Jul 21, 2009

Henry Louis Gates and "Contempt of Cop"

Henry Louis Gates is a respected professor of history at Harvard. When Gates, who is black, had trouble entering the front door of his Harvard-owned home, he and a companion spent some time forcing it open.  Called by a neighbor who thought that a burglary was in progress, police officers arrived and confronted Gates.  Gates proved that he was not a burglar, but the cops claimed that Gates was so confrontational that they arrested him for disorderly conduct. Gates was briefly detained in a jail cell, but the Cambridge police quickly apologized to Gates and dropped the charges. 

Gates' stature and his access to the media ensure that the event will become part of the continuing debate over the extent of racism in the criminal justice system.  Since there can be no claim that the cops did anything wrong by responding to the burglary-in-progress report, the debate will focus on what happened after Gates proved that he was in his own home.

Gates admits that he got angry because the arresting officer repeatedly refused to respond to Gates' demands for his name and badge number. The officer claims that he gave Gates this information but that Gates became hostile and confrontational anyway.  If Gates is to be believed, he was guilty only of "contempt of cop" for being a black man who was typecast by a white cop. If you believe the cop, Gates acted out because he saw racism in an officer's acting properly in the face of two possibly armed and dangerous burglars.  

Perhaps the key to understanding what happened lies in the reason that Gates wanted to know the officer's name and badge number.  Presumably Gates was not planning to write a letter of commendation to the Cambridge Police, praising the officer for arriving so quickly to the burglary report. I'm guessing that Gates got angry because the cop didn't treat him with the courtesy he thought he was due and that would have been accorded a white homeowner.  I'm also guessing that until he realized that his life was not in danger, the cop treated Gates more like a criminal than a professor of history.  The cop's reactions further angered Gates, and explains both why Gates demanded his name and badge number and why Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct.

If this is just another incident that enables police offiers and African Americans to view themselves as victims of each other, then its notoriety will accomplish little.  If it helps both communities understand the other's perspective, perhaps the incident will be a waystation on the path to greater social harmony.