I have been following with interest the media coverage of the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an esteemed African-American scholar on the faculty at Harvard University. Incidents like this are dipstick moments of sorts for how different opinions and perceptions really are about some facet of our society. They are O.J. moments, really, and this one has likewise opened the door for much discussion and shouting and debate.
Having lived as an adult in urban communities in both Los Angeles and Chicago, I have shuddered over the years at the stories of people, young and old, who have been arrested unjustly, verbally abused, and assaulted by police officers who were just “doing their job”. I grew up in a community where the policeman was a hero; an upstanding member of the community; a friend. I knew such men, and there was a reason kids wanted to grow up and become like them.
When I moved to Chicago, those impressions began to shift. Now, Chicago is a bit notorious for police misconduct and corruption, and the city is full of stereotypes and war stories about Chicago cops. And when I first heard that stuff, I mostly treated it the way one would experience an episode of a TV show because that is how stereotypes feel. But then, a year or so into living in that community, those stereotypes lost their movie star faces and took on those of my neighbors and friends.
I remember the day that one of the young men I was especially close with started telling his cop stories. Growing up as a Puerto Rican youth who was “neutron” as he called it (unaffiliated with any gang) in our community , he had not been spared from chasings and beatings and humiliations. I remember feeling so horrified at what he described, and I burned with anger toward those who had so consistently harmed this child. I recall one story in particular where he talked about seeing the cops coming and choosing to run through the alleys to escape. I remember thinking that was a foolish choice: of course if you run, they are going to chase you down, right? If you haven’t done anything wrong, don’t run!
Well, that was a bit naive. Oprah will tell you that, if you are a woman who is being assaulted, not to EVER let your assailant take you to a “second location”. Fight with all that you have in you to prevent that move. While I am not willing to suggest that the police station can be compared to a rapist’s house, there is an instinctual reaction to someone who may harm you: fight or flee, just don’t let them “take you”. And if you grow up hearing stories of beatings and seeing your brothers come home bloodied and bruised because they dared to play basketball at the park or walk in an alley, and even if it is only one relative who mysteriously “dies” during his incarceration, that is enough to rewire your response to an unmarked Impala.
I ran a drop-in center on the campus of North Park University for a number of years, and in its early stages, I was the adult responsible for the kids who came to read or talk or play pool with me on Friday afternoons in the campus game room. When six o’clock would roll around, I would walk out with the kids who were left, and I would walk them home. I remember being stopped on occasion by officers who were quick to tell me that I was walking where I did not belong. They were not polite or kind, and while I was “one of them” in terms of the color of my skin, their disdain and annoyance and offense even came through loud and clear.
I am a warm and gentle and kind human being, and tend toward a higher level of politeness, even at times using “sir” when I speak to my elders. But I remember clearly the snappy tone that came over me when these guys would stop me and speak rudely to me. I felt defensive and while their behavior was in no way abusive or threatening, my face would get red and my tone would change. I don’t know if it was a mama-bear-like response as I would take a step forward to put my body between my kids and their cruiser, but I know with certainty that I did not call any of them “sir”.
I thought about that when I read all of the coverage that continues to unfold around the Henry Gates case. One news story in particular had a full string of comments from readers saying in one way or another: “Oh, look, the race card won again!” in response to the charges ultimately being dropped. And while I am of the mind that, as many have said, cooler heads could have prevailed in this situation, I also know that I relate to the story and to Gates’ reaction with an understanding borne from my experiences in both Chicago and L.A. that are not normative for everyone, especially the lighter-hued among us.
On the night when I was picked up and placed in the back of a police cruiser for the crime of flagging down two officers to protect me from a man who was propositioning me as I walked down the street, my own behavior surprised me. You don’t ever know how you will react in situations you don’t expect, and when I was apprehended, when those officers began to accuse me of prostitution, I could taste the indignity and I wanted to spit it back in the officers’ faces. I was horrified by how they were speaking to me. I was humiliated by their assumptions about my body and sexuality. I was irate that that they had so clearly seen a man following me, had watched as I crossed the street and waved my arms begging them to stop and help me, and yet watched as the only person on the street doing anything remotely criminal walked hurriedly away.
As they placed me in the back seat of the cruiser, I found myself repeating an absurd phrase: “But I’m Senior Par Excellance! I’m Senior Par Excellance.” This was the name of an annual award given to the graduating senior who most expressed the University’s values and ideals through a life of service on campus and beyond. It was my own much lesser version of Gates’: “You don’t know who you are messing with.”
And so instead of catching a cab to make it downtown to the graduation party for our University’s president’s daughter, I rode in dismay back to my apartment where thankfully my Mom happened to be getting ready for bed having taken a red-eye with my Aunt the night before from Seattle. After supplying the officers with campus identification, a recent issue of the College News which had three articles on the front page that mentioned me, as well as my weekly column inside, and of course the testimony of my mother about when I left the house and what I was doing, I was finally released with this admonition: “Well, we’ll let you go this time. But we’ll be watching for you. If we don’t pick you up again after a month, the charges will be dropped.”
As I stood in the doorway of my apartment, I did not say “sir”. I don’t think I even extended a “good-bye”. I was livid, and as much as my mom tried to persuade me to stay in that night and forgo the party, I was not going to let their intimidation win. I grabbed my things and walked right out that door, though I did not go back to Lawrence Ave. but opted for Foster instead. A cab came, I made it to the party, and word spread quickly about the incident. And I went down in campus history as the Par Excellance Prostitute!
I share my story for the sake of relating to the Gates’ arrest, and relating to the fact that for me there was a whole mess of circumstances that informed how I responded that night on Kedzie Avenue. And also to relate to the fact that, one who is described as polite, well-mannered, distinguished (well, no one has ever described me as distinguished, but they have used that word for Gates), can suddenly face an indignity or humiliation that brings out every defense.
I appreciated the following comments about the Gates’ incident:
Did Professor Gates exhausted after his long flight from China and perhaps irritable after being unable to gain entry to his own home, become outraged when he was questioned by Officer Crowley and ordered to step outside? Maybe. Did the police officer overreact to the professor’s outburst? Certainly. Did race shape their responses? Most likely.
The officer, rather than treat Professor Gates as a respected member of the Harvard faculty, probably expected more deference from him because he was black. Professor Gates, in turn, probably offered more defiance because the officer was white. Just as the officer may have presumed that Professor Gates did not belong in the upscale neighborhood, Professor Gates may have presumed that Crowley was a racist, intent on harassing him.
This stuff is loaded and complicated and messy and we are bound to judge and assume and pretend to know more than we do. I hope there can be some fruitful dialogue around issues of race and power and our criminal justice system, and I hope we can sincerely move past the perspective that this is all a game of cards.