A few more thoughts on Professor Henry Louis Gates

Henry Louis Gates

This is a continuation of the discussion that I started earlier this week. Most of this grew out of the accusations that President Barack Obama is a racist because of a video which shows him both introducing and hugging Harvard professor Derek Bell. The discussion got off into the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates. I would like to continue that discussion here.

For some reason, in this country, we have an ethnocentric idea that everybody needs to act the same. Actions that deviate from the norm are abnormal and need to be suppressed. My friend, who has stringently argued his point, reveals a critical flaw in his thinking. (Let me add that my friend is highly educated. I’m shocked that he didn’t know who Henry Louis Gates was. I hope that he will find the time to read some of his many books while we are carrying on this discussion.) In his comment, he reverts to saying what he would do if confronted by the police. The discussion isn’t about what he would do or what any White man would do. Instead, this discussion has to do with the criminality and the legitimacy of an arrest of a Black man in his own home. Phrases like “he was looking for it” completely ring hollow with me.

Let’s go over the facts that are not disputed. Henry Louis Gates broke into his own home. A neighbor, concerned, called the police. The police arrived after Prof. Gates had gained access to his own home. They asked for identification and the professor provided two forms of ID. Now, from this point on, all other actions, in my mind, were moot. The police were there to verify that he had not broken into somebody else’s home. The police had at this point verified that he was in fact Henry Louis Gates. Both IDs had pictures on them, and they verified his assertion that he lives in that house. Discussion over. End of story. “Thank you for your time, Prof. Gates. I’m sorry to bother you.” That’s it. Anything else was superfluous and unnecessary.

From the Massachusetts Lawyer Weekly:

In order to secure a disorderly conduct conviction, the prosecution would have to show three things:

1. That Gates engaged in fighting, threatening, violent or tumultuous behavior or created a hazardous condition by an act that served no legitimate purpose;
2. That Gates’ actions were reasonably likely to affect the public; and
3. That the defendant either intended to cause public inconvenience, annoyance, alarm or recklessly created a risk of public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm.

In 1976, the Supreme Judicial Court in Commonwealth v. Richards held that the law cannot be applied to a defendant’s language, even if it is offensive and abusive, unless it constitutes “fighting words which by their very utterance tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.”

While the report refers to Gates’ conduct as “loud and tumultuous,” there does not appear to be anything there that would allow for a conclusion that they were “fighting words.”

So, we’re left with the question of whether the arrest of Henry Louis Gates was just. Please tell me.

I’d like to spend just a couple more seconds talking about something else that happened which was associated with this incident. Do you remember an e-mail that was circulated from a Boston police officer? Justin Barrett sent an e-mail to the Boston Globe which reveals how race is such an important part of our society. Officer Barrett was responding to a column written by Yvonne Abraham of the Globe in which he states, “for if I was the officer he verbally assaulted like a banana-eating jungle monkey, I would have sprayed him in the face with OC deserving of his belligerent non-compliance.” (His hate-filled e-mail can be found here.) What causes a man to write something like this? He said in an interview that he was not a racist. Okay? What causes a man who thinks he is not a racist to write such a blatantly racist e-mail? I think that this is important. This man was no martyr. He did not write this e-mail and think that he was going to be suspended and then fired. He thought he was doing the right thing. He thought he was doing the right thing by telling off that reporter. When we read the whole e-mail, it becomes apparent that it was not only about race, but it was about power. It was about how people are supposed to react to the police. It was about respect.

To me, this whole discussion is about respect and opportunity. All Americans want is to be respected and have the opportunity to provide for their families. That’s it. This whole discussion of women’s rights and Sandra Fluke is about respect and opportunity. Over the next several days I will continue to talk about race (Jeff, I promise I will be getting back to your comments, promise…) and how opportunities are widely available to some but extremely limited for others. What are your thoughts?