Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Re-Education of Prof. Henry Louis Diallo-Bell-Edwards Gates

by Barry Michael Cooper

(this is my essay on 2009 arrest of the esteemed Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates, that was published in the Huffington Post on 27 July 2009.) 

"It is a question to bear in mind in our attempts to understand what distinguishes from the past the new fabric of fear that we all seem to wear at this moment."

Chapter One, "A Changing Mask Of Fear", The Climate of Fear: A Quest for Dignity in a Dehumanized World"
Wole Soynika

Monday: 27 July 2009.

In his news conference to the American people last Wednesday night, President Barack Obama continued to stymie the media. Scratching their talking heads in puzzlement, they wondered why he would sedate an estimated audience of 17 million viewers with the tedium of a proposed health care reform bill just as large, transformational, and historic as FDR's 1935 Social Security plan. Is it possible, that the news event was actually a public voir dire for Congress?
Was Mr. Obama--a professor of constitutional law and the president of the Harvard Law Review--shoring up his jury (on both sides of the isle) in front of 17 million witnesses? Maybe. Singling out Charles Grassley, Mike Enzi, and Olympia Snowe--moderate but influential Republican senators--the president continued the bi-partisan dialogue, stating that the three were "serious in engaging Democrats in trying to figure out, how do we get a system that works." As the august lawyer, D.C. power broker, and adviser to President Bill Clinton, Vernon Jordan said the following day on MSNBC's Live With Carlos Watson, President Obama was "negotiating with Congress."

The president is determined not to go out like Napoleon: last week's press conference was a savvy move to outmaneuver the GOP's Seventh Coalition (led by that Gebhard-Von-Blucher-of-a-son-of-a-gun, Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina), who are looking to crush him in a beltway Waterloo, and even those apostate blue doggies in the Democratic party. A majority of sixty does not mean a slam dunk; there are some Dems who--in lieu of their own resistance, which could be hiding political or even profit-driven motives--can't seem to grasp the urgency of those "families who are losing their life savings trying to pay for medical care and to businesses burdened by trying to provide coverage to their employees," to quote a 23 July 2009 NYT story reported by Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jeff Zeleny.

"Let me be clear. This is not about me, I have great health insurance," the president said, "and so does every member of Congress...this is about every family, every business and every tax payer, who continues to shoulder the burden of a problem that Washington has failed to solve, for decades. This debate is not a game, for these Americans."

Of course that bill wasn't going to be signed before September; I believe President Obama knew that setting a deadline would continue to move this complex issue forward. "The default position, is inertia," Obama said.
"I'm descendant from a white man, a white man who slept with a black slave, and we know from the analysis of my DNA, that my hepa-type goes back to Ireland."

Dr. Henry Louis Gates to Professor Dan Bradley, head of the Molecular Population Genetics Lab, of Trinity College in Dublin, in the 2006 PBS documentary, African American Lives 2.
It's interesting to note that a news conference on health care reform, became a prognosis on the ailing body politic of race relations in America. In the last question of the night, Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun Times, raised the issue about the arrest of the esteemed Harvard professor, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, in his Cambridge, Mass. home on Thursday afternoon, 16 July 2009.

The arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, and several other policemen, responded to a call at around 12:45 pm, from a neighbor, Lucia Whalen, 40--who also works as the circulation manager and fundraiser for Harvard University Magazine, not far from Prof. Gates' home--who said she saw what appeared to be two black males with backpacks on the porch of Ware of the men wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry, according to the police report filed by Sgt. Crowley. Oddly enough, in the actual 911 call, Whalen never mentions the race of the men.

The two black males were Gates and his driver, who had driven him home from the airport. Gates was trying to unlock his front door. A lock that appeared to have been damaged. After some real effort of trying to get inside his house, he was successful in gaining entry. When the cops show up, Prof. Gates is arrested. In his own home.

The factual series of events from both sides (Prof. Gates and Sgt. James Crowley) are as diametrically opposed as day and night. Sgt. Crowley--who is an instructor on racial sensitivity in the Cambridge PD, and was also responsible for giving CPR to the late Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis, 16 years ago--said that Gates became belligerent and uncooperative. He claims in his police report, that when he asked the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor of Harvard University (who had just flown home from China, where he was filming a documentary on the renown cellist Yo Yo Ma) to step outside to speak with him, one of the most respected academicians in the country allegedly told the police officer, "Ya, I'll speak with your mama outside."

To go from being the heir apparent of Dubois's Talented Tenth legacy, to a hot ghetto mess, is quite a precarious leap in belief, and of course, Prof. Gates' account never mentions him participating in a game of the dozens. Nor does it say he became belligerent or uncooperative. On the contrary; when asked by Crowley to produced some identification as proof that he lived at that address, Dr. Gates gave the officer his Harvard ID, and his Massachusetts Drivers License. But, according to Gates, when he asked Sgt. Crowley for his name and badge number, Crowley turned his back on Gates and walked outside, ignoring him. When the professor asked if the sergeant's dismissive attitude was because Gates was just "a black man in America," that's when Crowley slapped cuffs on him.

All charges against Prof. Gates have since been dropped.

By the time Lynn Sweet had asked President Obama about his take on the arrest of Prof. Gates (at the end of a stilted, but informative news conference), the audience of journalists, the viewers at home and at Wi-Fi hot spots everywhere, were quickened for his response. What could have remained a local-dust up was about to become a global haboob; a monstrous sandstorm swirling in the grit of America's dirty racial history. An gigantic sandstorm more than 400 hundred years tall, wide, and deep.

"Well, I should say at the outset," the president began, "that Skip Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here, I don't know all the facts. What's been reported, though, is that the guy forgot his keys, jimmied his way to get into the house. There was a report called into the police station, that there might be a burglary taking place. So far, so good, right? If I was trying to jigger into my house; well, I guess this is my house now. It probably wouldn't happen, but let's say my old house in Chicago. Here, I'd get shot."

President Obama chuckled when delivering that zinger, and it got a big burst of laughter from the Washington press corp, too. But the laughter was tinged with a nervous clarity of how the First African American President of the United States said, I'd get shot. Of course, President Obama was giving kudos to the top-notch job of protection, performed by the Secret Service. However, the president's words--no doubt created by his own first-hand experience prior to becoming the Leader Of The Free World--had a deeper meaning. Racial profiling has in fact, stopped and dropped too many black and Latino men, with balefully cockeyed bullets marked, mistaken identity.

But it's what the president said next, that has created this national debate on race.

"...The police are doing what they should; there's a call, they investigate what happens," the president said. "Prof. Gates is already in his house. The police officer comes in. Prof. Gates then shows his ID to show that this is his house, and he gets arrested for disorderly conduct. Charges which are later dropped. Now, I don't know--not having been there or knowing all the facts--what role race played in that. I think it's fair to say, that...the Cambridge Police acted stupidly, in arresting somebody, when it was already proof that they were in their own home. There is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement, disproportionately. That's just a example of how race remains a factor in this society. That doesn't lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as the testimony, to the progress that's been made. And yet, the fact of the matter is, this still haunts us."

This still haunts us.

This new fabric of fear
, to quote Nobel Laureate Wole Soynika's 2005 book, The Climate of Fear: A Quest For Dignity in a Dehumanized World, still haunts us. As the word stupidly made its way from the mouth of a black Commander-In-Chief to the mostly white, Cambridge, Mass. police department, that new fabric of fear began to sew a tattered pattern of anxiety and suspicion. An outdated pattern of dry-rot and ill-fitting prejudicial old-cloth. Stupidly had various interpretations, and the import of its nuance depended on a person's race, social position, and their own personal interaction with police officers.

Professor Gates may not have talked about Sgt. James Crowley's mother, and he may not have become belligerent, but that photo of him in cuffs outside of his own home--a safe haven--and his face frozen in a Edvard Munch-like scream of incredulity and indignation speaks volumes:
How can you do this to me? Do you know who I am? I am Henry Louis Gates, Jr.! The first black man to receive the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship! I gave the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities in 2002! I ain't no hopper holdin' no red tops and blue tops in Orchard Park in Roxbury! I am the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University! Do you know how many African-American students I have ushered into Harvard? Brilliant, future leaders. Do you know how hard I have worked, tracing the roots of African-Americans to show our allness, as opposed to our "otherness"?! And you think that you can turn your back on me, when I ask for your name and badge number?! You're not better than me! You and I may even share DNA, you arrogant, racist, ass! Do you know I went to Dublin to trace my Irish roots?! Are you angry that I have a home in Oak Bluffs, on Martha's Vineyard? Well I do, and guess what? This is My House, too, and you're not going to come up in here and just arrest me without an explanation! You can't arrest me in My House! I live here! HEY! I'M TALKING TO YOU! I AM DOCTOR HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR., A PROFESSOR AT HARVARD UNIVERSITY! GET THESE CUFFS OFF ME...THIS IS MY HOUSE...THIS IS NOT 1955! THIS IS NOT SELMA, AND YOU'RE NOT BULL CONNOR! THIS IS 2009, AND WE HAVE A BLACK PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!!! HOW DARE YOU, YOU CRAC...?!!!
Sgt. James Crowley, the venerated sergeant for the Cambridge Police Department--who, 16 years ago as an EMT, performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on the late Boston Celtic, Reggie Lewis--and one of the diversity training instructors with the CPD, may claim in his police report that he did not ignore Prof. Gates's request for his name and badge number, but his slightly smug look in subsequent interviews, says otherwise:

Look, I don't give a damn who you are, and I didn't vote for Obama! My Dad did, but I didn't. And how are you going to talk about my Mom? I don't give a damn if a Black guy is President of the United States, and you are this hot shot professor at Harvard, you're still black, and I'm still a cop. And I'm still white. White men are becoming the minority, and now you people want it all! My great-great grandfather came here from Ireland, to escape the famine. He and others like him settled in Boston, and the Brahmins on Beacon Hill spit on us. Micks. Paddys. Bridgets. That's what they called us. We could only work as servants, and then cops. Doing their dirty work, so they didn't come in contact with Italians, Jews, Latinos, and Blacks. Do I have friends in South Boston who are racist? Yeah, but that ain't me! My best friend--a fireman--is black. And let's be honest, if I was racist, would I have given mouth-to-mouth to Reggie Lewis, a Black guy?! It haunts me to this day that couldn't save Reggie! I'm not a racist, you don't know me! I came to your house because I was responding to a call from your concerned neighbor, Mrs. Sonia Whalen. I was doing my job! And yeah, I ignored you when you started screaming. AND YEAH, I PUT THOSE CUFFS ON YOUR UPPITY BLACK ASS, WHEN YOU SAID YOU WOULD TALK TO MOM OUTSIDE! MY MOM?! HOW DARE YOU, YOU NIG...?!!!

I'm not a telepath, and I don't know what was going on in the minds of Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley, on that momentous Thursday afternoon. But I think they overreacted. Both Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley are good men, and proud men, too, and Providence allowed this incident to puncture their--and ours--new fabric of fear. After various standoffs saying they won't apologize, both have decided to move on and move away from the tripwire of more incendiary charges. Despite the pursuit of a Republican congressman from Michigan--Thaddeus McCotter--to introduce a resolution in the House for the president to apologize to the Cambridge PD, Mr. Obama has wisely chosen to ignore the clowns and rhetoric jugglers at the entrance of the GOP's shrinking Big Tent. The president has recently stated that he could have calibrated his remarks differently, and has invited Gates and Crowley for a cold one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

I have high hopes for them. I hope that this incident allows Sgt. Crowley to re-examine his diversity training, and retrofit it to even the most bizarre circumstances, such as what happened in Prof. Gates's house. He absolutely knows now, what can happen if he doesn't apply all of those skills of mediation.

Prof. Henry Louis Gates has stated on his premier site,, on 24 July 2009, that , "my unfortunate experience will only have a larger meaning if we can all use this to diminish racial profiling and to enhance fairness and equity in the criminal justice system for poor people and for people of color...I look forward to studying the history of racial profiling in a new documentary for PBS."

If Prof. Gates proceeds with the documentary, I hope he lends his eloquent voice to folks like Amadou Diallo. Diallo, a hard working immigrant from Guinea, in West Africa, who was murdered on 4 February 1999, in front of his Bronx apartment in 1999. Four rogue cops fired 41 rounds at him, as Diallo was reaching for his wallet to present his identification to them.
Or Sean Bell, who was murdered on 25 November 2006, on the morning of his wedding in Queens, NY.
Or Omar J. Edwards, who was murdered on 28 May 2009, in East Harlem, chasing a man who had broken into his car. Edwards was a courageous police officer, killed by a white cop, who mistook him for a criminal.
These men need Professor Henry Louis Gates, to tell their story.

On the afternoon of 16 July 2009--in a brief, Kafka-esque moment--Professor Gates walked in their shoes, and felt the fabric of their fear, anger, and distrust. A Kafka-esque moment that snatched Prof. Henry Louis Gates away from the stellar academic honors, away from his circumference in the power elite, away from the Irish genomes that he spoke about with such pride, in his brilliantly compelling 2006 PBS documentary.
The same Irish genomes unrecognized by an Irish cop who arrested and humiliated the professor in his own home.
I hope Prof. Gates' Kafka-esque moment was a re-education for him. I hope it moved him from a hypothetical lesson in some lecture hall on Church Street, to an all-too-surreal empirical instruction about his own Blackness in America, on his own doorstep.
Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Off. Omar J. Edwards, and countless other black and Latino men need Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to tutor all of U.S., in what President Barack Obama calls, this teachable moment . Diallo, Bell, and Edwards need Prof. Gates, because they are forever silent, and without question, the true martyrs of racial profiling.

Be sure to pick up my new anthology, "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1: New Jack City Eats Its Young," available exclusively on Kindle/Amazon. Amazon/Kindle has a free, downloadable app for all computers and mobile devices. Click here to go to the "Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1:New Jack City Eats Its Young" Kindle store site.


Rob said...

I missed this at the time, but it's one of the best pieces I read on this whole incident. Although politically, it seems like eons ago, doesn't it?

But not to worry because we've made progress since then. Instead of your run-of-the-mill high profile police arrest, we now have a Senate candidate's private army arresting a reporter and threatening others.

Not to mention the one who thinks the separation of church and state is not in the Constitution. I mean it's only the first thing in the First Amendment. Give her a break.

Now really, I have to get back to Andre.

Bmc said...

@Rob: I appreciate your kind words..