By Tracy Jan, Globe Staff
One week after the arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates caused an international firestorm, the noted African-American scholar is receiving an outpouring of support from academia.
The leaders of Harvard's Association of Black Faculty, Administrators, and Fellows released a strongly worded letter this morning expressing outrage at Gates's arrest by a white Cambridge police sergeant for disorderly conduct, a charge that was dropped last week.
The letter, jointly written by the co-chairmen of the association -- law professor Ronald S. Sullivan, who directs the Criminal Justice Institute of Harvard Law School, and Robert Mitchell, assistant dean and communications director in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences -- said they "would like to add our voices to the chorus of outraged people responding to the unjustified, illegal, and unwarranted arrest that you were forced to endure.
"As black men, we know what racial profiling and stereotyping is all about,'' Sullivan and Mitchell wrote. "Moreover, we regret the serious affront to your dignity in respect of the booking process. . . Regrettably, your arrest demonstrates how vulnerable some in our community still are to police abuse of power.''
Gates was arrested after Sergeant James Crowley, responding to a call about a possible burglary at Gates’s home after Gates and his livery diver were seen pushing a broken door open, said the professor became verbally abusive during the investigation. Gates has said he did not yell at the officer and was only asking for his name and badge number to file a complaint.
In a phone interview today, Sullivan said that no matter whether outbursts actually occurred, "fits of language are not subject to criminal liability.''
"You’re essentially cleared when you’re in your own home to be rude and offensive,'' Sullivan said. "The first amendment guarantees it. And most experienced police sergeants should know this. ... When [Crowley] got the Harvard identification and the driver’s license, it should have been ‘Good day, Professor Gates. Sorry to have bothered you.’ ''
Crowley, meanwhile, has been receiving an outpouring of public support as well.
In a recent Globe story, a prominent defense lawyer, a neighbor of Crowley’s, his union, and fellow officers describe him as a respected, and respectful, officer who performs his job well and has led his colleagues in diversity training.
The Cambridge Police Department has defended Crowley’s actions but said it would form an independent panel to review the confrontation and use it as a teaching moment.
Gates has also received support from other prominent African-American scholars around the country, including Cornel West of Princeton, who formerly taught at Harvard. West told the Globe last week that Gates “has a righteous indignation at injustice, and I think that’s what you have there.”
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, chairwoman of Harvard’s African and African American studies department, sent Gates a letter on behalf of his colleagues in the department.
“I have never known you to exhibit tumultuous or disorderly conduct,” Higginbotham wrote. “I believe your accounts of the events and support you in every way… to be black in America brings painful situations such as what you are now experiencing.”
She went on to note that successful African-Americans have not been “immune from police arrest or harassment, even though innocent of any crime. Racial profiling by the police has long been a subject of discussion by academics, lawyers, and ordinary citizens, and sensitivity sessions have clearly not yielded a transformed police force.”
Perhaps the most unusual support for Gates came in the form of a poem titled “Ajar,” by Middlebury College professor Gary Margolis, who heads the Vermont college's Mental Health Services. It begins: Who hasn’t lost the keys to his
own house, searched for a window to crawl through, kicked a back door open, to see if it was left open? To read it in full, click here.
Margolis, who is white, said he was inspired to write the poem after President Obama' first commented on the arrest. He wrote it in just over an hour last Thursday after he arrived at work.
"Poetry can speak to a complex moment," Margolis said. "It seemed to be a very human moment, from all sides. ... It was in my head and in my heart."
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