article

07.22.09

My Daddy, the Jailbird

In Wednesday's press conference, President Obama called the Cambridge Police Department "stupid" for arresting Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. Daughter Elizabeth Gates interviews her dad about what happened to him in jail, how this affects whites too, and why she shouldn’t give up on America yet.

Earlier this week, my father was wrongly accused of breaking into his own home. We had just returned from China, and he had flown from New York to Boston to prepare for a few days rest on Martha’s Vineyard. As my father was settling in, a police officer named Sgt. James Crowley showed up at his home.

Sgt. Crowley said he was responding to a call from a woman who described two black men breaking into her neighbors’ home with backpacks on. He demanded to see proof of residency and my father showed him both his Harvard ID and his state ID without hesitation. Shortly afterward, a miscommunication ensued, and my father was handcuffed and taken to jail. Our family is both saddened and outraged at this, and as I watched his mug shot scroll across various news stations last night, I couldn’t help but wonder what he was experiencing.

He was there investigating? He should have gotten out of there and said, “I’m sorry, sir, good luck. Loved your PBS series—check with you later!”

Daddy, how did it feel to read in the police report that although you had been cooperative with Sgt. Crowley, while he was standing uninvited in your home, your behavior had been reduced to “loud and tumultuous” after asking to see to his badge? Were you surprised at the inaccuracy of the police report?

Well, the police report was an act of pure fiction. One designed to protect him, Sgt. Crowley, from unethical behavior. I was astonished at the audacity of the lies in the police report, and almost the whole thing from start to finish was just pure fabrication. So yes, I felt violated all over again.

When Touré quoted Malcolm X in his piece for The Daily Beast and wrote, “What do you call a black man with a PhD? A nigger,” did you agree with that statement? I mean, will education still be our eventual leveling point?

No, I think the actions of Sgt. Crowley aren’t the actions of everyone on the Cambridge police force or all white people in Cambridge or Boston or in the United States. I mean, there are bad white people and bad black people. There are good police officers and bad police offers. We depend on the police—I’m glad that this lady called 911. I hope right now if someone is breaking into my house she’s calling 911 and the police will come! I just don’t want to be arrested for being black at home! I think this was a bit of an extreme reaction.

So you do think this was reduced to race? You do think this was purely racially motivated—that when he came into your home uninvited and didn’t read you your Miranda rights and he didn’t follow procedure?

No, when I was arrested I was not read my Miranda rights. I clearly was arrested as a vindictive act, an act of spite. I think Sgt. Crowley was angry that I didn’t follow his initial orders—his demand—his order—to step outside my house because I was protected as long as I was in the house because he didn’t have a warrant. I think what he really wanted to do was throw me down and put handcuffs on me because he was terrified that I could be dangerous to him and that I was causing violence in my own home—though obviously he didn’t know it was my home.

If I had been white this incident never would have happened. He would have asked at the door, “Excuse me, are you okay? Because there are two black men around here try’na rob you [laughter] and I think he also violated the rules by not giving his name and badge number, and I think he would have given that to one of my white colleagues or one of my white neighbors. So race definitely played a role. Whether he’s an individual racist? I don’t know—I don’t know him. But I think he stereotyped me.

And that’s what racial profiling is all about. I was cast by him in a narrative and he didn’t know how to get out of it, and then when I demanded—which I did—his name and badge number, I think he just got really angry. And he knew that he had to give me that, and his police report lies and says he gave it to me. If he had done that I would have simply taken it down and wrote a report! I was definitely going to file a report, now—just not as big as the one I’m about to file!

So since it’s clear this happens every day to minorities everywhere who don’t have representation, who like yourself previously believed in the justice system, what can we do as a community to make sure that our world starts to place value on all people of color—not only the exception, as you have been referred to so often during this ordeal?

I think its incumbent upon me to not let it drop—not to sweep it under the carpet—but to use this as a teaching event for the Cambridge police and police in general and for black people—don’t step out of your house. Don’t step onto that porch! You’re vulnerable. And second? To teach the police about the history of racism, what racism is. Sgt. Crowley found it outrageous that I was demanding his name? I mean, excuse me? Whose house was he in? Hello?

Yeah.

My house. I mean, he was there investigating? He should have gotten out of there and said, “I’m sorry, sir, good luck. Loved your PBS series—check with you later!” [laughter from both of us] If he would have given me his card I would have sent him a DVD! [more laughter]

But you’ve always taught my sister Maggie and me to stay on the right side of the law. Did this challenge your perception of what side that really is? Or are we always going to have to humble ourselves to this humiliating degree?

No. I believe in the law. I think we have a great system of justice. But I do think that system of justice has been corrupted by racism and classism. I think it’s difficult for “poor people”—poor white people, brown people—to be treated fairly before the law in the same way that upper-class people are. I mean listen, Liza. I was lucky. I could have been in there all night with as few as three other prisoners. What if I had been anonymous and in some other place? It’s scary, man. That’s why we have to fight through organizations such as the NAACP defense fund, on whose board I sit—we have to fight for equal rights for all people. It’s beyond race, it’s class and race! And that’s crucial.

There’s been so much talk about Black America moving into a “Post-Black Era.” What do you think it will take to actually achieve that? I mean, is it possible?

The only people who live in a post-black world are four people who live in a little white house on Pennsylvania Avenue. [laughter] The idea that America is post-racial or post-black because a man I admire, Barack Obama, is president of the United States, is a joke. And I hope no one will even wonder about this crazy fiction again. I am proud of the American people for electing the best candidate who happened to be a black man and that’s a great historical precedent in the United States, but America is just as classist and just as racist as it was the day before the election—and we all, to quote my friend Cornel West, “are recovering racists,” and we all have to fight those tendencies. In America there is institutional racism that we all inherit and participate in, like breathing the air in this room—and we have to become sensitive to it.

If this had happened to you before Maggie and I were born, would your ideals and what you’ve taught us have changed?

No! The ideals stay the same. America has already been founded on great ideals. Listen, Liza. America is the greatest nation ever founded. The ideals are the greatest ever espoused in human history, and we just need the country to live up to them. But what I worry about are the 1 million black men in the prison system…

Yes.

…How they got there. Will they ever get out. The whole prison system is designed to dehumanize you. From the time you get in they take your belt off—they strip you of your identity. They put you in with other criminals in a claustrophobic cell—I mean, you don’t have a shot. It’s like the door shuts and boom: you’re dead. They’ve given you a new identity; they’ve stripped your identity as a person and given you a new identity as a prisoner and that is horrifying. I didn’t realize it until I experienced it. I was astonished, you know? Your cell phone doesn’t work and they set it up that way. It’s cold, man.

I realize.

If I didn’t have the money? I mean, where would I get the money? They said, “We know you have the 40 dollars because we went through your wallet.”

No.

Oh yeah

I’m sorry, Daddy.

Me too.

Elizabeth Gates is a graduate of The New School University, where she cultivated her love for fashion and writing. A former intern at Vogue Magazine, her interest in image, art and fashion has driven her desire to contribute to the vast narrative of modern culture in America and abroad.