Henry Louis Gates is a leading public intellectual who teaches at Harvard. He forgot his keys. He and the taxi driver were seen at his door or window entering his house by a passerby. The passerby called the police.
The policeman arrived at the house and rang the bell. Gates came to the door. Upon request, he showed him his driver’s license listing his address. It was the correct address. He was at home.
The policeman arrested Mr. Gates.
Such grievances were of course a reason why Americans once declared their independence against the British empire. The Crown would send occupying officers to hassle American subjects. More extremely. it sometimes took over houses and quartered its soldiers on Americans. What right does a person have to protection in his own home, when the authorities are clearly informed that it is his home?
Mr. Gates was arrested for being upset and speaking angrily to a police officer. This is the crime of disturbing the police. The officer arrested Mr. Gates for “disorderly cnduct.” At the station, the Cambridge police dropped the charges.
The officer is a senior person. He is consulted in the training of other officers to handle difficult situations on the street.
Henry Louis Gates is the chairperson of a department at the leading and wealthiest University in the United States. He lives in a neighborhood with other well-to-do professors, a fancy neighborhood, one that the policeman, on a senior policeman’s current salary, could not hope to live in.
Being a small country, the President of the United States issued a statement on the case, saying that the officer had behaved “stupidly..” The normally obsequious Presidential press corps had asked him about the case, and a storm of publicity settled over it. Being a kind and gentle man, the President thought through the case further and decided that inviting both Gates and the officer to the White House for tea and to discuss the matter would be a good way to resolve it. It honors both of them. That is a decent thing to do.
Described without the leading political fact of American and international life – racism – the case is clearly enough one of authoritarian abuse Police are not to have the authority to arrest or kill people in their homes (in Denver, a 63 year old thin Chicano man was shot sleeping in his bed and killed at 3 am a couple of years ago. The police had broken into the house looking for a young, overweight Chicano, who had escaped out a window and been seen walking away as the police rushed to the house. The officer who entered the room said something flashed in the dark – apparently a coca cola can – and he had killed the dangerous person, lying in his bed, with a single shot. It was an unlucky shot. A senior officer reviewing the case later said that the policman had been moving his gun back and forth, and fired accidentally. If as the policeman had reported, the metal object allegedly seen in the dark was a gun, procedure was to fire several times, to make sure that the offender could no longer shoot. The officer was removed from patrol to a desk yob.)
Barack Obama is the first multiracial President of the United States of America. Raised by a white mother and grandparents and with great intelligence and sensitivity, he is perceived as a black man (or a foreigner or a Muslim – I listened to a few minutes of Lou Dobbs on CNN on Thursday evening demanding to see his birth certificate again – he has produced it, but like Mr. Gates driver’s license, if you are white, you don’t believe anything of the kind. Mr. Dobbs is very white. So is CNN that broadcasts racist drivel over the airwaves.
It is a great thing about American democracy that our people elected this President. It may even save the world given the impenetrable darkness of the last years. Nonetheless, as the Gates case reveals, every ordinary black man, and every ordinary person, even every middle class white person, had better fear, had better keep her mouth shut in front of the men with guns, can expect to be taken off and dealt with by the police if they protest, or get afraid and angry about the guns or exercise freedom of speech. Gates is a small man, 58 years old, who weighs about 150 pounds. He was probably disturbed to have locked himself out and felt violated by the police. “One’s home is one’s castle.” When one’s home is invaded – it is why we have the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution - anyone does.
We are lucky in the America which has just turned around some, that President Obama has the secret service to protect him. Otherwise, he or Michelle or the children might be arrested for breaking into the White House. There are, after all, a lot of Rush Limbaughs and Lou Dobbs and Sarah Palins out passingby…