The arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., at a minimum, quashes any talk of a post-racial America. It may not be the best example of racial injustice I’ve ever seen, but it’s a great example of how life for black people is often complicated by class and race. If a mild-mannered, bespectacled Ivy League professor who walks with a cane can be pulled from his own home and arrested on a minor charge, the rest of us don’t stand a chance.
We all fit a description. We are all suspects.
The Cambridge Police Department was called to Skip’s home after a woman, a passerby, reported a man trying to force his way into the house around lunchtime. Skip got locked out of his home like we all do from time to time, but the report says he was in by the time the fuzz rolled up, and once he presented his identification, the cops really had no other business there. This is probably the place where this should have all been quite simple, but race and circumstances may have colored the scenario.
First, an important primer:
In most states, the parameters for disorderly conduct are set as “any person who could cause inconvenience, alarm or annoyance to others.” Disorderly conduct could include anything from a ferocious cough, the use of profanity (at any volume, in any context) to break-dancing in your front yard or talking loudly to yourself. Normally, it’s the kind of thing you get a ticket for, if that, because cops love donuts, but they hate paperwork. Mostly, you’ll get a warning. But the rub is that it falls to the discretion of the responding officer to decide whether or not to throw you in the car. Depending on the officer’s mood, you could get a warning, a ticket or a night in jail. According to the police officer’s report, Gates “exhibited loud and tumultuous behavior.” That’s a pretty subjective assessment, by any definition. But it never seems to take much provocation for the rollers to put a man of color in handcuffs, no matter who he is.
Not for nothing, Beantown isn’t known as a bastion of racial harmony or model for integration, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the officers responded in an agitated state. They were responding to a legitimate call, but would the cops have responded differently to a white guy similarly situated? Almost certainly.
Based on his statement and looking at the police report, it looks like he had too much conversation for the po-po, and they felt the need to make a point. I can empathasize with Skip, but when the cops come to your house, it’s never a social call. Offer them coffee and a sweet roll, but this is no time to conversate. If they annoy you, get their unit number off the car and note the time, but there’s nothing to argue about because you won’t win any arguments with the police. The cops mishandled this situation. Even still, I’m no Harvard professor, but I know there is protocol when detained by the police–even Pookie knows that. In any event, maybe Skip’s experience is a Crash Moment for the rest of us who haven’t figured that out, even though we may have multiple degrees, live in big houses and we have a black president, class still doesn’t trump race. You and Cousin Pookie have more in common than you ever imagined.
Some whites will suggest that Skip is playing his platinum race card in this case, but it’s easier for black folks to see his arrest from another angle altogether. I don’t know any black man of any age who has not been arrested or detained by the police. If not for the fact that a lot of tiny infractions–loitering, tickets for loud music or reckless eyeballing for instance–often act as pretext for police harassment of blacks, Skip’s arrest would be more cut and dry. But it looks as if Skip Gates got hit with the kind of trumped-up charges aimed more at keeping black people in line than keeping the peace. How sad is it that you are a prominent public intellectual, have reams of scholarship on the bookshelves–you’ve been on OPRAH!–but your 40-year-old white neighbor can’t tell you from any other brother walking the streets? It goes to show that from across the street or in the back of a cop car, we all look like Cousin Pookie.
We may have a different president, but it’s still the same America.