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Henry Louis Gates Jr. is BLACK?! Quick, Call the Cops!

July 21, 2009

By now you’ve heard that Henry Louis Gates Jr., affectionately known as Skip Gates to his homies, was suspected of, get this, breaking an entering…through the front door…of his own house…  Yes.

So basically what happened is a young woman saw the very famous Gates Jr. struggling to get into a house, and of course she did the only natural thing that anybody else woulda done- she assumed that negro was breaking and entering!  Thank gawd for cell phones- she was able to alert authorites right away!

In her defense, yes, Gates says through his lawyer that he did have to force the door because it was jammed- but does that make him a criminal?  Ever break into your own car before?  Sent a kid through the window because ya’ll somehow got locked out?  I’m reading people who find it “suspicious” he couldn’t get his door open.  Oh please.

And people over-react and misinterpret situations all the time.  I had a neighbor call the police on me once.  My crime?  Parking in front of my house (in a rental) but not getting out of the car.  Minding my P’s and Q’s when suddenly a cop is tapping on my window with the butt of a flashlight asking me what I’m doing there and to step out of the car?  Uhhh, no, I won’t step out of the car.

At the start I have to say, I have a very soft spot for this man, mostly because he is brilliant, he is fair, and he is balanced.  He doesn’t excuse the inexcusable.  He doesn’t stretch to connect dots that otherwise wouldn’t go together.  From where I sit I can look at one of the many places I keep books in the house and see one that he co-authored: African American Lives.

Gates currently serves as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard, as the Direct or the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.  He is, in a word, brilliant.

But I digress.

While attempting to enter his own home, Gates “got into it” with the cop who responded to the call.

And well he should have.

You can read the police report yourself, which is comedy and will stink right through your computer screen, it’s so full of shit, but at one point Gates says to the officer, “I’ll see yo mamma outside…”

I’ll take a bit of writer’s liberty with the official translation: Fuck.  You. Copper.

There was no crime.  No crime.  The man has NO record.  He was at HIS OWN house.  It should have been over at that point.

But it was just getting started.  Because in any scenario where you have a cop and a non-cop, there is a play for power.  The police always think they have it, that they should have it, and that they’re never wrong, even when they’re wrong.  So rather than getting his ass back into the squad car- he tried to push his power onto the Professor.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is not some smart mouth thug.  He’s not one of those famous people that throws his fame around to get what he wants.  He’s an educator. The entire thing is laughable, really, except…

It’s not.

Years ago, my Uncle had a run-in with the cops.  He made the mistake of going to his bank of 25 years and trying to deposite a check in his name into his account.  Can you imagine that?

His crime?  He didn’t have his driver’s license on him; it was in the car.

But the policy is that ID is only required on such a transaction if the customer wants cash back.  Unc didn’t want cash back.  He wanted to deposite the full amount.  The branch manager, using her “discression”, denied him.  He didn’t get ignorant (he doesnt know how), but he did protest.  The check was a few hundred dollars.  His balance more than covered it.

She insisted on refusing.  And then she called the police.  I might not have believed what happened next if I hadn’t read the trascript of the call myself:

Threatening, menacing Black man.  Over 6 feet tall.  Big, large, very big man.  Those were the words she used to discribe Unc.

Unc can’t be taller than 5′ 8″ (sorry Unc), and I really wanted to say 5′ 7″.  He’s smaller than me and I’m on the tall end of short (work with me).  Threatening?  Menacing?  Never.  I mean never.  It’s just not possible.  One of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. No criminal record.  Hard working, loving family man.

The police came and arrested him.  Took him out in handcuffs.  It’s things like that- it’s hard for our men, it’s so damn hard, for so many damn reasons.

Now, up until that point, yes, I’d seen racism in action, I’d seen discrimination at work, I’d seen friends get jacked up by the police, but Unc?  Unc?! I was a teenager, so that took the equation in a new direction for me.    It was the frist time that I realized that people who are racist or who turn the wheels of racist institutions have the power to see Unc, you, me, us, in a way outside of our control.  I was young, so for, me it was simple, we had good Black people and bad Black people, and Unc was so obviously one of the good ones so…why did they do that to him?  Because he was Black.  And because of what they thought that meant, because they had the power to make him something other than what he truly was- which was a customer with a legal transaction.  I’ve done that same thing probably hundreds of times; deposit money with no ID, you don’t need ID for that transaction.  Think about it, anyone can deposit money into your account, they don’t have to prove who they are for that- ever.

But again, I digress.

Henry Louis Gates Jr is 58 years old.  What is a 58 year old salt and pepper bearded Black man doing breaking into a house- dressed like the smartest coolest nerd on campus AND has bags to carry?  That just doesn’t make sense.

And quite frankly, when CRIMINALS see the police coming and they are in the process of COMITTING a crime- they don’t stay there (they also don’t break into houses via front doors- hello, back wondow, duh)- they run.  Fast.  I mean really, really fast.

Protecting and serving is about common sense.  Comon, mofo sense.  I was edumakated in criminal justice so I’ve taken the same damn training that idiot took.  Rule number ONE for protecting and serving; use. common. sense.

They didn’t have to know who he was.  This isn’t a situation of the professor vs any other Black man.  They’re all lumped together here.

What was he wearing.

What was his reaction initially when police arrived (not much)?

What did he say (before the mamma crack, which was brilliant)?

I think it was Dave Chapelle who joked that all Black people are certified paralegals.  The joke implies that because Black people get screwed over by the system so much, they have to know the ins and outs of the system- and the law, and that such knowledge is a Black birthright, if you will.  We know that racial profiling is real and happens a thousand times a day across this country.  We know the “rules” for driving while Black, shoot, we know the rules for breathing while Black.

Running with that theory, it’s easy to understand why Gates wasn’t playin’ this shit.  Can’t say I would’ve either.  Once I prove I am who I say I am, get the hell of my porch.

Instead, Gates was arrested and charged with, you guess it, disorderly conduct, AKA the trump charge, after police said he “exhibited loud and tumultuous behavior.” He was released later that day on his own recognizance. An arraignment was scheduled for Aug. 26.

If you’re Black then you know what it means when people accuse you of being loud- it means you might actually be eloquently and calmly advocating for yourself to a person who really doesn’t want to hear it.

Tumultuous is another matter altogether.  wtf does THAT mean?  The root word, tumult, means a disorderly commotion or disturbance.  What they’re trying to say is Gates got ignorant with them and carried on like a fool.

You may think I’m just ranting, so here’s a much more eloquent examination:

The officer was responding to a report of a felony in progress. It was appropriate for him to come to the porch and to interact with Professor Gates and to ask questions such as how many persons are in the residence, etc. It is arguable that the officer had probable cause to enter the residence based on the citizen report of a break-in.

However, once Professor Gates has been identified, the probable cause for entry disappears. Absent any other reason to be present, the officer should have expressed regrets for the inconvenience (although at this point the officer had done nothing wrong or outside either policy or procedure) and left the house.

It is on the porch, where Professor Gates and the officer were clearly most upset, where I feel that his Federal civil rights and human dignity were grossly violated.

Ordering a person to calm down is widely known to be a serious error in police work. Dr. George Thompson’s seminal book “Verbal Judo,” which is widely used to teach police officers, states that ordering a person to calm down never works. This is consistent with training I have received and my own observations in the field.

Displaying a weapon (handcuffs) is also not a technique used to calm a person. It is an escalation which generally culminates in a use of force, as it did in this case.

Moving immediately from verbal arrest to overcoming physical resistance is also not a recommended law enforcement technique, in the absence of any urgent or threatening circumstances. The presence of several officers negates officer safety concerns.

Last but not least, it is not at all clear to me that the public conduct in question is not protected 1st Amendment speech. The officer’s prior accuracy in relating the contents of the speech is abruptly missing — calling him a racist and statements of self-importance (mislabeled by the officer as ‘threats’) suddenly turns to “yelling.”

The other officer states that Professor Gates shouted, “This is what happens to Black Men in America!” Sounds like protected 1st Amendment speech to me.

Mmm hhmmmm…

22 Comments leave one →
  1. ben permalink
    July 21, 2009 4:17 am

    I suppose it is easy to see the former incident as a racist act, however I would personally have called the police whether it was a black person or a white person. You say it is one rule for blacks and one rule for whites, but arn’t you lumping all white people in together now, are we are incapable of knowing right from wrong in your eyes? This seems an extreme statment but it is the feeling I got from reading your article, it seems as though you are speaking about this issue as if it is a (pardon the really bad pun) and black and white issue as if all blacks are oppressed and all whites are racists.

    What the woman did was see a person kicking the door in of a house and reacted in the same way as many other people, whether they are black or white if the are kicking a door down I find that suspiciousalthough I do believe the police officer is at fault for persuing the issue when it was not needed I believe you are in danger of being racist yourself.

  2. superdooper permalink
    July 21, 2009 5:34 am

    Good article and everything…sorry, but, does your common sense tell you to use the spell check on your writing? It should.

  3. July 21, 2009 6:26 am

    I read the report, and, I have no sympathy for Mr. Gates. All he needed to do was show his identification to the officer. This was NOT a case of racism, it was simply a police officer responding to a call, and Mr. Gates refusing to co-operate. Sorry, no sympathy from me. He got what he deserved.

  4. Claude Belisle permalink
    July 21, 2009 6:32 am

    Although many things went wrong and it is sad they did, I take exception to the rationalization you made of the reasons the lady called the police in the first place. Get off the racism horse, it is tired. I’d want people to call the police if they witnessed someone, anyone, green, yellow, black, or white, forcing his/her way into a house, particularly my house. Better safe than sorry.

  5. BigEdsBlog permalink
    July 21, 2009 9:21 am

    Let’s see if I’ve got this right. You are seen breaking into your front door in the middle of the afternoon, and when the police arrive you decide to be an a-hole. Well guess what? You get what you deserve no matter what color your skin is.

  6. July 21, 2009 9:26 am

    Michael, you are an uninformed dolt, idiot, etc. He gave him his wallet with identification when the officer asked for it. The situation did not escalate until the officer refused to give his badge number. And you want proof that the cops fucked up? They had to drop the charges today. Now take your self righteous ignorance elsewhere.

  7. July 21, 2009 9:27 am

    And Claude, if it’s somebody who lives in your neighborhood and you are a famous Harvard professor getting home from filming a documentary in China… THEN ONE OF YOUR NEIGHBORS SHOULD KNOW WHO YOU ARE. Wow. I mean come on. I’m white. I don’t throw loose race cards around, but this is ridiculous.

  8. Sable permalink
    July 21, 2009 10:15 am

    Some of ya’ll need cultural competency training. Badly…

  9. ZacMatic permalink
    July 21, 2009 12:26 pm

    Ben, actually, you’re right. In the United States, all white people are racist in the sense that they benefit from institutionalized racism regardless of whether they express prejudice or bigotry, and all black people are oppressed by said racism. The degree to which this happens may be different for different people, but it’s undeniably there.

    July 21, 2009 2:21 pm

    Black men, young or middle-age, have to walk a thin line with the police. Now, what Gates did (in or out of his home) could have (or would have) resulted in the AVERAGE black man taking a serious beating and, furthermore, he might be still sitting in jail.

    But, let me digress. When not-so-famous black men are stopped, harrassed, beaten, or even shot (some belong to law enforcement)by police officers, who he hell cares–including the black elite at Harvard who are quiet as church mice on “black affairs” when it does not impact one of their own.

    Gates has been the “go to guy” for the white liberal cultrural establishment in all things black and used as a battering ram to diffuse frank talk about racism, race, and, if you will, oppresion in American life.

    So, Gates, Harvard professor and all that, thought he could talk down to the cop rather than explain what occurred and the bid officer farewell. The officer basically arresed Gates because he felt disrespected.

    The black elite seem to think that they are immune–which is to say: on par AS A CLASS–with their white counterparts only to learn some rather painful lessons in American life.

    Where is Gates and Ogletree when black workers and people at Harvard have legitimate gripes–you know members of the great black unwashed? Where are they?

    Now, when something horrible happens to Gates at white hands everyone in he nation wants to have a referendum on the meaning of race and racial profiling? Please.

    A sensible black man would have known the implications of two black men trying to push a door open in a neighborhood–the perception of it all. Gates could have called Harvard Housing and have someone come over. That’s called watching your back.

    Black folks have what one psychologist called The Mark of Oppression. We cannot kid ourselves.

  11. Helen permalink
    July 22, 2009 1:19 pm

    Even if Gates *did* behave badly, even if he *did* use bad judgment, even if you believe *every word* of the police report, there is nothing there that says he should have been run in. It’s not as if there has never been an arrogant “who do you think I am” WHITE Harvard professor, oh, noooo … but you know what, it’s not a crime to be a jerk, even when you’re a jerk to a police officer. Surely police officers know when they go into this line of work that it will involve lots of people being rude to them?

    Note that *I* don’t think Gates necessarily was a jerk. It’s just that EVEN IF HE WAS, he didn’t deserve to get arrested for it.

  12. Ivy permalink
    July 22, 2009 11:17 pm

    I guess I waited too long to read the police report, because I can’t find it anymore on the web. But regardless, that’s the police’s opinion, and it should be viewed as a subjective account. I just wanted to point out that so many people who commented on this article focused solely on the question of whether or not that woman (Gates’ neighbor) should have called the police. I guess that’s an issue worth discussion, but I can’t help wondering how she could possibly failed to recognize Gates as her neighbor. Could she really have missed the fact that she was living across the street from Henry Louis Gates, Jr.? I guess it’s possible–which, in itself, shows a kind of white ignorance. But to me, the strongest point that stuck with me from this article (and by the way, thanks, Sable, it was a great article) was that it is not lawful for the police to abuse their power by arresting people just because they don’t like their attitudes (whether because of racism or because of things the person is saying). It is not the policeman’s job to monitor attitudes. It is his/her job to monitor actions. I respect the police, but I feel we give them too much power to get away with something like this. There have to be consequences for actions like this. The policeman who arrested Gates definitely owes him an apology, and I feel that ALL whites–especially policemen–should undergo anti-racism training.

  13. Ivy permalink
    July 22, 2009 11:19 pm

    Oh, and, I forgot to mention– I’m speaking as a white person.

  14. July 23, 2009 12:14 am

    Helen, I agree that he should not have been arrested after the fact were learned. Once the officer understood that he was the homeowner, that should have been the end of it. However, it is clear that Mr. Gates’ actions and behavior caused concern, as it should have, and, as I am sure if a white person acted this way, the result would have been the same. The only difference is, we would NOT be hearing about it, as we are this case.

    Oh, and Justin, you are a rude, ignorant person, attacking someone that raised a valid concern. I would hope that most police officers can do their jobs with the professionalism expected of them. Granted, there are cops that fail miserably, but that crosses all racial lines!

  15. Helen permalink
    July 23, 2009 2:29 pm

    If he shouldn’t have been arrested, he shouldn’t have been arrested. End of story. If a white Harvard professor had acted the way Professor Gates is described to have acted (obviously his lines would have to have been slightly different, but oh, well), that police officer would have bellowed (again, this assumes Gates really was being “loud”), “SIR, I’M VERY SORRY YOU’RE TAKING IT THIS WAY, I WAS ATTEMPTING TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF YOUR PROPERTY, GOOD AFTERNOON TO YOU” and left. No goddamned way would he have been arrested.

    I don’t think anyone ought to be patrolling the streets wearing a gun if they are so touchy about people getting angry at them. It’s part of a cop’s JOB to deal with people getting angry with them, with or without good cause.

  16. Lets move on permalink
    July 24, 2009 1:04 am

    this is a comment from a previous person, If a white Harvard professor had acted the way Professor Gates is described to have acted (obviously his lines would have to have been slightly different, but oh, well), that police officer would have bellowed (again, this assumes Gates really was being “loud”), “SIR, I’M VERY SORRY YOU’RE TAKING IT THIS WAY, I WAS ATTEMPTING TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF YOUR PROPERTY, GOOD AFTERNOON TO YOU”

    that is complete BS. i am a white person and in the past when i was out of control i would get areeseted for popen off at the mouth. like what michael said, if this happened to a white person you do not hear about it. i am so tired of hearing about racal sh-t on tv and on the news. shut up already. all you hear about are white on black crimes, and have the time race has nothing to do with it (like this one here). why is it when ever a white person, or someone moderatly white, says something or does somethig to a black person, or aferican american (some people prefer the politicly correct version)it is taken way overboard and spread all over the news; yet, you do not ever hear about black on white crimes. when i was growing up i was beatdown every day for being white in a black neiborhood, where is my cover story. a few years ago a black girl and a white girl boarded a bus, and the white girl was beat down by five black dudes just for being around the black girl. where was that cover story. i am just tired of hearing about racisum only going in one direction. the only way that raceisum will go away is to shut the F up about it. now back to Mr. Gates, i do not know if he showed his id or not( you have some saying he did and others say he did not)but, if he did show his id then yes this is a clear cut case of racisum. but if he did not show his id then the cops did what they normally do WETHER THEY ARE BLACK OR WHITE. now, i am sure for my comments there will be folk out there sayiny that i am racist, because you do not know me. to make you aware i am married to a very strong black women, and we have a child together. Facts are facts, it is time to shut up about racisum and just let shit go.

    i am not a writer

  17. Lets move on permalink
    July 24, 2009 1:07 am


  18. Helen permalink
    July 24, 2009 10:51 am

    Um, Let’s Move On, are you a Harvard professor? Are you rich and famous? Are you a friend of the president? Those people don’t typically get pushed around by the police. No one is arguing that there are no white people who get treated like this by the police — they’re saying that white people in *positions of power* don’t get treated like that, even when they lose their tempers. And of course there are *decent* police officers out there who don’t pull this shit even on non-powerful folks of whatever color.

    There are a couple of things going on here:
    –it’s wrong that police officers push around people who’ve done nothing criminal but who have no particular power
    –it’s wrong that someone can be assumed to have no power due to his skin color, regardless of how high a position he holds or how little he’s likely to be a criminal
    –even under the code of “I get to push people around who can’t fight back,” the police officer was STUPID to assume a well-known Harvard professor couldn’t fight back

    I have to admit, I can totally see my dad getting that angry and saying something stupid to an authority figure. As a young man, he did get in trouble for that kind of thing. As a white-haired, obviously well-off white man, heck no, people let him rail away. They may or may not have done what he wanted, but they didn’t run him in, either. (In his case, I don’t think it’s because they thought they would get sued. It’s because they saw him as an eccentric older guy who was no threat.)

  19. The Spook Who Sat By The Door permalink
    July 24, 2009 11:07 am

    I don’t know if we will ever know what really happened. My gut tells me that both made poor choices. Unless he threatened the officer or posed some other danger, it’s clear that Gates was arrested for “contempt of cop”, otherwise known as disorderly conduct.

    Given Sable’s headline, “Henry Louis Gates Jr. is BLACK?! Quick, Call the Cops!”, I found this article on Salon very interesting:

    The author contends that:
    “He isn’t outraged because he feels he was the victim of racial profiling by the police (that dubious honor goes to his foolish neighbor) [in fact, the woman who called the police is not a neighbor, but works nearby]. He’s outraged because he was the victim of class profiling. He didn’t resent being identified as black; he resented being identified as that kind of black, the kind of black that can be hassled and pushed around by simpleton cops. How dare you hassle me? I’m Skip Gates: Harvard professor!”

    And concludes: “that Ivy League Effect has washed out his healthy fear of the police. Yikes.”

    Regardless of what he said/she said, this analysis rings true to me. This could have ended much worse. Gates was probably in the right, but he could easily have been dead right.

  20. BlancoDiablo permalink
    July 24, 2009 2:54 pm

    This had nothing to do with race, it is all about classism and Professor Gates pulling the race card. How dare this white trash speak to me, a Harvard scholar, in this disrespectful tone, he obviously does not know who I am. I will pull the race card and use my connections to teach this white trash a lesson.

  21. Sable permalink
    July 24, 2009 4:27 pm

    The race card doesn’t exist….

  22. Cardcarrier permalink
    July 25, 2009 10:02 pm

    I guess all of us black people will have to go back to carrying papers that allow us to move from one place on the plantation to another so that the ‘Patrol’ can know that we have permission from ‘Massa’. By the way, so much for the officer and his diversity training, because it is not working.

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