Skip Gates arrested for being indignant in his own home! Historiann left peacefully to her own indignation.


Man–you faculty and grad student types think you had a bad day fighting the forces of evil with trenchent observations about the historiography of the Indians of the Great Basin, and witty bons mots about the Investiture Controversy?  Via The Daily Beast, Eminent Harvard African American Studies Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested last Thursday afternoon when police investigated a report that someone was trying to break into a house on Ware Street in Cambridge, Mass.  The Boston Globe reported tonight:

Police arrived at Gates’s Ware Street home near Harvard Square at 12:44 p.m. to question him. Gates, director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, had trouble unlocking his door after it became jammed.

He was booked for disorderly conduct after “exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior,” according to a police report. Gates accused the investigating officer of being a racist and told him he had “no idea who he was messing with,” the report said.

 Gates told the officer that he was being targeted because “I’m a black man in America.” [To read a copy of the police report, click here]

Friends of Gates said he was already in his home when police arrived. He showed his driver’s license and Harvard identification card, but was handcuffed and taken into police custody for several hours last Thursday, they said.

Man, oh, man–who wouldn’t be pi$$ed off for getting the third degree in one’s own home, after showing identification?  Yeah, that happened to me all of the time when my white self lived in Somerville and Cambridge…the police were just bustin’ down doors and interrogating white grad students and Harvard faculty every day.  (And what’s with the nosy neighbor who somehow isn’t nosy enough to be capable of recognizing her own neighbors?)  Apparently familiar with the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Professor Gates has retained the services of “Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, who has taken on previous cases with racial implications.”  Right on.

If you have a minute to click and read the Boston Globe article:  scroll on down to the comments, where you’ll be instructed by the colorful denizens of the non-peer reviewed world-wide timewasting internets that “Here we go. Let’s blow this out of all proportion. Let’s not wait until we hear the full story….bring on the Jesse Jackson/Al Sharpton circus,” and “sure. EVERY minority who has to deal w/ the police, merited or not, is the victim of…what was that again? racial profiling?” and right on time, “[e]nough of throwing down the race card … we have a Black President now, so that tired old ship has sailed.”  Wow–thanks for the intel, John Q. Halfwits!  And I stopped reading after the first seven comments.  The Globe should really follow the lead of its parent company, the New York Times, which moderates the comments.  Either that–or get rid of the comments!  Most unmoderated comments become sickening cesspools of this kind of aggressive ignorance, and people start to think that they’re entitled to leave flaming bags of poop on every blog and comment board.  I think the big web sites should think of it as their cyber-civic responsibility to clean themselves up and try to raise the standards for web comments in general.  (You don’t publish random, anonymous slander in your editorial pages–so why do it on your web sites, friends?)

Every time I see a comment like that, or have to delete one from my comments, I think, “if you’re so full of great ideas, why don’t you start yet another blog that no one will read?  Why do you think you’re entitled to trash my space?”  Then I think, “oh–I get it!  Because running a newspaper, or even a crummy, lightly pseudonymous blog, is work!  And you don’t like to work very hard, do you?”  Do ya, punk?”

UPDATED, 10/21/09, 11 A.M. MDT:  In the car about an hour ago, I heard a CBS news bulletin that Cambridge police have dropped the charges against Professor GatesSee also the link provided by life_of_a_fool in the comments below, which says that it was Gates’s driver from the airport who was spotted trying to force the front door open.  Another story says that it wasn’t a neighbor, but someone who lives in Malden who made the 911 call to report the supposed break-in.  An updated story in the Boston Globe reports that the driver, too, is an African American man.

UPDATE II:  Go read Prof.  Susurro’s discussion of the Gates incident, and the many, many other stories she has seen and heard about police harassment of faculty of color in “The Privileged Professor (or Why Skip Gates’ Arrest was not an Anomaly).”   She writes:  “The further we get from the university, the less social capital many of us command. While many of us have the money to drive nice cars and own nice homes (or to drive any car and own any home for that matter) as well as the money for leisure activities, including nice restaurants and vacations, the traditional divisions between the white upper class and the rest of us, often means our presence in these spaces are ignored or disciplined.”

0 thoughts on “Skip Gates arrested for being indignant in his own home! Historiann left peacefully to her own indignation.

  1. The man had just gotten off a plane from China. I don’t care how “over the top” he may have gotten by yelling at the police. He’s exhausted (a flight back from China is one long, long plane ride), he’s in his own home, he’s identified himself – honestly. As I’ve said elsewhere – a frat boy drinking and shouting “pig” in his front yard on a Saturday night is going to get a ticket, he’s not going to get arrested. Things are still not equal in the US, I don’t care who is president.


  2. So much for the postracial moment. It’s terrible that Skip Gates had to go through that — but not surprising.

    Historiann, your observations about the blog posts raise some important questions. My local newspaper’s web pages is a cesspool of anti-immigrant discourse, and I swear they are trying to drive up circulation (or web visits, as the case might be) by providing a forum for all types of right-wing loonies.


  3. Just went to read the Globe story and saw those comments. Gah.

    OTOH, the comments get a bit better further down. And I did like this one:


    “Lets not blow this out of proportion. Every day thousands of white people get locked out of their homes and arrested once they gain entry. Look at your local locksmith’s advertisement “we change locks and have you arrested within 2 hours or your money back.”
    Posted by Jess Helms July 20, 09 02:27 PM


  4. I thought the police report was interesting. In the first paragraph, the officer notes that Gates’ actions “served no legitimate purpose and caused citizens passing by this location to stop and take notice while appearing surprised and alarmed.”

    I’d be surprised and alarmed too if my neighbor got arrested for opening his own dang door. I also don’t understand calling Harvard cops. And honestly, for all that Gates seems to have been yelling and upset? How about, once you’ve determined that he is who he says he is, and that his house isn’t being broken into, “Glad to see it’s you and not a burglar. Have a good day.”


  5. I read the police report. There was absolutely no reason this got played out the way it did. The police officer appears to have made Gates look as bad as possible but it is still nothing. Ridiculous behavior on the part of the police officer.


  6. Did you also notice the little tidbit at the end of the Globe article? Gates had been arrested BEFORE in Cambridge for being black. I really, really hope this arrest is accompanied by a big, fat multi-million $ lawsuit.

    Not that any of the commenters at the Globe deserve response, but I’ve broken into my house and called locksmiths before and never, ever have the police even come to my house, let alone arrested me. It’s really terrifying that the police think they can treat law abiding citizens this way simply for being a) black and b) outraged at their treatment.


  7. Rad–that’s exactly what I’m getting at. Newspaper and magazine webistes appear to be catering to the lowest common denominator with their open, unmoderated comments. I didn’t mean to impugn the Boston Globe readers only–the comments on Denver Post (or OC publications) are just as disgusting. I think you’re right that it’s all a part of how they strategize to get more clicks, but really–they don’t make money off of clicks. No one does, except pr0n merchants.


  8. I read the police report and it seems to me that the officer arrested Gates in order to save face. Like he couldn’t let all the white neighbors see that he was being “disrespected” by a black man.


  9. I’m disgusted by the whole situation, especially comments like those at the globe. I don’t necessarily believe the police report is accurate and yet I don’t *have* to disbelieve anything in it to see that this is unjust. as aurora said above, the police report tries to make it all look as bad as possible and it still comes to nothing. well, nothing except plain old ugly racism.


  10. yeah, I was almost as upset by reading the comments as by reading about the arrest. I try to avoid reading comments in that sort of forum for just that reason.

    I also agree with those who have pointed out that the police report still makes it sound like a drastic overreaction, at best.


  11. Here’s a statement by Ogletree on behalf of Gates:

    This may explain the nosy neighbor who couldn’t recognize her neighbors. It sounds like Gates was inside his house (entering through the back door), while his driver pushed in the front door. So the neighbor may have seen the driver, who would likely be a stranger. Of course that someone would call the police while seeing suspicious behavior isn’t the issue. I’d like to hear the caller’s response to what happened when police arrived. . .


  12. What gets me, aside from the obvious racial aspect of all this, is the officer’s claim that Gates’ actions (in forcing the jammed door open) “served no legitimate purpose” aside from alarming a racist neighbor! What was he supposed to do, just sit on the doorstep until his racist neighbor called the cops about a black man loitering?! I agree that it seems the officer just arrested Gates because he didn’t want to be seen as willing to be “disrespected” by a black man, but what cop doesn’t get shit from upset people at times, without arresting them? And frankly, I also think Gates should sue the nosy neighbor, whose obvious racism started the whole debacle.


  13. @Nikki — I agree, since Gates was arrested as the officer was leaving and outside. It was when the righteous indignation was publicly aired that it became “too much”.

    It’s also disturbing that a police officer decided the best way to save face was to arrest the homeowner. “I’ve obviously made a mistake here, so the best way forward is to compound the problem with an arrest, thus further wasting the public’s money on a court case, and further harassing the person who hadn’t done anything wrong until I arrived.” Great plan!


  14. While all of this is utterly disgusting- I’m glad it was him simply because he is an incredibly resourceful man who knows a lot of powerful people. What really makes my blood boil is thinking about all the “average Joes” who have to deal with this daily and then have no recourse…
    I hope this enlightens some Americans to the fact that we aren’t anywhere near ending racism. And as you point out Historiann, it wasn’t just the cops- how about the lovely neighbor who saw black men on a porch and figured it was a break in? We all have a lot of work to do!


  15. This is only tangentially relevant to the specifics of this story/thread, but at a previous school sometime back, a very senior colleague announced that ze was going on leave, divorcing, and going abroad for sex reassignment surgery. Ze would be back after a year’s leave, with a different name, etc. A week or so later ze was arrested at home by sheriff’s officers and I think the U. police, and committed to the U. hospital psychiatric ward, on the affadavit of hir sister. It happened again at a conference a few weeks later in a nearby big city, I understood, in front of a roomful of shocked attendees.

    It all, I guess, sort of worked out in the long run (has been written up somewhere), but that old middle class saw I learned, viz. that you don’t have to worry about the cops if you’re minding your own business, sure gets stretched out of shape in a large number of instances.


  16. An alternative perspective: suggested not by me, but by a friend who heard about the story: maybe Gates *was* exhibiting disorderly conduct. He didn’t get booked for trying to break into his own house; he got booked for yelling at a cop. And I’m sure he did raise his voice, did accuse the cop of racism. Maybe he shouted and let forth some choice imprecations–after all, he’d just returned from a long trip and was probably in no mood to be diplomatic.
    Depending on what Gates said, and on what the Cambridge disorderly conduct statute specifies, his actions might have fit under the perimeters of the statute–Gates’color and job affiliation notwithstanding.
    To me, as well, it seems like no big deal compared with the insults less privileged minorities often face daily, with no press coverage.


  17. I think being asked to show multiple forms of ID in your own home and then being arrested in your own home IS a big deal! I can’t imagine the blue streak I’d be cursing if it happened to me. Screaming and hollering at people in your own house is perfectly legal–if the officer didn’t want to hear it, he could have just said, “have a nice day, sorry for your trouble,” and walked away. (In my state with our “Make My Day” law, I can plug someone on my doorstep through a closed door just because I *feel* he’s threatening me.)

    Just because it happens to others who don’t get publicity for their troubles doesn’t mean it’s not outrageous. (Should he have to sit down and shut up like those who are less well connected? No–this incident can perhaps be used to highlight their experiences.)


  18. Ignatz-

    Why does the existence of *worse* things somehow trump discussing the badness of this bad thing that happened to Professor Gates?

    This is classic concern trolling of the variety that pops up in discussions of race, sexuality, gender, feminism.

    Although, dude, if this story of Professor Gates’s very bad day as compared to police harrassment of young black men in poor neighborhoods raised your consciousness so much that you’ve already started a social justice organization to work on that much more pressing issue, a thousand pardons.

    Otherwise, you’re contributing less than nothing: how exactly is it making the world a better place to only exert your energies to pooh-pooh concerns about related dynamics?


  19. This was just a good old fashioned pissing match. It seems that the key moment of escalation was when Crowley decided to ask for a second form of ID (the Harvard ID did not have an address) because he was being abused when asking for the first one.

    I have been stopped by the police for no taillight, no headlight, no license plate light, no front license plate, no registration, no inspection, speeding by 4 MPH, speeding by 32 MPH, sneaking onto a golf course, drinking in public, staggering down the street, and, yes, for just walking down the street. I find the behavior of Mr. Gates difficult to understand.


  20. Pingback: Friday round-up: police state a-go-go, yee-haw! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  21. MM–I disagree. Gates’s privilege as a Harvard proffie certainly meant that he felt more empowered to talk back, but talking back and being angry aren’t crimes! There are pissing match elements perhaps, but they’re embedded in a larger context. (See today’s post for more on this.)


  22. Now, every one is trying to go for controlling the damage already made. Boston is not a very forgiving town to dark skinned people. I worked with a white man whose wife was from Far east with a dark complexion. It was in the 1980’s and when they traveled by subway, the older ladies looked strangely at them. The man got annoyed many times — to the point of punching some of these old ladies. Another friend who taught Indian music in Cambridge was assaulted badly in the neighborhood he lived — because he was married to a white woman. He was told “You are not fit to live in the neighborhood”. Fortunately, his wifely family had the muscle power to prosecute the two thugs in the law of court.

    I am bit unclear why the neighbor woman called police. She could not recognize Prof. Gates or she is someone new to the neighborhood? Would she have called the police if the person would have been a white man? These are the issues to address — not the individual Gates or the policeman who arrested him!!


  23. PS – I almost forgot . . . I have been detained for rolling through a red light, accessory to urinating in public, and failure to hang my food on a tree limb so that bears might not eat it . . . I’m sure that I will be able to remember a few more each week, as this incident has stirred the darkest recesses of my memory . . . stay tuned.


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.