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On a national level

Gates arrest exposes police racial profiling

Published Jul 29, 2009 3:25 PM

The arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr.—a prominent African-American Harvard University professor—in his own home by Cambridge police on July 16 has shone a brilliant national and international spotlight on racial profiling in the U.S.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
handcuffed and

Professor Gates is the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard, the first African American to receive the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship, and a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. Sometimes called the nation’s most famous Black scholar, he has received numerous honorary degrees and awards for his teaching, research and development of academic institutions that study black culture.

Professor Gates was returning to his home near Harvard Square after a trip to China on July 16. He found his front door jammed and with the help of his limo driver was able to force the door open. According to the white female who called 911 about the “break-in,” the Cambridge police asked her repeatedly if the men where Black and then if they were “Hispanic.”

Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Black Harvard law professor who is representing Gates, told the press that when a Cambridge police officer arrived at his home and asked for proof that he lived there, Professor Gates showed him both his Harvard University ID and his driver’s license. Gates requested the police officer’s badge and number. (National Post, July 21)

“I said, ‘Who are you? I want your name and badge number.’ I got angry,” Gates told the Post. Gates reported that the officer refused to show his badge and walked out of the house. When Gates followed him, he was “astonished” to see more police on his porch. Ogletree said that when Gates stepped onto the porch, Sergeant James Crowley placed him under arrest and handcuffed him.

The police report claims that Gates was “abusive” and “unruly.” They say race had nothing to do with the arrest. Crowley has been with the Cambridge Police Department for 11 years, and ironically instructs recruits at the Lowell Police Academy on how to avoid racial profiling.

Gates said of his arrest, “There are one million Black men in jail in this country, and last Thursday I was one of them. This is outrageous, and this is how poor Black men across the country are treated everyday in the criminal justice system. It’s one thing to write about it, but altogether another to experience it.” (Washington Post, July 22)

Gates’ arrest and racial profiling have caused a firestorm of reaction. Many believe he was arrested because he stood up to the police and became justifiably angry instead of being silent. Crowley told the media, “The professor at any time could have resolved the issue by quieting down and/or going back inside his home.” (Washington Post, July 24)

Ogletree stated that he has received emails from all over the country from people telling of their experiences with racial profiling. Gates plans to do a documentary on racial profiling.

Not an isolated incident

The most famous reaction to Gates’ arrest was that of President Barack Obama. At a press conference on health care reform on July 22, Obama was asked to comment on it: “Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played. ... But I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.”

The reaction was swift and strong to Obama’s statement, with the racist right-wing, big-business media and police unions and organizations across the country screaming that Obama had called them “stupid.”

Obama’s reaction to this was, “I have to say I am surprised by the controversy surrounding my statement, because I think it was a pretty straightforward commentary that you probably don’t need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who’s in his own home.” (ABC News, July 23)

Deval Patrick, the first African-American governor of Massachusetts, when learning of Gates’ arrest told the press that he had experienced racial profiling while attending Milton Academy, a private boarding school outside of Boston. Patrick called the arrest “every Black man’s nightmare.” He said, “You ought to be able to raise your voice in your own house without risk of arrest.” (Boston Herald, July 24)

On July 21 the charge of disorderly conduct was dropped against  Professor Gates. He has demanded that Crowley apologize to him. Crowley has refused. In fact, in an arrogant show of force the Cambridge Police Department held a press conference on July 24 demanding that both Obama and Patrick apologize to them!

Cambridge, Harvard University and Boston are seen around the world as bastions of liberalism, hotbeds of progressive ideas and prestigious places from which cutting-edge research emanates. But the racial profiling and arrest of  Professor Gates have re-raised the question of how much has changed since the 1970s when, in the wake of court-ordered busing for desegregation, white racist mobs were stoning buses carrying Black school children and attacking Black people on the streets and in their homes.

The location of  Professor Gates’ home in Harvard Square—a rich, mainly white area—recalls the period in Boston where Black people could not go into certain areas of the city without literally fearing for their lives.

As a result of a jury trial in 2008, the City of Cambridge was forced to pay a multi-million-dollar award to a former city worker, Malvina Monteiro, who accused city officials of racial discrimination. Attorney Ellen Zucker, who represented Monteiro, told the July 24 Boston Globe, when referring to Cambridge, “The patina of progressive values that cover the city too often hides discrimination and retaliation.” Monteiro is Cape Verdean.

Theodore Landsmark, a young African-American attorney whose nose was broken when he was attacked in the middle of Boston’s City Hall plaza in 1976 by racist white youth with a U.S. flag on a pole, told the July 24 Boston Globe that three years ago in Boston he was pulled over in his new Mercedes by police who said they were checking to see that he owned the car.

Eckfeldt is a member of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, AFSCME Local 3650.