Tuesday, July 21, 2009

African American Harvard Professor arrested trying to enter his house

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)


  1. I had not heard about this incident until President Obama was asked about it during his 4th National Press Conference last night at 8pm on NBC. He made some pretty powerful statements regarding racial profiling. He stated that it is a fact that Black and Hispanic members of society are disproportionately stopped by police compared to White people. I thought that was a powerful statement coming for the man in charge of everything. Hopefully it can be used somehow (although it would be classified as hearsay) in race litigation.

  2. We have three observations about the Harvard professor incident:

    1. We find it interesting that the fact that this was the professor's home was evidently not established early on way before the dispute escalated;

    2. We find it fascinating that the versions of two members of society, who most would ordinarily view as responsible and honest citizens (this obviously does not include politicians), would vary so dramatically from a factual point of view.

    3. Finally, considering that the reading and viewing public were not present at the scene (and thus have no first hand knowledge), and that there is no video tape to our knowledge of the sequence of events and what was said, how so many have formed conclusions, and made assumptions, about who did what and who was wrong.

    There are some things which Professor Gates might have considered upon the arrival of the police, no matter how incensed he may have been.