Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of the nation’s pre-eminent African-American scholars, was arrested Thursday afternoon at his home by Cambridge police investigating a possible break-in. The incident raised concerns among some Harvard faculty that Gates was a victim of racial profiling. Police arrived at Gates’s Ware Street home near Harvard Square at 12:44 p.m. to question him. Gates, director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, had trouble unlocking his door after it became jammed.
He was booked for disorderly conduct after “exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior,” according to a police report. Gates accused the investigating officer of being a racist and told him he had “no idea who he was messing with,” the report said. Gates told the officer that he was being targeted because “I’m a black man in America.”
The arrest of such a prominent scholar under what some described as dubious circumstances shook some members of the black Harvard community. “He and I both raised the question of if he had been a white professor, whether this kind of thing would have happened to him, that they arrested him without any corroborating evidence,” said S. Allen Counter, a Harvard Medical School professor who spoke with Gates about the incident Friday. “I am deeply concerned about the way he was treated, and called him to express my deepest sadness and sympathy.”
The police report of the Gates incident is clearly written and tells of the police officer’s point-of-view. It has some interesting quotes, including, “You don’t know who your messing with!” and “ya, I’ll speak to your mama outside.”
This is what I think happened, based on the evidence. A white woman in Gates’ neighborhood said that two black guys with backpacks were trying to enter into Gates’ home. From the police report, there was only one black guy — Gates — and I don’t know if he was wearing a backpack. From this flawed report two police officers arrived — Crowley and Figueroa — and investigated the incident. I’ll bet that when Gates was trying to break into his own home — something that many of us, black, white or whatever, have had to do — he was thinking that if someone saw him doing this, they would call the police. I’m sure many of us thought the same thing when in that same situation. For black people in America, however, the situation is somewhat different. Since they are disproportionately accused of crimes, and for them discrimination in public places is a frequent occurence, they are more worried about what might happen if they are caught breaking into their own home. I’m sure Gates was already thinking of the explanations he would have to give to the police officer, and was worried that because he is black, his explanations would not be sufficient or, at least, he would have a very hard time of it.
Gates exploded at the police officer, if the report is accurate. This is something no one should do in this situation. And if anybody watched the show “Cops” in the last two decades, they would know that people get arrested for acting out toward police officers, even when the police officers were trying to calm them down. I’m sure a man of Gates’ stature lives in a very nice, upscale neighborhood where police officers are able to respond in a very short time frame from the initial call, luxuries many people in America do not have. The police were there to protect Gates’ property, but Gates didn’t see it that way.
In the end, I understand the source of Gates’ frustration, and if the evidence presented by the police officers was accurate, Gates still acted improperly.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.
UPDATE: Boston.com, the source of the news article, has removed the link to the police report. You can find the police report on the New York Daily News website. Also, see the New York Times for a very different interpretation of what happened.
According to Rev. Al. Sharpton.: “This is outrageous to us,” Sharpton said. “It’s either a clear case of police abuse or racial profiling,” he said. “This happens every day, but to have it happen to one of the most prominent black academicians is unbelievable.”