Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Henry Louis Gates Caves In and Goes To the White House to 'Have Beer' with Cop

Librado Romero/The New York Times
Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his Manhattan apartment.



Stanley Fish does right by Skip and expresses genuine respect, support, and compassion for him and his work in a virulently racist society. It's too bad that Gates doesn't have the guts and integrity to do the same on his own behalf. He would rather go to the White House and hobnob with the President and the racist cop who humiliated him while at the same time pretending that he's actually concerned with seriously addressing the issues of racial profiling and police abuse against people of color. How can one possibly respect and support a man who doesn't have the independent will or ethical clarity to choose Justice over Celebrity?


JULY 24, 2009
Henry Louis Gates: Déjà Vu All Over Again
Stanley Fish
Opinion Page
New York Times

I’m Skip Gates’s friend, too. That’s probably the only thing I share with President Obama, so when he ended his press conference last Wednesday by answering a question about Gates’s arrest after he was seen trying to get into his own house, my ears perked up.

As the story unfolded in the press and on the Internet, I flashed back 20 years or so to the time when Gates arrived in Durham, N.C., to take up the position I had offered him in my capacity as chairman of the English department of Duke University. One of the first things Gates did was buy the grandest house in town (owned previously by a movie director) and renovate it. During the renovation workers would often take Gates for a servant and ask to be pointed to the house’s owner. The drivers of delivery trucks made the same mistake.

The message was unmistakable: What was a black man doing living in a place like this?

At the university (which in a past not distant at all did not admit African-Americans ), Gates’s reception was in some ways no different. Doubts were expressed in letters written by senior professors about his scholarly credentials, which were vastly superior to those of his detractors. (He was already a recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, the so called “genius award.”) There were wild speculations (again in print) about his salary, which in fact was quite respectable but not inordinate; when a list of the highest-paid members of the Duke faculty was published, he was nowhere on it.

The Associated Press Henry Louis Gates, Jr., during a book signing in 2006.
The unkindest cut of all was delivered by some members of the black faculty who had made their peace with Duke traditions and did not want an over-visible newcomer and upstart to trouble waters that had long been still. (The great historian John Hope Franklin was an exception.) When an offer came from Harvard, there wasn’t much I could do. Gates accepted it, and when he left he was pursued by false reports about his tenure at what he had come to call “the plantation.” (I became aware of his feelings when he and I and his father watched the N.C.A.A. championship game between Duke and U.N.L.V. at my house; they were rooting for U.N.L.V.)

Now, in 2009, it’s a version of the same story. Gates is once again regarded with suspicion because, as the cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson put it in an interview, he has committed the crime of being H.W.B., Housed While Black.

He isn’t the only one thought to be guilty of that crime. TV commentators, laboring to explain the unusual candor and vigor of Obama’s initial comments on the Gates incident, speculated that he had probably been the victim of racial profiling himself. Speculation was unnecessary, for they didn’t have to look any further than the story they were reporting in another segment, the story of the “birthers” — the “wing-nuts,” in Chris Matthews’s phrase — who insist that Obama was born in Kenya and cite as “proof” his failure to come up with an authenticated birth certificate. For several nights running, Matthews displayed a copy of the birth certificate and asked, What do you guys want? How can you keep saying these things in the face of all evidence?

He missed the point. No evidence would be sufficient, just as no evidence would have convinced some of my Duke colleagues that Gates was anything but a charlatan and a fraud. It isn’t the legitimacy of Obama’s birth certificate that’s the problem for the birthers. The problem is again the legitimacy of a black man living in a big house, especially when it’s the White House. Just as some in Durham and Cambridge couldn’t believe that Gates belonged in the neighborhood, so does a vocal minority find it hard to believe that an African-American could possibly be the real president of the United States.Gates and Obama are not only friends; they are in the same position, suspected of occupying a majestic residence under false pretenses. And Obama is a double offender. Not only is he guilty of being Housed While Black; he is the first in American history guilty of being P.W.B., President While Black.

Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has also taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins and Duke University. He is the author of 10 books. His new book on higher education, "Save the World On Your Own Time," has just been published.



Of course Gates should sue! And if he had any guts or personal integrity he would. The evidence is overwhelming that the cop Crowley clearly lied in his police report. The 911 tape and the public testimony of the woman who called the police indicates conclusively that she didn't identify the race of the men she said were at the door of Gates's home and she also mentioned in her call (which has been publically released) that she couldn't tell if the people on Gates's porch were strangers or actually lived at the house and that she saw two suitcases on the porch which she (correctly) surmised might be evidence that at least one of the two men she saw lived there.

It's also important to note that Gates has made a number of forceful comments in high profile TV and print media interviews since the incident that he firmly believed he was not only a victim of racial profiling but was harassed by the police--even going so far as to call Crowley a "rouge cop". In addition it's very clear that the President was absolutely correct initially in criticizing the idiotic and racist arrest as "stupid". Obama subsequently defended his remarks the following day only to go back on those same remarks and dishonestly claim that he didn't mean to impugn the police just one day after he had defended his initial comments.

Thus all the infantile and frankly insulting/ condescending spin by the white media as well as Obama and Gates both that this episode affords us all a "teachable moment" fails to reveal the obvious fact that if they only stood their ground and refuse to cave in the public pressure of the many American racists who hate and will continue to despise them no matter what they say and do that they could have used this episode to "teach us" that racial profiling and racist police abuse of African American citizens would not be tolerated under any circumstances. As it stands however this ridiculous "beer sip" meeting of Gates, Obama, and Crowley at the White House only serves to obscure, distort, and cover up the true meaning of what this heinous incident (and the ongoing thousands of such cases taking place every single day in black communities throughout this country) actually reveals about racism and the notorious criminal justice system in the U.S.


July 27, 2009

Should Henry Louis Gates Sip or Sue?
New York Times

The Issue

Last week in Cambridge, Mass., Sgt. James Crowley arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor at Harvard, for disorderly conduct while responding to a reported break-in at Gates’s home. The charges were subsequently dropped, and the city of Cambridge expressed regret, but Gates holds out the possibility of suing Crowley, the city or its Police Department. President Obama has urged calm and conciliation, and invited Gates and Crowley to have a beer and a chat at the White House. Should Gates sip or sue?

The Argument

Gates should enjoy a cool one and then file suit, assuming he has legal grounds to do so. We Americans are often mocked for being overly litigious, but we are not nearly litigious enough. In the right circumstances, filing suit can be a way to pursue social justice, and that makes it thoroughly ethical.

I am not encouraging frivolous lawsuits or those inspired by TV pitchmen who use the words “slip and fall” as if invoking El Dorado. Rather, I refer to suits filed to oppose systemic injustice, for the benefit of the larger community, often at some personal risk and expense. This is not opportunism; it’s altruism, not self-interest but civic virtue. A lawsuit by Gates could lead to a formal examination of the troubled history of police interactions with African-Americans and hence would meet this standard.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, an organization that has sued the New York Police Department many times on behalf of individuals and groups, told me that lawsuits can be “an important tool for reform when coupled with advocacy and public education efforts and when the circumstances are conducive to change.”

Such laudable results can flow not only from great historic decisions — Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade — but from local actions, like the N.Y.C.L.U.’s suits over the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policies and its handling of demonstrators during the 2004 Republican convention. Simply participating in such a suit can be regarded as the crowning achievement of a lifetime. When the pediatrician Howard Engle died last week, the headline of his obituary in The New York Times was “H. A. Engle, Tobacco Plaintiff, Dies at 89.”

Indeed, our popular culture lionizes those who sue righteously. Paul Newman wins a medical malpractice case in “The Verdict.” Julia Roberts takes on a polluting power company in “Erin Brockovich.” John Travolta sues a company dumping toxic waste in “A Civil Action.” (And these last two movies were based on actual people and cases.)

Even a losing lawsuit can compel a powerful institution — government agency or corporation — to disclose its policies and practices during legal proceedings. A lawsuit can provide a public forum to examine a significant issue, guided by a dispassionate judge. What could be more virtuous?

There are arguments against going to law. For Gates in particular, using the courts is hardly the only way to be heard. He has been widely interviewed about the arrest; even his daughter has spoken about it on television. (Crowley first told his side of the story on a local sports talk-radio show.) So prominent is Gates that a reporter at a White House press conference asked the president about the arrest. Gates could write a book about it, lecture about it at Harvard or explore it in a television series. (He was returning from shooting one in China the day of the incident.)

Nor is he ethically obligated to sue. Doing so is supererogatory, above and beyond the call of duty. Only he can decide if he has the stomach for a struggle and the resources — financial, psychological — to proceed.

And if he does, there is no guarantee that he would initiate real social change. David Feige, the former trial chief of the Bronx Defenders, public defenders in, well, yes, the Bronx, told me: “There is a fairly equivocal record in forcing reforms through individual lawsuits. Class-action suits have been more effective — those brought to improve prison conditions, for example. So what we really need is more broad, social-justice class-action suits.”

These arguments notwithstanding, Gates should sue. Social change proceeds through the combination of many forces — legislation, litigation and public discourse among them. For Gates to contribute to this effort would be laudable. (And given the high — and disheartening — number of African-American men who, since Gates arrest, have described their own similar encounters with the police, the class-action suit Feige calls for might be sadly possible.)

The president has softened his initial response to this affair, withdrawing his remark at the press conference that “the Cambridge police acted stupidly.” He now suggests that both Gates and Crowley “overreacted.” Quite likely. But if Gates overreacted, he did so only as an individual, an outburst that might be obnoxious but is not criminal. There is no law against Contempt of Cop. If Crowley overreacted, he erred as a professional, perhaps abusing his office in a manner that is particularly fraught, given the history of African-Americans and the police. That’s what should be examined in court.

Both Crowley and Gates have accepted Obama’s invitation. Courteous conversation is a fine thing; beer is a fine thing. But not even White House brew can resolve this conflict the way a trial can. Gates and Crowley should drink heartily, speak civilly and eventually reconvene in a courtroom.