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After Arrest, Cambridge Reflects on Racial Rift
Forum to Explore Deep-Seated Issues

By Krissah Thompson and Cheryl W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 2009

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The town where a white police officer and a black scholar ignited a national conversation on race and law enforcement has begun to open the dialogue that President Obama invited.

Before summer's end, the mayor, district attorney and police officials will convene a forum to grapple with the controversy over the arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Sgt. James Crowley -- which exploded into a divisive debate that drew in the president.

Obama, who spoke to both men last week, called it a "teachable moment" for the nation on a "troubling aspect of our society." Gates said in an e-mail statement that he accepts Obama's invitation to begin talking and wants to work with the Cambridge Police Department. Crowley has not publicly responded to the invitation.

Residents of Gates's neighborhood, mostly upper-middle-class whites and a transient but diverse group of students in university housing, have begun pondering the meaning of the incident. Other questions also have emerged: What does it mean to have the nation's first black president involved? Will the discourse have lasting impact on the relationships between police and blacks and Latinos?

"It's disappointing," said Lawrence Neely, a 33-year-old doctoral student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who lives in a university-owned apartment building next-door to Gates's yellow wood-frame house. "We're in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We have an African American mayor. We have an African American governor. We have an African American president, and just looking at the situation strictly at face value -- without getting into who is right and who is wrong -- we are now having a conversation about the question of whether one of the most influential African American scholars in the country has been racially profiled. It all makes it clear that this is still a reality."

Although others have been critical of Obama's role, Neely, who is black, said he was glad that the president weighed in and hopes the conversation on race will not go back underground.

People in the neighborhood are friendly and speak to one another, Neely said, but he added that the horde of reporters and television cameras outside Gates's home in the days after the arrest served as a reminder that the deeper issues of race are still little discussed.

Much is known about Gates's arrest on the charge of disorderly conduct, which was later dropped, but the folks who live here acknowledge that the incident did not happen in a vacuum.

Demographically, Cambridge is a liberal college town of about 100,000 people -- 65 percent white, 11.5 percent black, 12 percent Asian and about 7 percent Hispanic. The divide between the intellectual university affiliates and the rest of the mostly working-class residents is "from time to time quite tense," said Priscilla McMillian, a civic activist and historian who is white.

Merritt Harrison, a 75-year-old white man who lives around the corner from Gates, said that he understands why the police feel defensive, but that he probably would have had the same reaction as Gates if a police officer had showed up at his home and suspected him of being a burglar.

"I'm white, so I probably wouldn't have been arrested," said the part-time Episcopalian pastor, real-estate agent and counselor who has called the community home for 25 years. "I don't know. Was it racial profiling? I don't think anyone will ever know. But plenty of people think it was. The thing to do is to use it as an occasion to look at the issue. People need to talk."

Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at Harvard who lives next-door to McMillian, said the moment provides an opening to look at "a real paradox persisting in the nation."

"You have a country that has pretty well come to accept blacks in the public domain: in politics, in the media, in sports, in religion," said Patterson, who is black. "But there is still persistent segregation and indeed some areas where there is not much progress, such as integration in the schools. There is a complete mismatch between the world of blacks in the public domain and the world of blacks in their personal relationships."

Patterson, author of "The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America's Racial Crisis," is convinced that race and class influenced the interaction between Gates and Crowley.

Not lost on Neely: The irony that all the research on race and socialization gathered in this academic town did not result in greater understanding. "The police officer made a judgment," he said. "Gates made a judgment. The challenge is the subjective assessments of one another."

'Moving From Fear'

In Cambridge this time last year, a young black man was removing a lock from a bike on campus when a Harvard police officer pulled a gun and demanded identification, according to a six-member committee report on the practices of the police department ordered by Harvard President Drew Faust. The youth showed the officer his Boston Public Library card, began crying and said he was a high school student working at the university. (Harvard police were also called to Gates's home.)

Such incidents have prompted Charles Ogletree to convene meetings of police and community members over the years. Ogletree is a Harvard law professor and Gates's attorney, and he is now helping to map out the citywide forum. Gates is going to participate, he said.

"The goal is for people to speak candidly and have the difficult conversation," he said. "The constant factor in all of this fear. Police fear that they are encountering a situation that is dangerous, and suspects fear that police don't care who they are and what they are doing. So, it is moving from fear to a sense of tolerance and a level of acceptance."

The Cambridge Police Department is gathering law enforcement and policing experts to study the case as it looks for its own lessons, said Commissioner Robert Haas, though he added that his own review found that race played no role in the arrest.

Law enforcement experts nationwide are watching as the city and the incident become an important, if imperfect, petri dish for discussing racial profiling.

"My suspicion is that this was not about race, this was about power," said Richard Weinblatt, director of the Institute for Public Safety at Central Ohio Technical College. "In the old days, we used to call this 'contempt of cop.' This person was charged with 'contempt of cop' because they kept pushing and pushing. But it has opened up a very powerful national dialogue on race, and it's something that police need to address."

In the 1990s, after high-profile cases such as the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles and the fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York, departments began requiring officers to document whom they stopped as a way of monitoring their work. Others beefed up cultural diversity training, formed partnerships with the community and, more recently, began using video cameras and other technology to record interactions.

"I'm not saying racial profiling doesn't exist, but I don't think we get as many complaints as we did 10 or 20 years ago," said Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington, adding that what happened to Gates was not a case of racial profiling because Crowley received a call of a possible crime in progress. "It's not like he was walking through the neighborhood, saw Gates and demanded to see his identification. That's racial profiling."

Gates wrote in a 1995 New Yorker magazine article: "Blacks -- in particular, black men -- swap their experiences of police encounters like war stories."

Saturday, he said in an e-mail statement: "I have spent my entire career as an academic attempting to bridge differences and promote understanding among all Americans. To that end, I have pledged to do all that I can to help us learn from this unfortunate incident. This could and should be a profound teaching moment in the history of race relations in America. I sincerely hope that the Cambridge police department will choose to work with me toward that goal."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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