Why was Henry Louis Gates arrested?
Recently, Harvard professor and the director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research was arrested while “breaking in” to his own home.
The backlash from this event has brought up issues of race and ethnicity that many thought buried for years. Even President Barack Obama has found his way into the controversy — it doesn’t help that he is a friend of Henry Louis Gates or that he is the first African-American president. Obama spoke out about the arrest of America’s most prominent black scholar, and in doing so Obama accused the local police that arrested Gates of “acting stupidly”. What’s the story on Gates’ arrest?
Proessor Henry Louis Gates was arrested last Thursday night as he was breaking into his own home. The 58-year-old, a friend of President Obama and probably the best known black scholar in the country, was seen by a neighborhood resident as he and his driver were trying to to pry open the broken front door of his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The bystander, seeing a couple of black men prying a door open in a rather affluent neighborhood, called the police. Within minutes, a uniformed white officer arrived. By then, Mr Gates was inside his home on the phone with the Harvard Real Estate office to report the faulty front door.
According to Mr. Gates (in his first televised interview since the arrest — with CNN) he told the officer: “This is my house. I’m a Harvard professor. I live here.” When that wasn’t enough or the officer, Mr. Gates showed the officer his Harvard University identification card and his driver’s license. When the officer still didn’t respond the way Mr. Gates would expect, Mr. Gates asked the police officer for his name and badge number — a request which the officer decided not to comply with.
Gates: “He didn’t say anything. I said, ’Why are you not responding to me?’ Are you not responding to me because you’re a white police officer and I’m a black man?”
The officer then requested that Mr. Gates step outside of his home — which Gates did. Gates was surprised when he was handcuffed, especially considering that Mr. Gates is handicapped and requires the use of a cane. Eventually, he was handcuffed in a more comfortable position, was arrested, and spent four hours in police custody before being released. A charge against him of “tumultuous behaviour” was later dropped and the police want nothing to do with the controversy now surrounding Gates and his arrest.
Even as President Obama spelled out the case against the police officers and argued that this arrest is “a sign” of the country’s continuing racial divide, Obama joked that he might face an even worse fate if he ever tried to break his way back into the White House. “Here, I’d be shot,” said Obama, part joke, part serious.
Mr. Gates was named by Time magazine in 1997 as one of the 25 most influential people in the United States. For a man of his stature to be handcuffed and taken to a police station for breaking into his own home is simply despicable. Gates is now considering legal action against the Cambridge police. In his interview with CNN, Mr. Gates spoke of the vulnerability of black men, the fact that all people of color and all poor people look like suspects to certain law enforcement officers.
Mr. Gates has already heard apologies from the mayor of Cambridge, Denise Simmons, and the Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick — both of whom are black. Interestingly enough, the white officer involved, Sergeant James Crowley, has refused to apologize to Mr. Gates. In fact, Cambridge police are insisting that Mr. Gates was personally responsible for his arrest because he overreacted and shouted at the policeman. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen many people shout at police and not end up in handcuffs.
The President, while angry and upset by the case, did acknowledge his friendship with Mr. Gates may be coloring his reaction, and also admitted that he did not know the full facts of the case. But he went on to say this about this case — “I think it’s fair to say: number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and number three – what I think we know separate and apart from this incident – is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately, and that’s just a fact.”