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Gates’ case dropped, blame debate goes on

APTOPIX Harvard Scholar Disorderly
Henry Louis Gates Jr. center, the director of Harvard University's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, is arrested at his home July 16, in Cambridge, Mass. B. Carter / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The disorderly conduct case against renowned black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. lasted less than week. The heated public debate over his arrest, and the role race played in it, promises to be much more enduring.

Gates was accused of "tumultuous" behavior toward a white police officer, who had responded to the home near Harvard University to investigate a report of a burglary and demanded Gates show him identification. Police say Gates at first refused, and accused the officer of racism.

In a region with a tortured racial history, two overarching arguments have emerged about what happened next. Police supporters charge that Gates — director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research — was responsible for his own arrest by overreacting. Those sympathetic to Gates counter that the white officer should have diffused the situation and left the home as soon as he established Gates was the resident, not a burglar.

Police offered no apology
The charge was dropped Tuesday, with a statement from the city of Cambridge calling the incident last Thursday "regrettable and unfortunate." Police offered no apology, and the white police sergeant who arrested Gates insisted he won't apologize.

But President Barack Obama said Wednesday during a White House press conference that police had "acted stupidly," and there was plenty of blame being spread around by the public, through talk shows, blogs, newspaper online forums and watercooler chats. Even the hosts of a sports radio show in Boston spent much of Wednesday morning faulting Gates.

Thousands of readers posted comments over the past few days on the Web sites of Boston's two major newspapers.

On The Boston Globe site, one reader accused Gates of playing the race card, demanding an apology to the police and the public for his erratic behavior. Another defended him, charging that the incident never would have happened if it were not for his race.

Officers responded to the home Gates rents from Harvard after a woman reported seeing "two black males with backpacks" trying to force open the front door, according to a police report. Gates, who had returned from a trip overseas with a driver, said he had to shove the door open because it was jammed. He was inside, calling the company that manages the property, when police arrived.

Exactly what happened then between Gates and the Cambridge officer, Sgt. James Crowley, is in dispute.

'Outraged' by the arrest
Police say the 58-year-old Gates yelled at the officer, accused him of racial bias and refused to calm down after the officer demanded Gates show him identification to prove he lived in the home. Gates denies that he yelled at the officer, other than to repeatedly ask his name and badge number, and says he readily turned over his driver's license and Harvard ID to prove his residence and identity.

Gates said he was "outraged" by the arrest and has demanded an apology. He said he wants to use the experience to help make a documentary about racial profiling in the United States.

He has repeatedly declined to discuss the arrest with The Associated Press, saying in an e-mail Wednesday: "I am all done on this cycle. I will give you a call." Crowley has not responded to repeated attempts for comment, but he told WCVB-TV off-camera that he would not apologize.

"There are not many certainties in life, but it is for certain that Sgt. Crowley will not be apologizing," Crowley said.

Cambridge police and the police officers' union have declined comment.

Gates' supporters cite Boston's history as a city plagued by racism as an underlying reason why this could still happen to an esteemed scholar, at midday, in his own home.

"That stain on this city — as far as persons of color are concerned — is a real one," television and radio commentator Callie Crossley said. "Now you're talking about the town of Charles Stuart, when black men were stopped indiscriminately."

Citywide manhunt in 1989
Stuart caused a citywide manhunt in 1989 when he said a hooded black man shot him and his pregnant wife as they got into their car after a maternity class. Stuart eventually was labeled the killer, but not before a black man arrested on unrelated charges became the prime suspect.

Perhaps nothing epitomizes Boston's struggle with race relations better than the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken during the uproar over forced busing of public school students in the 1970s. The photo shows a white man swinging a large pole with an American flag at a black man during a protest against the desegregation plan at City Hall.

Black students and professors at Harvard University have complained for years about racial profiling by Cambridge and campus police. Harvard commissioned an independent committee last year to examine the university's race relations after campus police confronted a young black man who was using tools to remove a bike lock. The man worked at Harvard and owned the bike.

Michele Lamont, a sociology and African-American studies professor at Harvard, said she understood why Gates reacted angrily to the police officer in his home given that larger history of confrontations with police — as well as his own.

"Certainly when someone like Gates finds himself in this situation, he has in mind this baggage," Lamont said. "If you think about the background against which Skip Gates might have read this incident, it was not surprising that he would have been upset."

'You really are on alert'
Crossley said many people criticizing Gates for overreacting or for losing his cool have never been profiled by authorities because of their race. Crossley, who is black, said even routine encounters with police — such as a recent one involving parking — leave her with a heightened sensitivity.

"It's just not understanding sort of the environment and the foundation in which he got to the point of rage," she said. "When something big like this happens, you really are on alert."

Richard Weinblatt, director of the Institute for Public Safety at Central Ohio Technical College, said the police sergeant was responsible for defusing the situation once he realized Gates was the lawful occupant. It is not against the law to yell at police, especially in a home, as long as that behavior does not affect an investigation, he said.

"That is part of being a police officer in a democratic society," Weinblatt said. "The point is that the police sergeant needs to be the bigger person, take the higher road, be more professional."

But Lt. Charles Wilson, the national chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers Inc., said he counsels citizens to avoid giving police any excuse to arrest them, as Cambridge police alleged Gates did when he stepped onto his porch and continued to yell and argue.

"You argue about it later. Your first issue right then and there is to walk away from a battle that you can afford to lose," Wilson said. "A good cop respects your rights when you show them their rights. A bad cop tries to convince you to do something stupid so they can put you in jail."

He added: "They will take advantage of your belligerence, they will take advantage of your anger, they will take advantage of your fears."