I don't like our nation's criminal justice system. Every statistic reeks of racism, and the prison system has become the slavery of the new millennium. Police have regularly and historically abused their power, and the victims have often times been black men. But while I do not like the criminal justice system and know that cops can be quite abusive, l still try to keep balance in my judgment.
After hearing about the case of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates (whose charges have been dropped), I want to know what happened. I didn't jump out of my seat to scream "racist pigs!" Nor did I presume that Gates did something wrong. I have seen men accused of crimes they didn't commit, and I have seen black leaders use systematic racism as a channel to excuse themselves from some the most egregious behavior imaginable.
In the case of Dr. Gates, I simply want to know the facts.
Some facts appear simple, while others are fuzzy. The simple facts are that a woman in Dr. Gates' neighborhood called police after seeing someone allegedly breaking into his home. Turns out that she didn't know the people she spotted were the owner of the home and his driver. The officer arrived at the home to find Gates and asked him to produce identification. Gates produced the ID, but the officer called in additional officers for some reason. Eventually, Gates was led away in handcuffs after being accused of disorderly conduct, and the charges were later dropped.
The fuzzy facts are whether or not Gates deserved to be cuffed, especially since it's clear that he was in his own home. What is also unclear is whether the woman down the street would have called the cops had Gates been white. The million-dollar question is whether the officer would have arrested Gates had he been a white Harvard professor instead of a black one.
As the son of a police officer, I am not one to automatically assume that the cops in this case were being racist or out of control in their behavior. But I also know that police can be corrupt and abusive with their power. In this particular case, it only seems clear that, as Dr. Gates allegedly told the officer, he didn't "know who he was messing with."
There is an unwrittten rule that members of privilege in our society receive a different brand of justice than the rest of us. They can often wiggle out of situations after making bad choices, and they are not scrutinized in the same way (take a hint Duke Lacrosse players). By making reference to his status as a distinguished scholar and verbally abusing the officer, Gates may have felt that he was being stripped of his rights to be a privileged Harvard professor. But what is unclear is whether Gates said anything to the officer, or if the officer was abusing his own power by arresting Gates to "teach him a lesson."
As I said before, the facts of the case are fuzzy. We know that if Gates was indeed being verbally abusive then that would define disorderly conduct, which would justify an arrest by the officer. As noted scholar Dr. Wilmer Leon states, " Even when you're right, if you fail to comply, you're wrong. Your objective during an encounter with the police is to leave that encounter in the same manner in which you entered it: in one piece. You can challenge the officer later in court."
I agree with Dr. Leon. If there was indeed a violation of the disorderly conduct law, the officer may have been correct to put the handcuffs on Dr. Gates. The fact that he is a distinguished scholar or a wealthy American only matters in a between-the-lines kind of way and serves to perpetuate the very same injustice that black leaders have been fighting for the past 400 years.
The bottom line is that I stand by Dr. Gates if he was being treated like a typical black man. I do not stand by him if he was acting as an elitist who felt he could disrespect an officer for doing his job. The hope is that the witnesses will be honest and we can find out what really happened. But rushing to judgment is a generally bad idea.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a distinguished scholar with the Barbara Jordan Institute for Public Policy at Texas Southern University. To have Boyce's commentary delivered directly to your e-mail, please click here.