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

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

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.

"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 (, 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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