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What Professor Gates Was Really Guilty Of

My friend Trevor in Oakland always tells me, "Tell the truth and shame the devil." So I'm going to tell the truth, as I see it, about Professor Gates' arrest for disorderly conduct: He was arrested because he lacked humility. He was guilty of being uppity.

Now the media wants to make more of this by questioning President Obama's choice of adverb to describe how the police in the situation acted: Stupidly. Quite frankly, this is about as far as I've seen President Obama step into a American racial issue.

And he's right.

Once the police were satisfied that Professor Gates actually lived in the home, there was no cause to arrest him unless he posed a threat to the police or some other person. From press accounts, which are not necessarily reliable, Professor Gates had the temerity to birddog his inquisitor and ask for his name and badge number. Now, if the reports are true that this officer followed Professor Gates through his house to his kitchen to wait for him to produce ID and proof of residence instead of waiting at the front porch, is it unreasonable for Professor Gates to think that, given the situation -- him, a middle-aged, gray-haired, bespectacled, nerdy-look guy with a limp on the phone to the Harvard Real Estate office from a house in a faculty ghetto -- didn't merit the level of intrusion the officer is reported to have engaged in?

In criminal law, we had it drummed into our heads that a police officer's superior judgment is to be taken into account when evaluating the legality of him or her doing a "Terry" type of stop -- that they are better able to assess the "totality of the circumstances" in deciding whether someone should be stopped, asked for ID, etc. Because they encounter crime all the time, even when they don't have a warrant or exigent circumstances, they are better able to evaluate whether an intrusion into someone's liberty is warranted for the greater good.

Although this was beyond a "Terry" stop, with that in mind, even if the police received a call about a breaking and entering, what about the "totality of the circumstances" would lead them to believe that Professor Gates, in all his disabled, nerdy, intellectual, bespectacled glory, broke into someone else's home or that, once he produced ID and proof of residence, that his conduct was such that he merited arrest? Did they not see "African American Lives" on PBS?

Oh, I get it. He had the temerity to be uppity with the police in his own home. I can't use the term "assertive" because that's reserved for white folks.

But being uppity isn't a crime. It might get you killed, however. But it isn't a crime.

But therein lies the problem: If a white, middle-aged, bespectacled, nerdy professor had birddogged his inquisitor similarly, would he have been arrested for disorderly conduct or simply told, "Sorry, sir, for the intrusion. We'll be on our way now." Gotta wonder. Having lived in Cambridge and attended Harvard Law School, my money's on the latter outcome.

That a black police officer was present at Professor Gates' arrest is of no moment to me. It doesn't make it any less racist or any more right. Here's a dirty little race secret: Sometimes black police officers racially profile black people, too. Sometimes they are more incensed when we act uppity than white police officers are. Sorry, I'm just telling the truth and shaming the devil.

I understand how Professor Gates felt. I lived in Cambridge, and I was not at all surprised that his neighbors, who should know him by now since he's been chair of the African American studies department at Harvard since Jesus was a baby, would call the police on him. I now live in a small town in Placer County, California. When my husband and I moved here as one of the few black couples in our neighborhood, I told him, "Don't get too comfortable. You know it's coming." He didn't get what I was talking about. "You know," I smiled wryly. "Our 'nigger' moment. Sooner or later, someone is going to call us 'nigger.' It's inevitable." Now, it's sad that I think that way, but when you're brought up by a black father who grew up in the Jim Crow South, in the Depression, no less, you are never allowed to get too comfortable being black in America because assuming your own equality and humanity might get you killed like Emmett Till. In fact, I'm sure my father saw it as his parental duty to make sure we never let our race guard down, that we never got "too comfortable" so that we could assume we would be treated equally to whites and could behave as whites and get away with it. Call it incarceration prevention.

But why should we be inconvenienced, why should we not be allowed to be comfortable in our own neighborhoods and homes, because of someone else's racism?

Six months went by. "It hasn't happened yet," BMNB remarked. "Just you wait and see," I shot back.

Well, last month, it happened. From a child, no less. My husband was coming up the walk after a long day at work, and some neighborhood kid blurted out, "FUCKING NIGGERS!" My husband stopped, did a double take, and yelled, "HEY! THAT WORD I DON'T LIKE." To the credit of our neighborhood, one of our other next-door neighbors, who is from Guam, said to the kid, "Hey, that's not cool. That's extremely disrespectful." The friend of the child apologized, but the child never did. His foster father, our next-door neighbor, then wanted my husband to come and speak to his kids about what happened and how wrong it was. Problem is, my husband was scheduled to take our own great-nephews and great-niece, as he does every Wednesday, to his church's Manhood (and Womanhood) Development program to learn, of all things, values and respect. He came by the next day to speak with the kids, but the offending child was not at home -- he was "in therapy." I told him he had discharged his duty -- it wasn't his job to teach other people's kids how not to be racist. He had been inconvenienced enough.

And that's what Professor Gates' arrest represented to me -- being tired of being inconvenienced by someone else's racism, whether it was his neighbor's or the police officer's. I desperately wanted to see him take this to trial because when Professor Gates stood up for himself on the steps of his house, he was standing up for all of us black folks who are tired of being inconvenienced by other people's racism. He was standing up for my husband's predominantly black fraternity at Stanford when, during a fraternity outing, they were forced up against their cars, hands behind their heads, with drawn shotguns aimed at them by Palo Alto police officers for no other reason than they were black men riding in a caravan of cars late at night. He was standing up for a tired, black woman Harvard law student who slumped down in the back seat of a cab riding through Charlestown trying to catch a plane home for Christmas break. He was standing up for my Harvard law school roommate who was called "nigger" walking on her way to class from Somerville. He was standing up for my husband's pastor who was recently stopped by the police for no other reason than being a well-dressed black man driving a Mercedes-Benz. He was standing up for every black father who, when teaching his son to drive, has to also teach him to keep his hands in sight and his tongue in check if he's ever stopped by the police, since speaking one's mind or reaching for one's ID in the glove compartment could mean certain death for a young black man stopped by the police. He was standing up for all of us.

Like Professor Gates, we're sick and tired of being inconvenienced by other people's racism.


Anonymous said…
Professor Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct, not suspicion of burglary. If you bother to examine the elements of disorderly conduct under Massachusetts law, it's at least arguable. It would generate a jury question. C'mon. You ought to be smarter than that if you went to Harvard Law.

And I suspect you don't know the officer personally. Before you haul off and accuse someone of being a racist, particularly someone whom you've never met, who is widely respected on the police force, and who has a record of doing his best to save the lives of people of color, do your homework.

As a lawyer, you have an ethical duty of competence. Part of that duty is analyzing legal problems from all sides. If you don't do that, you won't be an effective advocate, and consequently you won't be a very good lawyer.

I wish you the very best in your career. But spend a little more time thinking about things next time before you shoot from the hip, as you apparently did in this post.
Thank you for you comment. It's the first negative one I've had since I started this blog. You're keeping me and my blog honest.

However, I think you either misunderstood my post or read too fast. My purpose was to walk through the situation through the eyes of an officer to see if 1) once on the scene, whether the "totality of the circumstances" were such that it was reasonable to believe that Professor Gates was a burglar such that the officer's level of intrusion and suspicion were warranted; and 2) to examine why Professor Gates would have been arrested for disorderly conduct IN HIS OWN HOME. If you are an attorney, surely you know that disorderly conduct is a catch-all charge usually reserved for PUBLIC conduct that disturbs the peace or threatens others. It is also used as a means for officers to show citizens who's boss and to intimidate them from filing complaints against officers.

Once Professor Gates established that he was the lawful resident of his home, as long as he didn't pose a physical threat to the officers or anyone else (which would have been charged as assault or attempted assault were that the case), there was no reason for the officer to remain in his home. While in his home, Professor Gates remained free to conduct himself as he wished, even offensively, as long as he didn't harm or pose a threat of harm to anyone. I don't think it was a coincidence that they waited until he was on his front step to arrest him. I also don't think it was a coincidence that the charges were dropped. Had Professor Gates posed a physical threat, he would have been charged with assault. He wasn't.

In other words, when you analyze the situation, there remains little justification for the arrest other than that Professor Gates behaved in a manner that was not pleasing to the officer. But that's not a crime.

Thank you for your well wishes for my career. It has indeed been very successful. What I wish for you, and what you should wish for yourself, is that I'm not ever representing someone who is suing you.

On, and that duty of competence? A duty of competence comes into play only when you're actually representing someone. I wasn't representing anyone, and I was far from incompetent. In fact, I used to teach legal ethics.
Anonymous said…
I love this blog. And I love that someone was enough of a coward to anonymously throw darts at you in the comments section of your own blog. How fitting. You must have hit a nerve, and I'm so glad you posted it. The response was just icing on our uppity little cake.

That commentor's brand of righteous indignation makes me chuckle every time. Apparently if you knew the officer in question, you'd feel differently (or so I read). Apparently, race is never involved. We're just paranoid, and we just have to remember to always speak to the Police with deference because they tend to be "prickly" with us (Juan Williams said it, not me) or (as the commentor suggests) we should be so swelled up with gratitude over their service to our communities that we wouldn't dare to think ill of them.

I'm not just sick and tired of being inconvenienced by other people's racism, I'm annoyed at their willful ignorance. I'm also disgusted with their entitlement, righteous indignation and constant desire to "put people in their place."

Keep telling the truth and shaming the Devil.
Anonymous said…
Is it possible that Gates was trying to get himself arrested?

What if this opportunity to show the world "this could happen to a Harvard professor", slipped away and became just another anecdote about being asked for ID in your own house?

What other black man could feel secure in trying to get arrested, knowing the president of the united states personally, knowing he wouldn't lose his job, knowing he had nothing to lose but would bring awareness to a problem he'd fought all his life?

Honestly, do you think that thought didn't enter his mind?
Anonymous said…
I left a comment earlier, it hasn't posted but I'd like to hear your thoughts. I respectfully disagree with many of your ideas but what really gets under my skin is when people only read and comment at blogs with which they agree. How will we learn from each other if we do that?

I am a white man. I became acquainted with a black woman in a small town. If you know small towns, then you understand how everyone knows everyone. When I started dating this woman, we were seen around town, in the grocery store, etc. (I was a young, IMO hansom, white man with a very nice car. She was a small town black woman, and we were very infatuated with each other.) Soon she (though not I) began being pulled over a lot, and getting tickets. You know, 45 in a 40 on low-traffic roads at 8 am, approaching a 55 mph zone so that when her car came to a stop, her bumper was level with the 55 zone. Nothing explicit, no "n****r" comments. There were other things, besides being stared at by old white people (daily occurrence), waiting 45 minutes to be served at Sonic (you know the restaurant where they bring your food out to your car?).

On the other hand, on one occasion she was handled surprisingly graciously by a white officer during a traffic stop when she was driving under the influence of prescribed medication. He could have arrested her. Rather, since she couldn't reach a friend, he let her leave her car in a parking-lot and drove her home and helped her get inside.

My point is, the real injustices that take place are not readily apparent to regular white people. (BTW, I'm always very polite to police and I've been roughed-up once for no apparent reason, even had a gun drawn on me outside a club, on another occasion, by a young officer.) Ironically, Gates's behavior (and Obama's "stupidly" comment) is harmful to public awareness of the issue. It makes it look as if black people are trying to imagine a problem where there isn't one.

I think ending the war on drugs would do a lot for black people. But that's a whole 'nother issue and it's getting late.


-the S man.
Hi Anonymous,

As someone new to my blog, you may not have noticed, but I rarely blog or respond to comments on the weekend. My husband, Black Man Not Blogging, and I usually reserve the weekends for tending to family, friends, our dog, and ourselves. This weekend we gave a barbecue for my dad and my brother, both of whom have birthdays this month. So while my blog was rubbing you the wrong way, I was rubbing a rack of ribs, chicken, and burgers with Memphis Minnie's Rib Rub and marinating steaks. Oh, and making Martha Stewart's famed sparkling limeade. Good food takes time.

That said, I doubt that Professor Gates was aiming to get arrested simply because that's not what people usually do when they return to the United States from China. My bet is that he was tired, frustrated at not being able to get into his own home, and angry with having to deal with police in his home upon his return.

I highly doubt that an arrest to showcase racial profiling was an opportunity he was looking for, especially since he's the most renown scholar on African American history and culture and already has something of a soap box to stand on to address issues facing black Americans. He may not be a big deal to white America, but to black Americans who know his work, Professor Gates is already a big deal. He already has our attention to highlight this issue and others, and he has the attention of many others outside his race, I might add. He didn't get to be chair of his department by chance.

I don't think this is an issue of the war on drugs. Racial profiling has been going on long before the war on drugs, although the WOD isn't helping. I think, as one of my husband's law enforcement friends stated, "Professor Gates failed the attitude test" with law enforcement. The problem is, there's a different attitude test for whites than there is for people of color. There's also a different attitude test depending on social class, if you ask me.

So, I ask you: Do you think that a white male Harvard professor who had behaved as Professor Gates had would have been hauled off to jail? And no fair saying, "A white male Harvard professor wouldn't have behaved that way." I had classes with more than a few of them, and they can be just as arrogant and tempermental as Professor Gates is viewed as being.

Peace, love, and barbecue ribs (with Memphis Minnie's Rib Rub),

Black Woman Blogging
s-man said…
Weekend blogging noted.

Anyway... See, you're trying to distract me with barbecue, thereby gaining an unfair advantage because I'm hungry, as well as telling me what I'm not allowed to respond with, which is basically what I was going to say. (How'd ya know?)

Actually, this idea came to my mind early on during this controversy. How many white, well-to-do, connected people have gotten away with things by intimidating officers with the whole "i'll have your badge" spiel? I'm sure it happens quite a bit, and they don't get arrested.

Honestly, I'm surprised Crowley didn't act in a different way. If I were the officer, assuming I was sure that the scene was secure (that no crime had actually taken place) aside from the hostile, indignant, but legitimate resident, I would have written down my name and badge number, left it on the table, went to my car, and when the resident followed me outside, I'd have told him that if he continued his behavior, I'd file a harassment complaint against him with Harvard administration. Black or white. But that's me.

In all fairness, the recipe for Memphis Minnie's Rib Rub is as follows:

2 parts salt (I use seasoned salt)
1 part granulated white sugar
1 part brown sugar
1 part pepper
1 part granulated garlic (I use garlic powder)
1 part Spanish paprika (I use regular paprika)

If the President can make peace between Officer Crowley and Professor Gates over a beer, maybe one day we'll make peace over a plate of baby back ribs. With Memphis Minnie's Rib Rub, of course.


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