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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Black Scholar's Arrest Raises Racial Profiling Questions

At first glance, the AP's headline is somewhat disturbing. Reading further on we see that a hot lead-in turns into a rather lukewarm story. But, that's how we're sold everything - first step: you must get the attention of your audience.

Okay, they did that... now I'm hooked and must read the entire article to satisfy my curiosity. It seems that the police in Cambridge Massachusetts responded to a call about "two black males" breaking into a home near Harvard University ended up arresting the man who lives there — Henry Louis Gates Jr., the nation's pre-eminent black scholar. (Okay... that's what the police are supposed to do, respond to calls reporting possible crimes in progress.)

Cambridge police say they responded to the well-maintained two-story home after a woman reported seeing "two black males with backpacks on the porch," with one "wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry." (I don't see any problem there, either. Neighbors watching out for neighbors - what a concept! People used to do that all the time about 60 years ago... back before most of the country went blind, deaf and mute about crime.)

"By the time police arrived, Gates was already inside. Police say he refused to come outside to speak with an officer, who told him he was investigating a report of a break-in." (First mistake goes to Gates, for failing to cooperate with police investigating a possible crime in or around his place of residence.)

Gates' response was reportedly, "Why, because I'm a black man in America?"

Gates initially refused to show the officer his identification, but then gave him a Harvard University ID card, according to police. (Second mistake goes to Gates, for continuing to be uncooperative with police investigating a possible crime in or around his place of residence. Without identification, how could they know he actually belonged inside that domicile? And, of course, Gates just had to "play the race card".)

"He was shocked to find himself being questioned and shocked that the conversation continued after he showed his identification," Gates' attorney, fellow Harvard scholar Charles Ogletree said. (Maybe he should have been a bit more responsive to the officer's initial request for that identification. Now Gates is beginning to sound like an activist who didn't get the memo regarding the success of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.)

Some of Gates' African-American colleagues say the arrest is part of a pattern of racial profiling in Cambridge. (Inasmuch as I live on the opposite coast from Cambridge, I have no idea about the accuracy of that claim. However if there is smoke, there may be a fire somewhere in the Cambridge P.D.)

Lawrence D. Bobo, the W.E.B Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard, said he met with Gates at the police station and described his colleague as feeling humiliated and "emotionally devastated." (Perhaps he could have avoided both those feelings by cooperating with the police, rather than opposing them.)

The Rev. Al Sharpton is vowing to attend Gates' arraignment. (Oh yeah... that will be helpful! We all know how level-headed and objective, and what a calming influence "Reverend Al" is. Am I the only person in the country who remembers the Tawana Brawley incident back in 1987?)

Here's the encapsulated, step-by-step version of how the whole deal sounds to me (based on the AP article):
1. Police were called by a citizen reporting what appears to be a crime in progress, being committed by someone simply described as a "black man".
2. Police responded to that call, and encounter a "black man" at the scene.
3. Police make the standard requests - "Step outside and talk with us" and "Show us some identification". (From what was reported, it doesn't sound as if Gates was ordered to the ground at gunpoint, and handcuffed while an officer had his knee in Gates back.)
4. Gates initially refused both demands, because he felt embarrassed and annoyed by the officers imposing on his dignity, and decided to make a "race case" out of it.
5. The longer and louder Gates decried this miscarriage of justice - and violation of his civil rights on the basis of his skin color - the less sympathetic the investigating officers became (having worked in law enforcement, this is a concept I can understand and appreciate).
6. He was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge after police said he "exhibited loud and tumultuous behavior." He was released later that day on his own recognizance. An arraignment was scheduled for Aug. 26.

Granted, I have not lived the "black experience", therefore I am certain that I cannot appreciate the full impact of it on the psyche of many black Americans. However, I have lived the human experience, which is not any "bed of roses" itself.

I recognize that some black Americans are hyper-sensitive over the challenges which they and their forebears had to overcome, and that for many the struggle against racial inequities has not yet ended. However, overuse of the "race card" diminishes it's effectiveness when there is a genuine need for it. When the report is simply of a "black man breaking into a residence", then any black man found in or around that residence is - and should be - treated as a suspect, until the situation is resolved to the responding officers' satisfaction. Let's not waste the officers' time, by demanding they stop and interrogate male Asians or little white girls, when the suspect has been identified as a black male.

I also know that when people have had a bad day some folks tend to be understandably "testy".

I know that police officers have certain established procedures that they follow... routines that are designed to insure the protection and safety of all parties involved. Deviation from these procedures can result in injury or death to any of those involved.

Henry Gates overreacted to a standard, accepted police procedure (justified or not), which brought otherwise unnecessary grief upon himself. A confrontational attitude will get anybody -black, white, red, yellow or green - arrested more often than not.

Perhaps all parties could have been more understanding about the human dynamics that were in play. Henry could have stepped outside, said "I live here, here's my drivers license - check the address." and the officers probably would have said, "Thank you sir. Sorry to have disturbed you, but we were responding to a report of a crime in progress at this address.", and everybody goes away on relatively good terms.

I could be wrong about this... but not in this lifetime.

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