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No charge, but Gates case seethes

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By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / July 22, 2009

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Authorities abruptly dropped criminal charges yesterday against noted Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., but for Gates and others, it appeared to be a case of too little, too late.

Black leaders continued to condemn the actions of a Cambridge police sergeant who handcuffed the African-American professor outside his own home Thursday. Gates extended an unusual offer to the officer: in exchange for an apology, personal tutoring sessions on the history of racism in America.

Gates, still angry five days after his arrest, broke his silence yesterday to chastise Cambridge police for his treatment, dispute their assertion that he had made inflammatory remarks during the encounter, and seized upon his brief incarceration as a teaching moment on race relations, not only for Cambridge, but for the nation.

“I believe the police officer should apologize to me for what he knows he did that was wrong,’’ Gates said in a phone interview from Martha’s Vineyard. “If he apologizes sincerely, I am willing to forgive him. And if he admits his error, I am willing to educate him about the history of racism in America and the issue of racial profiling.

“That’s what I do for a living,’’ he added.

Yesterday various parties took stock of last week’s run-in between Gates and police Sergeant James Crowley, who is white, and its meaning remained the subject of a vigorous debate.

Thursday afternoon, Gates had just arrived home from a trip abroad when a Cambridge police officer, alerted to a possible break-in at the house, appeared at the professor’s front door and demanded to see identification. According to a police report, Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct after he became belligerent, yelled at Crowley, repeatedly called him a racist, and declared that the officer had no idea who he was “messing with.’’

Gates denies raising his voice at Crowley other than to demand his name and badge number, which he said the officer refused to give. Crowley wrote in the police report that he had identified himself. Gates also denies calling Crowley a racist.

Yesterday, the Police Department and Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone signed a statement with Gates’s lawyers dropping all charges and declared: “All parties agree that this is a just resolution to an unfortunate set of circumstances.’’ They then declined to respond to requests for further comment.

Not so with Gates, who flatly told a Globe reporter, “I’m outraged. I shouldn’t have been treated this way, but it makes me so keenly aware of how many people every day experience abuses in the criminal justice system. This is really about justice for the least amongst us.’’

Some black leaders said that simply dropping the charges is not enough. The police and the city of Cambridge need to address the intricacies of race in a direct manner, they said.

Amid the accusations of racial profiling, many online commentators, bloggers, and analysts came to Crowley’s defense, saying he was putting his life on the line responding to a report of a crime in progress, basically doing honest police work. But for Gates’s bellicosity, those people said, the arrest would not have occurred and the encounter would have gone unpublicized.

Gates, 58, the director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, gave his version of the events that disrupted the calm around his home on Ware Street, a tree-lined block near Harvard Square.

“The police report is full of this man’s broad imagination,’’ Gates said. “I said, ‘Are you not giving me your name and badge number because I’m a black man in America?’ . . . He treated my request with scorn.’’

Gates also said he was suffering from a bronchial infection and was physically unable to yell.

Furthermore, Gates said that as a man who is “half white,’’ who was married to a white woman for more than two decades, and whose children are part white, “I don’t walk around calling white people racist. . . . Nobody knows me as some lunatic black nationalist who’s walking around beating up on white people. This is just not my profile.’’

As news of Gates’s arrest spread around the globe and fueled accusations of racism, authorities scrambled to smooth things over. Leone summoned Cambridge police and Gates’s attorneys to a meeting yesterday morning to hash out a resolution.

During the meeting, the police agreed to drop the charge of disorderly conduct, and the parties drew up a conciliatory statement in which they called the incident “regrettable.’’

“This incident should not be viewed as one that demeans the character and reputation of Professor Gates or the character of the Cambridge Police Department,’’ the statement said.

Gates, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale, elevated Harvard’s African and African American studies department, and became one of the nation’s preeminent scholars on race, said he plans to use his arrest and his four hours in jail as a springboard: He may make a documentary on racial profiling.

Gates said he has gone out of his way in the past to avoid run-ins with police. When he first arrived at Harvard in 1991, he moved into a large house in the mostly white suburb of Lexington and promptly visited the police station to introduce himself.

“I wanted them to see my black face,’’ Gates said. “I would be driving home late from Harvard. I had a Mercedes. I didn’t want to be stopped for ‘driving while black.’ . . . I should have done that with the Cambridge Police Department.’’

Gates said he is concerned about the “unconscious attitudes’’ that police can hold.

“Because of the capricious whim of one disturbed person . . . I am now a black man with a prison record,’’ Gates said. “You can look at my mug shot on the Internet.’’

Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, said in a written statement that while she is gratified that the charges have been dropped, she remains “deeply troubled by the incident.’’

“Legacies of racial injustice remain an unfortunate and painful part of the American experience,’’ Faust said. “As President Obama has remarked, ours is an imperfect union, and while perfect justice may always elude us, we can and must do better.’’

Civic, religious, and civil rights leaders also said the case shows that more needs to be done to improve race relations.

“On one hand, there is a black man who is a millionaire who occupies the White House, and on the other hand, you have one of the most distinguished racial bridge-builders in the country, a scholar intellectual, being arrested,’’ said Rev. Eugene Rivers III, a black leader in Boston.

“The reality is that it doesn’t make a difference how distinguished or exceptional a black person thinks he or she is or may in fact be,’’ Rivers said. “You can be arrested for breathing while black in your own house.’’

Mayor E. Denise Simmons, the first black woman mayor of Cambridge, said the incident has reminded the city that people need to be vigilant about their own behavior and biases.

“Certain things just should not happen, to anyone, whether it’s Professor Gates, a renowned national figure, or a public works person,’’ Simmons said.

Two months ago, Cambridge held a public forum on race and class at City Hall. It will hold another dialogue on the topic in October with Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

“Let’s not focus on the Police Department,’’ she said. “It’s all of our problem.’’

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Gates talks about his arrest
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