Scholar Says Arrest Will Lead Him To Explore Race in Criminal Justice
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. has spent much of his life studying the complex history of race and culture in America, but until last week he had never had the experience that has left so many black men questioning the criminal justice system.
Gates was arrested outside his house in Cambridge, Mass., after a neighbor reported seeing two black men in the middle-class, predominantly white area pushing against the front door.
"I studied the history of racism. I know every incident in the history of racism from slavery to Jim Crow segregation," Gates told The Washington Post on Tuesday in his first interview about the episode. "I haven't even come close to being arrested. I would have said it was impossible."
Instead, in a country where one in nine young black men are in prison, where racial profiling is still practiced, the arrest of a renowned scholar on a charge of disorderly conduct in front of his house last Thursday has fueled an ongoing debate about race in America in the age of its first black president.
The charge against him was dropped Tuesday, but Gates said he plans to use the attention and turn his intellectual heft and stature to the issue of racial profiling. He now wants to create a documentary on the criminal justice system, informed by the experience of being arrested not as a famous academic but as an unrecognized black man.
Gates has come to see the incident as a modern lesson in racism and the criminal justice system. The police department views it as an "regrettable and unfortunate" incident that "should not be viewed as one that demeans the character and reputation of Prof. Gates or the character of the Cambridge Police Department."
Here is Gates's account of what happened:
After returning from a week in China researching the genealogy of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Gates found himself locked out of his house, and he and his driver began pushing against the front door. The sight of two black men forcing open a door prompted an emergency call to police.
The white officer who arrived found Gates in the house (the driver was gone) and asked him to step outside. Gates refused, and the officer followed him in. Gates showed him his ID, which included his address, then demanded that the officer identify himself. The officer did not comply, Gates said. He then followed the officer outside, saying repeatedly, "Is this how you treat a black man in America?"
The police report said that Gates was "exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior" and that the officer, Sgt. James Crowley, identified himself. "We stand by whatever the officer said in his report," said Sgt. James DeFrancesco, a spokesman for the Cambridge Police Department. He would not comment on Gates's version of his arrest.
The department said that Crowley tried to calm Gates, but that the professor would not cooperate and said, "You don't know who you're messing with."
"These actions on behalf of Gates served no legitimate purpose and caused citizens passing by this location to stop and take notice while appearing surprised and alarmed," the report said.