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.