of protecting people and fighting the bad guys and contributing something positive to society.
I also thought that instant respect came with putting on that uniform. As I grew older, I
watched the police in Berkeley and at San Francisco State in the City. The Alameda County
Sheriffs were known as the "blue meanies", and were quick with billy clubs and tear gas.
They even tear gassed a hospital. I watched the police in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama;
and of course, the "police riot" in Chicago in 1968, and my view of law enforcement changed.
They were brutes and bullies used by the powers-that-be to control society and defend the
status quo. Every time another department put an American flag on their uniforms, or on
their cars and motorcycles; I knew they had no understanding what the flag actually stood for.
Two friends of mine became San Francisco police officers. In fact, lots of friends
of mine or acquaintances, graduates of St. Ignatius, Sacred Heart, Riordan, and other city
schools, became police officers. I knew them; and while many did fit the typical stereotype,
many did not. The two friends I knew were partners. For more than a year, I would meet
them in the Tower Market parking lot around midnight, and ride with them for three or
four hours. I went in with them on calls, and I saw what their world was like. It was 7.5
hours of boredom, and maybe half an hour of fear and adrenaline. One night, they were
called to back up another unit. About four or five African-Americans were up against a wall.
My friend got out and evaluated the situation; and when he returned to the car, I asked him
what was going on. They quoted a section of the penal code that I was not familiar with.
When I asked them to explain, they said the suspects were under arrest for "...failure to bow
and scrape". I could tell my friends were embarrassed and did not like what they saw, but
they felt there was nothing they could do about it.
All of this is background or preface to a discussion over the arrest of Professor
Henry Louis Gates in his Cambridge, Massachusetts home by a Cambridge police sergeant.
It is a story that has taken on significance because of the racial overtones associated with it,
and because the President of the United States has weighed in and declared that the
Cambridge police acted "stupidly".
I have seen police officers at their best and at their worst. I covered the L.A. riots
after the Rodney King decision. Ground zero was the intersection of Florence and Normandy
in South Central Los Angeles. The police were four to a car, with shotguns sticking out of
every window. They were scared and really had no control for more than three days.
(National Guard troops had to be sent in to restore order.) In San Francisco, massive
demonstrations shut down much of the city at the start of the first Gulf War. The SFPD
engaged in running street battles with those who wanted to shut down the Federal Building
and the City in general. In Los Angeles, the black population of South Central L.A. truly
hated the L.A. cops and vice versa. In San Francisco, the "police vs. demonstrators" was
more of a game. I knew demonstrators and cops; and each had some sympathy for the other,
but had parts to play.
I don't know all the facts in the Gates case. I have listened to Gates and to the
officer involved. My unscientific analysis says they were both wrong. Cambridge police
got a call of a possible burglary in progress. Gates was locked out and forced his front door
open and got in. Someone saw him and called the police. The Sergeant showed up and saw
the forced front door, and found Gates inside. Gates says he presented ID to prove who
he was and that this was indeed his home. The Sergeant asked him to step outside. (The
Sergeant says there was a report of two men breaking in. He didn't know if there was
someone else in the house, or if Professor Gates even knew if they could still be in the
house.) Professor Gates admits he verbally challenged the officer, demanding to know if
he was being asked to step outside because he was a black man. The officer continued to
press for the Professor to step outside, and the Professor got more agitated, asking if the
officer knew who he was, and telling the Sergeant that he shouldn't mess with him. The
Sergeant eventually arrests Gates for disorderly conduct and takes him away in handcuffs.
Charges were later dropped.
Professor Gates and many other African-Americans and Latinos say this is a classic
example of racial profiling. A black man in a rich neighborhood (near Harvard) is
immediately suspect. A minority in a predominantly white neighborhood must be up to
no good. In New Jersey, a court case proved that State Police were stopping luxury cars
with African-American drivers, under the assumption that they were drug dealers, because
how else could they afford the cars. In Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and many other
American cities, studies have shown that police disproportionately stop and hold more
African-American and Latino males than they do white males. There are too many instances
of minorities being killed by police in a shootout, only to discover later that the suspect was
unarmed. None of this is new to anyone in this country. Racial profiling is real and has
However, in this case it would appear that Professor Gates is as much in the wrong
as is the police Sergeant. Being asked to step outside was not an unreasonable request; in
that the Sergeant did not know who might be in the house (a danger to both the officer and
Professor Gates), and he didn't know what Professor Gates was up to either. Men might
have to "break into their own house" because they have been locked out or thrown out in
a domestic dispute, and are "breaking" back in to do harm to their partner. Gates should
have stepped outside. He acted stupidly. For his part, it should have been clear to the
Sergeant, fairly quickly, what the situation was; and when confronted by Gates he could
have stepped outside, taken a look around to see if there were any other points of illegal
entry, and re-connected with the Professor. Even if he didn't want to do that, once he had
cuffed the Professor and then checked out the house, he should have released Gates and
never, ever should have arrested him and taken him to the police station, subjected him
to mug shots (which the public has now seen), and held him. The officers actions were
overkill; and very few police I know would have done that. Did the Sergeant get into his
feelings because of Gates' attitude and confrontational behavior? Did he arrest Gates
because he was offended when accused of being a racist? Why was Gates so upset? Was
the Sergeant's request outrageous or impermissible? Why was Gates so offended and why
did he act like such a prissy diva?
There is plenty of blame to go around on this one. That it raises the issue of profiling
and law enforcement is good because the practice still exists (most of our anti-terrorism
practices are based almost exclusively on racial profiling). Anything that gets Americans
talking about race is a good thing. We are a nation that based its' laws and practices upon
the principle of white supremacy for most of our history. The legacy of that philosophy is
still resonating in this country today (think of the swim club in Pennsylvania which kicked
the black and hispanic kids out because they "would change the nature and complexion of
the club if allowed entrance"). However, Gates was as much at fault as was the Sergeant.
Tempers flared, egos got involved; and the result was embarrassing for both of them.
Over the years, I have developed respect for police officers because I know many,
and they are good, caring people. I have respect for minorities in this nation because they
have had to fight for a respect that I have never struggled to attain. I am glad we are talking
about this; but in this particular case there appears to be no villain, only two male egos
too big for one house in Cambridge to handle. What do you think? I welcome your
comments and rebuttals. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org