Archive for Monday, July 27, 2009

What the professor, the police officer saw during the arrest

July 27, 2009


In this photo taken by a neighbor July 16, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., center, is arrested at his home in Cambridge, Mass. Cambridge police officers attending include Sgt. James Crowley, right, and Sgt. Leon Lashley, front right.

In this photo taken by a neighbor July 16, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., center, is arrested at his home in Cambridge, Mass. Cambridge police officers attending include Sgt. James Crowley, right, and Sgt. Leon Lashley, front right.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up as he looked across the threshold of his home at Sgt. James Crowley. Looking back at Gates, Crowley worried about making it home safely to his wife and three children.

Fear was the only thing the white police officer and black scholar had in common. Soon their many differences would collide, exploding into a colossal misunderstanding.

How could things go so wrong? How could two by all accounts decent men start a fire that drew comparisons to the O.J. Simpson case and knocked President Barack Obama off his racial tightrope?

Part of the answer lies in the truth seen through each man’s eyes during the episode, which ended with one of the most influential men in America charged with disorderly conduct.

If this really is to become a “teachable moment,” as Obama hopes, then we have to examine what they saw, according to their public statements — and why they saw it that way.

• • •

It’s early afternoon on Ware Street in Cambridge, Mass., a few blocks from the campus of Harvard University. Gates and his car service driver, a large black man, are trying to force open Gates’ jammed front door. Lucia Whalen, a 40-year-old white woman who works up the street at the Harvard alumni magazine, is passing by and calls 911.

According to Crowley’s police report, he arrived to find Whalen standing on the sidewalk in front of the home. She told Crowley that “she observed what appeared to be two black men with backpacks on the porch … her suspicions were aroused when she observed one of the men wedging his shoulder into the door,” the report says.

No one is blaming Whalen, who has not spoken publicly since the story broke.

“It wasn’t her fault,” Gates said.

We don’t know how she sees the world, what types of experiences color her vision.

But had she shared just one or two different details with Crowley — or if the sergeant had gleaned something else from their conversation — things might have happened differently.

Gates, 58 and gray-haired, says he was dressed in a blazer and walking with a cane. He says his driver was wearing a black suit jacket and matching pants. After they forced open the door, Gates says, the driver carried Gates’ luggage into the house, then drove off in the vehicle.

None of that was on Crowley’s mind when he walked up the steps to Gates home.

“Witnesses are inherently reliable,” he said later. “She told me what she saw.”

• • •

Crowley is on the porch, alone; Gates is inside his home. They apparently notice each other through the front door window at about the same time.

Crowley sees the unknown: “I really wasn’t sure exactly what I was dealing with,” he said later.

The sergeant is 42, a decorated 11-year police veteran who grew up attending diverse public schools in Cambridge. All three of his brothers work in law enforcement. He’s an instructor in a police academy class on how to avoid racial profiling.

He asks Gates to step outside.

“I was the only police officer standing there, and I got a report that there was people breaking into a house. (The request) was for my safety, because first and foremost I have to go home at night, I have three beautiful children and a wife who depend on me,” he said later.

“So I had no other motive other than to ensure my safety, because this gentleman either could have been one of the people breaking in, or he could have been the homeowner who was unaware that there were people in his house unauthorized. I just didn’t know.”

Gates, meanwhile, is a renowned scholar of black history who has spent most of his life literally cataloguing the sins of the past in volumes like “Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience.”

“I know every incident in the history of racism from slavery to Jim Crow segregation,” he said recently.

He knows some of it firsthand. About 1989, hired by Stanley Fish to teach at Duke University in Durham, N.C., “one of the first things Gates did was buy the grandest house in town,” Fish wrote in a recent blog on The New York Times’ Web site.

“During the renovation workers would often take Gates for a servant and ask to be pointed to the house’s owner. The drivers of delivery trucks made the same mistake.”

“The message was unmistakable: What was a black man doing living in a place like this?” Fish wrote.

So when Gates hears Crowley ask him to step outside, he sees history. How could he not?

“All the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I realized that I was in danger,” Gates said later. “And I said to him no, out of instinct. I said, ‘No, I will not.’”

• • •

Crowley asks Gates to prove he lives there.

Looking out his front door, Gates sees someone who should be asking, “Is everything all right, sir?” He sees someone who would not doubt that a 58-year-old, gray-haired Harvard professor lived in this home — if he were white.

Gates sees a racist.

Gates leaves the front door to get his identification. Crowley follows him inside. Gates says he provided a driver’s license with the address of the home they were standing in; Crowley’s police report only mentions a Harvard ID.

“Now it’s clear that he had a narrative in his head,” Gates said. “A black man was inside someone’s house, probably a white person’s house, and this black man had broken and entered, and this black man was me.”

Gates demands that the sergeant provide his identification.

Crowley sees someone who should be grateful, but instead is yelling and falsely accusing him of being a racist. He sees a problem — “something you wouldn’t expect from anybody that should be grateful that you’re there investigating a report of a crime in progress,” he said.

Neither man understood what the other one saw.

• • •

Gates continues to demand that Crowley provide his name and badge number.

Crowley said in his report that he had already told Gates his name, twice, but Gates was yelling too much to hear him. Gates said Crowley ignored his demands.

Gates doesn’t let up. Crowley says he’ll talk to Gates outside. Then he says something Crowley understands perfectly, boiling down his 2,095 pages of “Africana” down into one cry of resistance:

“I’ll speak with your mama outside,” he said, according to the police report.

Gates denies making the remark.

Should Gates have realized that you can’t antagonize the police? Should Crowley have understood what it means to suspect a black man of breaking into his own home? Arguments will persist for years.

Once Obama recovered his balance, backing off his statement that Crowley acted “stupidly,” the president assumed his traditional position of racial referee and said that both men overreacted.

“My hope,” the first black president continued, “is that as a consequence of this event, this ends up being what’s called a teachable moment, where all of us, instead of pumping up the volume, spend a little more time listening to each other … and that instead of flinging accusations, we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity.”


jmadison 8 years, 10 months ago

Will the police tapes of this encounter ever be released?

jaywalker 8 years, 10 months ago

"Sgt. James Crowley. Looking back at Gates, Crowley worried about making it home safely to his wife and three children"

"The sergeant is 42, a decorated 11-year police veteran who grew up attending diverse public schools in Cambridge. All three of his brothers work in law enforcement. He’s an instructor in a police academy class on how to avoid racial profiling."

And yet Washington's "version" of what went through such an experienced officer's mind when he saw Gates was that he feared for his life, because after all, that's the first thing all white police do when they see any black man? Talk about reinforcing stereotypes.


What tapes are you talking about? I don't think they have the police wired, at least not yet.

imastinker 8 years, 10 months ago

If this account is true, then there is no doubt inmy mind that gates was very wrong to do what he did. Nobody is above the law - and he should have been able to take the time to talk to the officer like an adult. There is no excuse for his behavior.

The officer should have been cautious and taken nothing for granted, like the fact that he had no idea who lived in that house and the second person could have been waiting for him on the other side of the front door with a gun.

Leslie Swearingen 8 years, 10 months ago

No one was wearing a backpack, so she got that wrong. I would have responded as Gates did. There is no excuse for arresting him for speaking his mind. I know that I am terrified when I speak with white middle class women because they seem to interpret every thing as aggression so I try to stay as still as possible and make no moves at all. I just wait it out. Mercifully I don't have to talk to these people very often.

Flap Doodle 8 years, 10 months ago

I'm going to be Presidental and say that I've not read this article, but I believe the writer has acted stupidly.

jmadison 8 years, 10 months ago

In Massachussetts,by law, tape recordings are made of all police communications with headquarters, such as a police officer would be making in his contemporaneous interaction with a suspect. It would be much like a video dashcam, except it would be an audio tape.

jaywalker 8 years, 10 months ago

Interesting, jmad. I'd love to hear what they've got.

Jersey_Girl 8 years, 10 months ago

If you look for prejudice hard enough, you'll see it, even if it isn't really there. The article doesn't say if the door was open or closed when they spotted each other (if it was forced open, I wonder if Gates just left it open for the time). That he approached the door and the officer and had a cane should have been clues that Gates was probably not a burgalar. It sounds as though Crowley did not have back up, which is reason enough for every police officer to be extra cautious. That two men were reported, regardless of color and that only one was visible makes it reasonable that the officer felt apprehensive. In my opinion, things would have turned out far differently if Gates has simply asked Crowley what the problem was instead of immediately going on the defense (or offense, depending on your view) and there is really no reason or excuse to start yelling at a police officer.

Satirical 8 years, 10 months ago

So let me get this straight...This author is attempting to make it look like Gates wasn't a racist, and didn't act stupidly because he is pre-programmed to see racism? B.S.

That is like saying someone whose life is devoted to the study of Christian persecution by he hands of the Romans would be justified if s/he went to Rome and defied the authority of their police because s/he would only see a persecutor.

Or it is like saying person A who studies crimes notices person B walking toward them in a dark alley, putting their hand in their pocket for their keys, but person A thinking they were going to be attacked, pulls out a gun and shoots person B. Is that objectively reasonable? Of course not.

Gates' knowledge of past discrimination doesn't excuse his objectively unreasonable response to a police office who is trying to protect Gates' life and property. Objectivity not subjectivity is what is important in self-defense situations, and when you want to mouth-off to the police and be disorderly.

Satirical 8 years, 10 months ago

Gates is the only racists here. The problem with too many African-Americans, like Al Sharpton etc., is they only look to the past and see themselves as perpetual victims. The past is important, but it can be dangerous when you confuse the past with the present, and don't take into account changes.

Gates sees himself as a perpetual victim, despite everything he has accomplished. If people like Gates and Obama still sees themselves as perpetual victims, despite their success, it shows there is something seriously wrong with them. This does not mean some people aren't racist, nor does it mean Gates and Obama could never be discriminated against. But it does mean they are not perpetual victims, and should abandon that mentality in general, and should not assume otherwise simply because a white person does something that offends them.

ralphralph 8 years, 10 months ago

Obama acted more stupidly than either of these men. After getting his comments shoved up his backside, he is now trying to act cool and make it seem like it will go away if he gets the two to come and have a cold one in DC. Many of us saw an Obama that must have been paying attention to Rev Wright's sermons more than he let on. The Prez was angered by what he thought happened, and assumed the worst of the officer, giving his friend a pass. Anger, like whiskey, "don't make liars, it just makes fools." So Obama may not have meant to say it, or wishes he hadn't, but he did say it, and he clearly meant what he said. His comments showed his true colors, so to speak.

ralphralph 8 years, 10 months ago

There is a lot of real injustice out there, but not much of it is happening to millionaire Harvard lawyers.

Satirical 8 years, 10 months ago

OeraLinda... "...people the black community..."

I think I know what you mean, but you should probably say "...some people in the black (African-American) community..." to avoid unintentional stereotyping.

Satirical 8 years, 10 months ago

The reason why this story, and Obama comments, are so great is because is displays what is truly going on in America: African-Americans over-reacting (Gates, Obama) because they assume (even though objectively unreasonable) that they are being discriminated against. It is passion over logic.

My sister, who has four daughters which like Obama are half African-American, used to work retail. When she caught and stopped an African-American for theft, they often claimed they were being discriminated against.

Racism still exists, and private discrimination still occurs. I know because my nieces tell me some girls at their school still call them racially derogatory names. But this story points out that often using the race card is a red-herring, and a way to exonerate the guilty by abandoning a reasonable look at the facts, and instead make assumption based on historical injustices.

puddleglum 8 years, 10 months ago

yeah, gates is clearly racist. saying things like I know every racist encounter since jim crow laws..... I mean, c'mon. You may know what you have read in a book. that's it. It is clear that the officer was just doing his job, and Gates thought he might be able to make a political statement out of it. which he did. congradulations progessor, er-I mean professor

Alia Ahmed 8 years, 10 months ago


We definitely see the world differently if you don't think the beating that Rodney King took was an injustice. Regardless of the what crimes he committed, in this country people are supposed to judged by a jury of their peers or a judge, not nearly beaten to death by a bunch of police officers.

Why are so many whites upset about OJ Simpson's acquittal but don't complain about a number of white people acquitted for murder when the evidence strongly suggested they did it? Robert Blake, for example. Claus von Bulow (allegedly murdered wife using insulin).

Here's an injustice that recently happened to yet another black man in Texas. Injustice still happens and those of you deny it or even encourage it (those on the LJW forums who say the police should have beaten or tasered Gates, for example) guarantee that it will never stop.

Sigmund 8 years, 10 months ago

jmadison (Anonymous) says… "Will the police tapes of this encounter ever be released?"

Yes they have been released as has the 911 tape.

Alia Ahmed 8 years, 10 months ago


I am opposed to police brutality and vigilante justice whether it was a black man or "white meth head". We are supposed to be a civilized country and civilized professional officers should not engage in it. Beating someone who's been accused or even convicted of a crime is something that petty dictators engage in. We as Americans say we hold ourselves to a higher standard. How does that make us any different than Saddam Hussein if we beat or torture prisoners?

Yeah, it would have been hard for him to speak on TV if he was beaten to death. I didn't say he was beaten to death, I said nearly beaten to death. Let me modify that, he was beaten severely. I guess a few scraps is the way you perceived it. Here's a clip from a book called "Official Negligence" that describes his injuries.

OFFICIAL NEGLIGENCE "Police officers are not raised on police farms where they are born and bred to be police officers. They come out of all walks of soci­ ety with all the prejudices and problems of everyone else."

-- SergeantScott Landsman, Los Angeles Police Department.1

WITH HIS BLACKENED RIGHT EYE SWOLLEN HALF-SHUT AND HIS right leg in a cast, Rodney King was wheeled out of the Los Angeles County Jail on March 6, 1991, three days after he was beaten.

sustainabilitysister 8 years, 10 months ago

We still have a long road when it comes to racism in this country. When you look at the pinnacle of power in this country, it's still white men at the top. (Yes, I realize President Obama is not in this group). I am very close to that pinnacle of power being a white woman in this country. Don't fool yourself in thinking that we don't have racial injustices occuring daily in our own community just because they don't happen to you.

Leslie Swearingen 8 years, 10 months ago

We have the over educated who come up with lame reasons why prejudiced people are that way, and the under educated who have basically the same reasons. We are what we are. It is not because of poverty or how we were educated. My sister is a total bigot, I means she hates black people. She wrote me that she might be willing to speak to me if I disown my black daughter. When hell freezes over, my sister. Two sisters, so far apart. What can we expect from strangers who don't even know each other?

yourworstnightmare 8 years, 10 months ago

So let's see. Gates was in his own home, was yelling at the cops, and they arrested him.

A man in his own home cannot yell at cops without being arrested? IN HIS OWN HOME?

Once the cops found out who he was, they should have left immediately despite Gates shouting at them. That they stayed around exacerbated the sittation, leading to the arrest of a man for BEING IN HIS OWN HOME.

Obama was correct. The cops acted stupidly.

Alia Ahmed 8 years, 10 months ago

Here's an interesting story on and a Cambridge, MA paper in which the person who called in the suspicious activity said she wasn't sure a crime was being committed, never said it was two black males with backpacks (actually said there were suitcases on the porch). When pushed by the dispatcher to identify the men by race she said one of them might have been Hispanic. The police report says she personally told the officer that she say two black men entering the house. She denies ever describing the race of the men despite what Officer Crowley wrote in the police report.

Alia Ahmed 8 years, 10 months ago

“What the Professor, the IRS knew”

phaederino, it's interesting when liberals brought up Joe the plumber's tax issues (which was somewhat relative to his question about tax increases), the people are the right called that dirty politics.

Most grants received by universities are for large sums of money and there is an auditing process in place to catch mistakes or misuse of funds. Sounds like the system worked.

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