Friday, July 24, 2009
Cop who arrested Gates was cunning, not stupid
By DeWayne Wickham
It was the last question asked during President Barack Obama’s prime-time press conference Wednesday night that produced a headline-stealing answer. Until then, the evening was dominated by mind-numbing talk of the national health care legislation Obama wants Congress to enact.
Then, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Lynn Sweet asked a question — about the July 16 arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., Obama’s friend and a renowned black scholar — that caused the usually cautious president to speak more from heart than his head.
“What does that incident say to you, and what does it say about race relations in America?” Sweet asked.
The white Cambridge, Mass., cop who jailed Gates “acted stupidly,” Obama said in a moment of muffled outrage.
Given his closeness to Gates, Obama’s characterization is understandable. But it wasn’t stupidity that caused the white officer to arrest Gates. The officer didn’t simply bungle an investigation of a reported break-in. He arrested Gates, I’m convinced, to put an uppity black man in his place.
Think about it. The police sergeant showed up at Gates’ front door after a white woman called 911 to report two black men trying to break into that residence. Those men were Gates, who had just returned from an overseas trip, and a car service driver, who was trying to help the professor open his jammed front door.
Gates eventually used a key to enter his university-supplied home through a rear door. According to his attorney, Gates was on the phone trying to get someone to repair the front door when the cop confronted him and asked for identification. Gates gave the officer his driver’s license and a Harvard photo ID, but not before asking the officer for proof of his identity.
He demanded the officer’s name and badge number. The cop said he gave that information to the professor. Gates said he didn’t.
At some point, Gates made a second call in an apparent attempt to talk to the Cambridge police chief. According to the police report, he was overheard asking someone to “get the chief” and “what’s the chief’s name?” The cop also said Gates yelled at him and accused him of being a racist.
Then came the cunning part.
At some point, the officer asked Gates to follow him outside. When the professor stepped out onto his porch, he was handcuffed and hauled off to jail.
The cop should have left Gates’ house after the professor proved he lived there, but he didn’t. Instead he hung around and eventually lured Gates outside. Inside the house, Gates’ loud talk crossed no legal threshold. But when the professor continued to behave that way outside, the cop knew the scales of justice had tilted in his favor.
“Gates continued to yell at me” outside his house, the cop wrote in his report. It was Gates’ “tumultuous manner” that got him arrested, the officer wrote. Gates, who heads the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, was charged with disorderly conduct.
The charge was dropped the day before Obama’s press conference, but the specter of racism it raised won’t go away so quickly. Racial profiling, Obama said in response to Sweet’s question, “still haunts us.” What’s even more troubling in this so-called “post-racial era” is that this incident brings to mind something Malcolm X said over 40 years ago about race relations in America.
What do “they” call a black man with a PhD? Malcolm X asked during a debate with a black professor. Without waiting for a response, he answered his own question: “A nigger.”