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Scholar Says Arrest Will Lead Him To Explore Race in Criminal Justice

Henry Louis Gates Jr., center, the director of Harvard University's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, is accusing the Cambridge police of racism after he was arrested while trying to force open the front door of his home last week. The police said he "exhibited loud and tumultuous behaviour". Gates shouted to a police officer "this is what happens to a black men in America" according to a police report.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., center, the director of Harvard University's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, is accusing the Cambridge police of racism after he was arrested while trying to force open the front door of his home last week. The police said he "exhibited loud and tumultuous behaviour". Gates shouted to a police officer "this is what happens to a black men in America" according to a police report. (Demotix Images)

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Gates said he does not think that anything he did justified the officer's actions. He walks with a cane and said he did not pose a threat.

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"I weigh 150 pounds and I'm 5-7. I'm going to give flak to a big white guy with a gun. I might wolf later, but I won't wolf then."

Barack Obama's election as the nation's first black president was "huge and important," Gates said, but "did not translate to structural change. Given the demographics of Cambridge, [the officer] probably voted for Barack. That wasn't much help to me."

He added: "I want to be a figure for prison reform. I think that the criminal justice system is rotten."

It was also a teachable moment on race and class for Gates, 58, who directs the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard and is a founder of the Root (http://www.theroot.com), a Web site owned by The Washington Post Co.

Billionaire media and sports entrepreneur Bob Johnson has described in interviews with The Post his experience of parking his car next to a ritzy hotel and a white woman opening the back door because she thought he was a chauffer. Coming out of another hotel, he was stopped by security -- locked in a revolving door -- because a black man had committed a mugging in the building and they were stopping all black men coming out of the building.

Charles Ogletree, Gates's friend and lawyer, who also teaches at Harvard and wrote about the relationship between minority communities and law enforcement after the Rodney King verdict, said his own experience with profiling has been similar. On a trip to his home town of Merced, Calif., a police officer stopped him in his rented Cadillac to ask what he was doing in the neighborhood.

Gates's prominence played a dual role, Ogletree said, bringing unflattering attention to Gates in the first reporting of the incident. Then, it allowed him access to well-connected friends and resources that got his case dismissed quickly.

Sitting handcuffed in the police cruiser, Gates was able to ask his secretary to "call Tree," referring to Ogletree.

"He knew: At least somebody will know where I am and what needs to be done. That is the advantage he had to know a lawyer and to call a lawyer."

The harsher side of the experience was "deeply painful and traumatic," Gates said. "I'm outraged that this could happen to me in my own home, but I'm outraged that it could happen to any individual."

He said his documentary will ask: "How are people treated when they are arrested? How does the criminal justice system work? How many black and brown men and poor white men are the victims of police officers who are carrying racist thoughts?"

He has always said his neighborhood is the safest place in the world for him. He is often recognized on the streets, asked for autographs or to debate his latest documentary.

He has no qualms about the neighbor who called the police.

"I'm glad that someone would care enough about my property to report what they thought was some untoward invasion," Gates said. "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."

Gates has asked for a personal apology. Ogletree said it is not clear whether he will receive one.


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