There was a poorly placed reference on this blog the other day to the issue of Professor Gate’s arrest the other day in his own home. At the time I didn’t see the need to write a piece on it as there were more pressing Bermudian issues at hand. But having had some long discussions with some US citizens here at university with me, I thought it a good idea to give it a forum for discussion.
For those who are not aware of the situation, Professor Gates is a Prof at Harvard University, leading the African American Research Centre there. He had been away on a trip, and on returning home found it necessary to force his way into his own home as the door had gotten stuck. A passer-by (and not a neighbour as originally reported) saw him, and another African-American (his driver) forcing their way into the home and called the police suspecting they may be breaking and entering. The police arrived and questioned Professor Gates who identified himself as the owner of the home. Apparently (and quite understandably) he was quite incensed at the police questioning and argued with the police officer that this was an example of racial profiling. The police officer then arrested him for public disorder and (I believe) insulting a police officer. Professor Gates was later released without charge.
This in itself was quite an absurd event, though as racial profiling in the US goes, not all that serious. However President Obama was asked during a press briefing on Health Care Reform what he thought of it, and he promptly said it sounded like the police were acting stupidly and spoke of “the long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately”.. This then led to some conservative critics of the President to attack him for speaking on the issue without full knowledge of it. President Obama has now ‘qualified’ his statement in response to his critics.
My take on this is that I have no issue with a passer-by thinking she was observing a break-in calling the police – there may be some latent racial profiling involved here, but I can certainly see how a passer-by could mistake what she saw (two men forcing their way into a house) as a burglary. I can understand the police coming to check out the report. I can understand the Professor being upset about the incident, and with the history of racial profiling in the US, and his obvious knowledge of it, that’s totally understandable. What I have trouble understanding is why the police officer found it necessary to arrest the Professor at that point. A little thinking and empathy on the part of the police officer should have told him to have the humility to accept the criticism and just leave it at that. My best guess is that the uniform went to his head and he flipped out on a little power trip. So I totally find the incident absurd.
What I have an issue with though is how this relatively minor issue seems to have grabbed the US national (and even international) news headlines. I really do think that the Professor is milking the limelight on this a bit too much, and the incident really is not worth all this bru-ha-hah. I say this in particular due to the recent death of Shem Williams at the hands of an undercover cop in Brooklyn.
To summarise from the various news reports on this, the undercover cop was assisting in a drug bust nearby, and decided to sit on the stoop of Mr. Walker’s mothers building while he helped the bust by keeping an eye out. Mr. Walker had a habit of coming out and chasing away drug dealers from this stoop came out for a cigarette, saw the undercover cop and mistook him for a drug dealer. He told him to leave, but the cop did not respond (allegedly due to earphones he was using to communicate with the other police). Mr. Walker then made good on his threat (leave or I’ll make you leave) which ended in the cop pulling his gun and shooting Mr. Walker dead.
I fully admit I do not know all the details of both cases. But to me the death of Shem Walker is much more newsworthy and illustrative of the US race problem than the case of Professor Gates. There is racial profiling in the US, I don’t think we can deny that. There is systematic racial inequalities there on so many levels. But why is it that the stupid arrest of a Black bourgeois captures the news headlines while the hundreds of daily (and far more serious) incidents of racial profiling in the US just pass by as if they don’t exist? That to me is what needs discussed far more than the merits of Professor Gate’s case itself.