Last Thursday, July 17, 2009, Henry Louis Gates Jr., an African-American Professor at Harvard University, was arrested for disorderly conduct on the steps of his own home. At the scene, Gates accused police officers of being racist.
Prior to his arrest, Gates was returning from a trip which had kept him away from his home for most of the summer. After finding that his door was jammed, he attempted to force it open. Reportedly, a neighbour called the police when she saw a man trying to pry the front door of [Gates’] house open with his shoulder.
According to the police report, Gates proceeded to have an altercation with police. He allegedly shouted at them “[t]his is what happens to black men in America,” “[y]ou don’t know who you're messing with” and that the officers were racist. The officers allege that Gates continued to shout when they tried to identify themselves.
But Charles Ogletree, a Harvard Law Professor who is working as Gates’ lawyer, tells a different story. Ogletree alleges that Gates was cooperative, quickly providing identification to the officers that proved he lived in the home. Conversely, Ogletree says that when Gates requested the badge numbers of the officers involved, they refused to provide them. According to Ogletree Gates asked the officers “[w]hy are you doing this? Is it because I’m a black man and you’re a white officer? I don’t understand why you don’t believe this is my house.” Ogletree also asserts that there was no warning of arrest; while the officers allege that they warned Gates several times that his behaviour was disorderly.
The event is even more surprising considering that Gates is a well-known figure in the community. After completing his undergraduate studies at Yale, Gates also attained a M.A. and Ph.D from the University of Cambridge. For 15 years he was the Chair of the Department of African and African-American studies. He has been named one of Time magazine’s “25 Most Influential Americans.” Further, he is among a small group of approximately 20 Harvard faculty members honoured with University Professorships, awarded for “academic achievements that cross disciplinary boundaries.”
The Harvard Crimson reported this afternoon that the District Attorney’s office has agreed not to pursue the case. Although this seems to be an amicable way to placate an ugly situation, in many ways it is too little too late. Gates has already suffered the humiliation of being arrested on the front porch of his home for simply trying to open his own door. He has already experienced what it feels like to be treated differently because of the colour of his skin. Thus, whether or not the charges are dropped, the damage is done.
Posted by Ashley Paterson (Law II) (LEAP Summer Intern)