Courtland Milloy: Professor Gates Should Skip the Blather and Sue

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Now that our "national debate" on race has ended with beer in the Rose Garden, let's get serious. If Harvard professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates believes that he has been subject to false arrest, racial profiling, harassment and public humiliation by police in Cambridge, Mass., then he should press his grievance in a court of law.

Or he should apologize for taking too lightly a police practice that sends thousands of African Americans and Hispanics to jail each year on trumped-up charges of "disorderly conduct."

"A lot of people have encouraged him to file a lawsuit, but Skip has not decided whether to do it or not," Charles J. Ogletree Jr., Gates's attorney, told me Monday.

So what's he waiting for?

"Right now, he's looking forward to other constructive options: public forums on police conduct in minority communities and trying to deal with broader issues of racial profiling," Ogletree said.

But what better forum than a courtroom -- with Gates, director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, as the plaintiff, represented by Ogletree, director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law?

Talk about a "teachable moment."

To recap: Sgt. James Crowley, who is white, responded to a report of a possible break-in at Gates's house July 16 and ended up arresting the professor on his front porch for "exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior in a public place." Gates called Crowley a "rogue cop" and characterized him as racist, rude and threatening.

President Obama, who is a friend of Gates's, said the police acted "stupidly" by arresting Gates. He later backed off the remark and invited Gates and Crowley to the White House for beer and a photo-op. The whole thing had the feel of a parent making two roughneck kids shake hands after a fight. Call it suds for solace. But don't call it justice.

"Skip's point has been clearly not to make this an event just about him and Sgt. Crowley, but to use it as a way to examine the issue from the perspective of the many African Americans and others that have found themselves in the throes of similar circumstances," Ogletree said.

On the contrary, this case has never been just about the professor and the cop. As Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick (D) put it recently, what happened to Gates "is every black man's nightmare." Patrick, like Gates, is black.

Here's the ugly truth about the relationship between African Americans and law enforcement, as seen by Donald Temple, a lawyer in the District who has handled many cases involving police misconduct:

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