Henry Louis Gates Jr. Arrested, Now Who Owes Whom an Apology?

By Alan Bean 7-22-2009

090722-henry-louis-gatesThe Cambridge Police Department arrested Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. after Dr. Gates entered his own home and produced proof of his identity.

This story caught my eye because my daughter, Dr. Lydia Bean, recently graduated from Harvard and begins teaching sociology at Baylor next month. Our family was recently in Cambridge for the graduation ceremony. Gates' attorney, Dr. Charles Ogletree, is a Harvard law professor who provided invaluable behind the scenes assistance in the Jena 6 case.

The Boston Globe reports that a District Attorney has decided not to press charges against Henry Louis Gates Jr. No surprise there. Gates is a highly respected professor and authority on the civil rights movement. But if he had been just another black guy in some small Southern town, he would still be locked up. (Please read this piece of analysis from AP writer, Jesse Washington. Here is CNN's take.)

If his first name was "Bill," he would have been treated with far greater deference.

Check out the story in the Globe and scroll down to the comments section. Most of these people are residents of Greater Boston, but you would get the same range of comments in the Deep South. Half the readers think Dr. Gates owes Sergeant James Crowley an apology.

An apology? Really? If a police officer saw me trying to enter my own home and I presented clear evidence that I owned the place, his next move is very simple: offer an effusive apology and clear off my property.

Had that been done this would be a n0n-story.

Sure, the initial scene at the front door looked suspicious. You can't blame the neighbor for calling the police, nor can you blame the police for checking into the situation. But don't expect the homeowner to welcome your intrusion with open arms.

No one appreciates having to prove that they own their own home. I would get a bit testy if this happened to me. I would certainly ask for the officer's name and badge number. If this information wasn't provided with alacrity, I would tell the unresponsive officer what I thought of his non-compliance. It's simple human nature. Police officers should understand that when they confront innocent citizens in their own homes a measure of pique is to be expected.

Treating an officer with contempt isn't illegal. Henry Louis Gates Jr. may understand the racial context of this story better than anyone else in America, but to most readers he's just another black guy playing the race card. His comment to the Globe makes perfect sense to me:

I'm outraged. I shouldn't have been treated this way but it makes me so keenly aware of how many people every day experience abuses in the criminal justice system. ... No citizen should tolerate that kind of poor behavior by an officer of the law. ... This is really about justice for the least amongst us.

This is also significant:

Because of his arrest, Gates said he plans to make racial profiling and prison reform central intellectual and political issues he wants to explore. He's also considering a new documentary on racial profiling. "Because of the capricious whim of one disturbed person ... I am now a black man with a prison record," Gates said. "You can look at my mug shot on the Internet."

The Washington Post has recently published an in-depth article based on an extensive interview with Dr. Gates.  The final quote in the Post story sums up the central issue quite nicely:

I'm glad that someone would care enough about my property to report what they thought was some untoward invasion.  If she saw someone tomorrow that looked like they were breaking in, I would want her to call 911. I would want the police to come. What I would not want is to be presumed to be guilty. That's what the deal was. It didn't matter how I was dressed. It didn't matter how I talked. It didn't matter how I comported myself. That man was convinced that I was guilty.

Alan Bean is the executive director of Friends of Justice. Click here to read his blog.

Don't Miss a Story!

Get Sojourners delivered straight to your inbox.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Henry Louis Gates Jr. Arrested, Now Who Owes Whom an Apology?"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines

Must Reads