for this information,” Ogletree said. But the police report claims that after Gates was told police were there because of a 911 call, he said: “Why, because I’m a black man in America?” and that Gates initially refused to show his ID. The report also alleges that Gates engaged in colorful dialogue with the arresting officer: “Gates turned to me and told me that I had no idea who I was ‘messing’ with and that I had not heard the last of it,” the officer reported. When Gates was repeatedly told to “step outside,” he allegedly responded: “Ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside.” Everybody knows when you start dissing a cop’s mama, that’s it. After about four hours in jail, Gates was released on his own recognizance. Not surprisingly, the City of Cambridge issued a statement Tuesday calling the arrest “regrettable” and “unfortunate,” and the police department dropped all charges. Meanwhile, Gates told TheRoot.com, the online magazine of black perspectives he founded, that he is “outraged.” “[The officer] didn’t say, ‘Excuse me, sir, is there a disturbance here, is this your house?’– he demanded that I step out on the porch, and I don’t think he would have done that if I was a white person,” Gates said. That may be true.But because Gates is recognized as one of the most influential black men in America, his ordeal was nothing compared with what he would have suffered as an ordinary black man. I’m concerned because the message here seems to be that police don’t have the right to order a black man around. That may make sense to Gates. But people who live in urban America know better than to try this at home.

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Comments

  • Reggie Greene / The Logistician  On July 24, 2009 at 9:01 pm

    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.

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