There is an African- American president in the White House all right, but his presence there has not stopped New York police officers harassing black people at the least opportunity. Henry Louis Gates, an icon of black America, has been the latest victim.
Early in the 20th century, Huber Harrison, an African American political writer who is considered by many as one of America’s leading public intellectual of his day, made this trenchant observation: “politically, the Negro is the touchstone of the modern democratic idea. The presence of the Negro puts our democracy to the test and reveals the falsity of it.”
Substituting African-American for “Negro”, one cannot help but be impressed by the profundity and prescience of his comments. Hubert Harrison died in 1927 but his words ring true in today’s America where, as writer Mae Jackson said, “every 6 to 9 months a black man is shot down by the police.”
Last May, a 25-year-old African-American police officer in civilian clothes, Omar Edwards, was shot in the back and killed while chasing a suspected car burglar in Harlem, New York. The gunman was a white policeman, Andrew Dunton.
The outrage that followed prompted the Harlem congressman and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Charles Rangles, to quip that even President Barack Obama must be careful when walking through Harlem for he could be mistaken for a criminal and shot, given the racism that prevails among some of New York City’s police officers.
The congressman apologized later saying “it was entirely inappropriate to bring the president……. into this discussion”. But he called on America’s first African-American attorney general, Eric Holder, “to review the problem in the New York City Police Department when black officers are killed by whites”.
However “inappropriate” Rangel felt his remarks were, his comments exposed a harsh reality for blacks in America: the America media have, over the years, crafted a narrative of black men as criminals. Thus, any black man running, with or without a gun, whether chasing a suspect or catching a bus, is in danger of being shot by a cop.
“My greatest fear is being shot by a fellow cop, not by a suspect,” said a black New York City undercover detective, requesting anonymity to avoid retribution from the police department.
On 16 July 2009, Henry Louis Gates Jr, an icon of Black America and Harvard law professor whose academic and other achievements obviates the need for any introductions for him anywhere in the USA, was arrested and handcuffed for attempting to “break” into his own home on his return from a trip to China. The Cambridge Police Department in Massachusetts claimed that two police officers, who responded to a call regarding “a possible break-in” at Gates’ home, arrested him for disorderly conduct after he yelled at them.
The official police report said: “On Thursday July 16, 2009, Henry Gates Jr of Ware Street, Cambridge, MA, was placed under arrest at Ware Street, after being observed exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior, in a public place, directed at a uniformed police officer who was present investigating a report of crime in progress. These actions on the behalf of Gates served no legitimate purpose and caused citizens passing by this location to stop and take notice while appearing surprised and alarmed.”
The reporting officer, Carlos Figueroa, had told his bosses in his report: “On July 16, 2009, at approximately 12:44 pm, I, Officer Figuero, responded to an ECC broadcast for a possible break-in at Ware St. When I arrived, I stepped into the residence and Sgt. Crowely had already entered and was speaking to a black male. As I stepped in, I heard Sgt Crowely ask for the gentleman’s information [to] which he stated ‘No, I will not!’[sic]. The gentleman was shouting out to the Sgt that the Sgt was a racist and yelled that ‘This is what happens to a black man in America’.
“I stepped out to gather the information from the reporting person. She stated to me that she saw a man wedging his shoulder into the front door as to pry the door open. As I returned to the residence, a group of onlookers were now on [the] scene. The Sgt, along with the gentleman, were now on the porch, and gain he was shouting, now to the onlookers (about seven). ‘This is what happens to black men in America’! The gentleman refused to listen to as to why the Cambridge Police were there. While on the porch, the gentleman refused to be cooperative and continued shouting that the Sgt is [a] racist police officer.”
Gates was handcuffed and kept at the police station for four hours before being allowed to go. He said later: “I’m outraged. I can’t believe that an individual policeman on the Cambridge police force would treat any African-American male this way, and I am astonished that this happened to me; and more importantly I’m astonished that it could happen to any citizen of United States, no matter what their race. And I’m deeply resolved to do and say the right things so that this can’t happen again. Of course, it will happen again, but …. I want to do what I can so that every police officer will think twice before engaging in this kind of behavior.”
Explaining what actually happened, Gates said: “I [had] just finished making my new documentary series called Faces of America. It was a glorious week in Shanghai and Ningbo and Beijing; I took my daughter along……. It was great fun. We flew back on a direct flight from Beijing to Newark. We arrived on Wednesday, and on Thursday I flew back to Cambridge.
“I was using my regular driver and my regular car service. And went to my home arriving at about 12:30 in the afternoon. My driver and I carried several bags up to the porch, and we fiddled with the door and it was jammed. I thought well, maybe the door’s latched. So I walked back to the kitchen porch, unlocked the door and came into the house. And I unlatched the door, but it was still jammed.
“My driver is a large black man. But from afar, you and I would not have seen he was black. He has black hair and was dressed in a two-piece black suit, and I was dressed in a navy blue blazer with grey trousers. And I love that [the police] report said that two big black men were trying to break in with black packs on. Now that is the worst racial profiling I’ve ever heard in my life. I’m not exactly a big black man. I thought that was hilarious when I found that out ……..
“I looked like someone’s footprint was there. So it’s possible that the door had been jimmied, that someone had tied to get in while I was in China. But for whatsoever reason, the lock was damaged. My driver hit the door with his shoulder and the door popped open. But the lock was permanently disfigured. My home is owned by Harvard University, and so any kind of repair work that’s needed, Harvard will come and do it. I called this person, and she was, in fact, on the line while all this was going on.”
Gates’ arrest embarrassed the whole nation so much that even President Barrack Obama felt obliged to wade in: “ I think it’s fair to say, No, I any of us would be pretty angry,” the president said. No.2, what I think we know separate, and apart from this incident, is that there is a long history of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped disproportionately.”
*Source: NewAfrican Magazine
August/September 2009. No 487