The blame game

Brian Wright O’Connor | 7/6/2010, 7:14 p.m.

Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree, Gates’ attorney and author of the just-published “The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America,” praised the committee for offering reforms “necessary to improve relationships between the Cambridge community and police department.”

However, he added, the report was “sorely disappointing … in its recitation of the facts, and applies equal blame to the conduct” of Gates and Crowley.

“Most important, while the report mentions that Professor Gates provided ample identification — including a photograph on his Harvard University ID and a photograph and address on his Massachusetts driver’s license — the committee’s report offered no explanation of why Sgt. Crowley did not accept these identification cards as proof that Professor Gates was a lawful resident of this house, or why he continued his investigation after being presented with proof of Professor Gates’ identify,” said Ogletree.

For his part, Crowley rejected the notion that Gates’ race played any role in his handling of the incident. “No one that knows me thought that the arrest was based on race in any way,” he said in a statement. “Arrests are based strictly on behavior.”

The review committee interviewed both men and acknowledged — without attempting to reconcile — the gap in perceptions. “Sergeant Crowley and Professor Gates clearly differ in their interpretation of what happened,” it said. “Two well-regarded people — one white, one black; one an experienced and well-trained police sergeant, one an eminent scholar — experienced the same event and drew radically different conclusions about the implications of what happened.”

Marian Darlington-Hope, a Cambridge resident who served on the panel, defended the committee’s decision not to judge whether the Gates arrest was justified. “I heard both men talk and I kept switching sides. When you hear both men’s accounts, it’s just not that simple,” she said. “Listening to both and listening to the tapes, I would say the incident could have been avoided but I don’t think we could come to the conclusion that it was justified or unjustified.”

Other observers were not so cautious. Harvard Foundation director Allen Counter, a neuroscientist who is suing the Cambridge Police Department for false imprisonment, commented, “Law-abiding African Americans should not be arrested at the whim of white police officers. The grossly disparate statistics between the arrest rates of black and white Americans reflect an unregulated police power capable of scaring a black person for life – with impunity.”

Citing figures showing disproportionate stop-and-frisk rates for young black men in New York City, writer Ishmael Reed — who has been critical of Gates’ standing as a so-called darling of white intellectuals — said the review committee’s report “gives yet another wink and a nod to racial profiling and police fabrication.”

In a statement provided to the Banner, the Oakland-based author expressed regret that Gates did not become more outspoken after his arrest. “Given the immense power that the establishment has given to Professor Gates, he had an opportunity to shine a light on the police abuses of black and Hispanic citizens across the nation, but one can’t blame him for not doing so,” said Reed. “Police usually engage in a vendetta against their critics while the white majority looks the other way.”

The Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III, pastor of the Azusa Christian Community, called the furor over the arrest “more of a celebrity event than an event that involved the issues of race and class.”

Rivers said the incident drew enormous attention “because celebrity academics do not usually get arrested outside their homes.”

“What is indubitably true is that Professor Gates should not have been arrested for breathing while black outside his house,” said Rivers.

Former Cambridge Mayor Kenneth E. Reeves, a long-time critic of police practices, called the report recommendations little more than boilerplate and said he was embarrassed for the city’s handling of the incident. “Cambridge has a lot of positives,” said the senior member of the city council, “but I consider this one to head up the negative column.”

Recommendations from the report included the need for more public education of police procedures, more police training in defusing conflicts, developing more specific guidelines in the use of police discretion, and greater community involvement in police initiatives.