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Harvard Professor vs. Cambridge Cop, Conflicts and Resolutions


BY Kimberly Ninh [ August 07, 2009 at 16:14:50 ]

Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s during the height of integration and Brown v. the Board of Education, Henry Louis Gates experienced blatant racial discrimination. Today, Gates is a world renowned Harvard professor and leading African American scholar, with friends in very high places.

Sgt. James Crowley is a member of the Cambridge Police Department. Crowley’s record shows that he has been a lecturer on racial profiling at the police academy. For his outstanding work in the department, Crowley was promoted by his boss, an African American. On top of that, in 1993, when Boston Celtics player Reggie Lewis went into cardiac arrest, Crowley used CPR to try to resuscitate him. When the Boston Herald interviewed him, he said “I wasn't working on Reggie Lewis the basketball star. I wasn't working on a black man. I was working on another human being”.

On July 16, 2009, the two men entered into a confrontation that sparked a national debate on race. Given their personal and professional backgrounds, the events that ensued, while both ironic and humorous, are entirely “teachable”.

When Gates came back from a trip to China, he found his front door jammed. Gates entered his residence from the back door instead. With the help of his driver, also African American, the two men forced the front door open. Professor Gates believed that once inside, he could finally relax after his taxing trip. He was very wrong.

Little did Gates know that as he attempted to enter his home, a passerby named Lucia Whalen called 911, reporting a possible break-in.

Minutes later, Cambridge police officer Sgt. James Crowley appeared at Gates’ home.

According to Crowley, Gates initially refused to show the officer his Harvard identification card, angry that he was being questioned in his own home. After a heated exchange of words, Crowley took Gates into custody on charges of “disorderly conduct”—which were later dropped at the recommendation of the Cambridge Police Department.

From Henry Gates’ perspective, the events unraveled much differently.

When Officer Crowley arrived, he began to question Gates repeatedly. Frustrated, Gates asked the officer for his name and badge number, believing that Crowley was racially profiling him.

Once the story hit national news, President Barack Obama, a personal friend of Professor Gates, weighed in on the controversy. During a recent press conference on healthcare reform, Obama affirmed that racial biases still persist in the United States and that in the arrest of Henry Gates, Cambridge police “acted stupidly”. The statement ignited a firestorm among law enforcement workers. Shortly thereafter, Obama retracted his statement, saying that he did not mean to insult Cambridge police.

Lucia Whalen, the Good Samaritan who reported the possible break-in, also received criticism for her role in Henry Gates’ arrest. National media throughout the country reported that a “white woman” had called 911, implying that she too was racially profiling Gates. However, Whalen, the daughter of Portuguese immigrants, claims that she was concerned for the safety of the community and that her actions were completely unmotivated by race. Moreover, her 911 call never referred to the race of either Gates or his driver.

In the aftermath of the controversy, former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, sat down with Larry King and said that he thought the situation could have been resolved better. According to Powell, a law enforcement officer usually does not arrest a person who speaks loudly or displays agitation in his or her own home. However, if a person is outside of his or her home and addresses a law enforcement officer disrespectfully as Officer Crowley claimed, the police officer may arrest him or her for “disorderly conduct”. Powell also added that Gates, whom he refers to as “Skip”, acted rashly and should have calmly cooperated with law enforcement. Even with words of advice for good friend “Skip”Gates, Powell remained extremely neutral.

However, others have not remained so neutral.

Angered by an editorial published in the Boston Globe supporting Henry Gates, Officer Justin Barrett of Boston, Massachusetts sent out an email to his coworkers referring to Gates as a “jungle monkey”. Once police Commissioner Edward Davis learned about the comments, he suspended Barrett from duty. A termination hearing will take place soon to decide Barrett’s fate on the Boston police force.

To further complicate the race dynamics, on the day of Gates’ arrest, James Crowley was accompanied by Leon Lashley, an African American police officer. In his account of the arrest, James Crowley acted in accordance to his academy training and fully stands by his fellow officer. When he was asked whether Professor Gates should have been arrested, Officer Lashley agreed “100%”.

To quell the controversy, Obama personally called Officer Crowley. During their conversation, Officer Crowley suggested that all three men sit down for beer at the White House. President Obama agreed and arranged what has now become known as the “beer summit”. On the afternoon of Thursday, July 30, President Obama, Vice President Biden, Officer Crowley, and Professor Gates discussed race relations in America over beer and peanuts. While the four men drank and talked, Crowley and Gates’ families toured the White House. Crowley and Gates plan to meet again sometime in the near future.

As Obama predicted, the event served as a “teachable moment”. It not only acted as a step towards mending race relations in America, but also worked to remind those watching the events unfold that America is built upon different ethnicities and perspectives. While this has come to characterize the United States as a melting pot, it has also ignited heated misunderstandings between different groups of people. Despite this, America’s diversity is undoubtedly what makes it unique.

Through the process of immigration, the face of America continues to change.

At Zhang and Associates, P.C., we know that for some of our clients, obtaining a visa and becoming an American is a large, time-consuming burden, especially when it takes longer than usual to process an application. Many of our clients depend on visas to look for employment in the United States, so we understand the pressure that some must feel in getting their applications approved. However, the best way to handle this is not to lose your cool, but understand that USCIS works hard not only to review every case, but to ensure that the immigration process maximizes diversity in the United States.

Let words be exchanged and ideas discussed and argued. However, when the dust settles, this is a country we all call home. As our client, we will do our best to make your American Dream come true.

*Kimberly Ninh is a legal researcher/writer at Zhang and Associates, P.C. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University at Texas at Austin, majoring in Plan II and English with a minor in Asian Studies.


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