July 24, 2009

The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: A Father's Perspective

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. ArrestThe incidents surrounding the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. outside his home have led to some troubling questions that I, as a father, have a hard time answering. On the one hand, I've taught my children, especially my son, that he should have respect for the law and that he should never permit any kind of abuse, verbal or physical, to threaten his self-esteem. Yet, on the other hand, I know there are some police officers who seek every opportunity to humiliate black males in America.

This is not a wild claim. I know about these kinds of police officers from accounts from my friends and personal experiences: being rousted every week by the police at the University of Miami when I’d be walking back late from the Rathskellar to being humiliated a few years ago in front of my son for a minor traffic violation.

I had received a call late at night from my daughter who was in an unsafe neighborhood. She needed a ride home. I jumped in the car and in my rush to pick her up, I rolled (after looking both ways) through a four way stop. An officer in a patrol car about a hundred yards away, lights off, was waiting underneath a tree. Soon there were lights behind us and when I was signaled to pull over, I complied. The officer approached the car and looked me up and down. Despite my explanations, the officer while dispensing a fair amount of verbal abuse, ordered me to turn around, drive back to the stop sign, and stop. I did exactly as I was told and then, I was allowed to go on and pick up my daughter. I guess I was lucky I did not get a ticket and that my daughter was okay when I picked her up.

My story is inconsequential to some of the stories that my friends have told me about beatings and even worse verbal abuse than I suffered.

Should I have been a “man” and shown the officer and my son that I wasn’t going to stand for that kind of abuse? Or should I have done (as I did) listened to the officer, apologized, and moved on? Or was I just being saaf, as usual?
I think I did the right thing, but it still stuck in my craw. For as I listened to the tirade, I kept wondering if my actions were in direct contradiction to my lectures about building self esteem in children and my work as a writer in writing books such as Grandpa Sydney’s Anancy Stories and Who’s Your Daddy? that address these issues.

I want my son to be a man who has enough self confidence to think that he can overcome any obstacle and that he will not permit any kind of violence, physical or verbal, to become a part of his life.

I also want him to stay alive.

My son and I have talked about the incident and he’s told me that the officer was out of line. He knows good officers. His granduncle is a retired detective, his cousin is an active police officer, and Malachi Smith, our good friend, is also a police officer. Many of my students at Miami Dade College now work with correctional services or have graduated as police officers. In fact, on some dark nights as I’ve left the parking lot to go home, I’ve heard the rookies—out of the earshot of their instructors—practicing how to take control of a situation where there is an armed suspect: “On the ground, m****rf****r!”
Their language or behavior doesn’t scare or offend me. I have no illusions about the conditions that police officers face everyday. I’ve had guns pointed at my head and chest during armed robberies in Jamaica and Miami by criminals who seemed to think that they had a greater claim to my personal property. I often remind my son about a statement by Richard Pryor after he had done a comedy tour of prisons that many of the those “brothers need to locked up.”

So, what’s a father to do?

I cannot speak for other fathers. I cannot speak for all males of African descent in America. I can only repeat what I’ve told my son: if you follow basic rules of decency (“Do unto others, etc.), you stand a greater chance of never being involved in the legal system or jails—a future I would never wish on anyone.
Also, because I want my son to live, I can also say: be “properly deferential” to the police, especially at night. They carry big stick and guns—and some are always too ready to use them. From all the official police report, it seems as if Dr. Gates had not treated the Sgt.Crowley with the “respect” he thought he was due. But this begs several other questions: Was Sgt. Crowley deferential to the renowned scholar as he should have been? Or do we only respect men with guns and badges and not those with doctorates—even if it’s only in literature? And haven’t we seen enough of what a lack of “respect” or “rispec”—as we say in Jamaica--can lead to? Was this incident another incident of machismo and/or hubris-- a face-off between two proud men-- that has been conflated with racism?

Finally, I can only hope that the police departments will begin to review their policies, their training methods, and the records of few officers who tarnish the reputation of the men and women who put their lives on the line everyday to protect and serve all of us.

Our children deserve no less.
Related article: Skip Gates, Please Sit Down

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Reaganite Republican said...

Nice work Barack... with one comment you managed to alienate 75% of America.

And anyone who has spent any amount of time in the "higher" education system knows the Professor Gates type: bitter, spiteful, bigoted racist with a position of power who felt emboldened to make a political statement.

This is the type of Professor who would change the subject on you when you attempt to engage in a debate- or would give you a poor grade because you actually have an opinion, and done research outside of marxist texts and such. You are fooling no one, Mr Gates.

And Mr President, is this "nuance" you've spoke of? "the police acted stupidly"? -please

Obama is out to rip this country to shreds in EVERY way- who can question that such ill-advised statements are divisive... and NOT helpful? He has no idea what happened, he admitted it- and apparently doesn't care, either... he's picked his side.

But back in reality, the childish and paranoid Gates completely baited the cop, who acted with admirable restraint, IMO... all he had to do is show his ID and shut up, he was treated with respect. This guy was clearly looking for a fight... and he ought to thank God he didn't find one.

Obama is going to destroy race relations in this country with his vengeful "get even" mentality... some messiah- Americans should have chosen a fair and sensible human being instead of this embittered nut.


Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Reaganite Republican,

I can see you don't know anything about Dr. Gates.

Why do you call him Mr. Gates?


Jdid said...

nice post goeffrey. i think you did the right thing regarding the policeman stopping you and yea it sticks in the craw but it was correct and no it wasnt saaf.

on a semi-related note related to your thoughts on how your son saw the incident for me an interesting police encounter as a child out with my father has never left my memories and basically stands as my model on police behaviour and the way they can abuse the public. might happen to your son too, years from now he'll probably remember that encounter

Geoffrey Philp said...

Thanks, JDID.
It's a bit of a comfort because I worry, you know.


Richard said...

Any sentient white person of a certain age knows that what happened to Prof. Gates happens to most African American men at one time or another. In New York City, it's happened to most of my male Latino and Arab students too.

When I lived in South Florida, within in the space of two years (1997-99) two close friends were stopped by the police in front of their own homes (in Coral Gables and Miami Beach).

My boyfriend at the time was coming home from work and entering his house one night when suddenly police came up behind him, yelling, "Dropping the knife!" Then they told him to lie down on the floor, which he did.

The "knife," the police realized, was actual his ring of house keys. Funny how keys can look like a knife in the hands of a black man.

But the police didn't really stop. They opened the door with the key, and seeing my boyfriend's photo (taken with his grandparents) on the mantle, accusingly barked, "How did you get your picture in here?"

Now they had to be pretty dumb, right? Or maybe racist? My former boyfriend was not confrontational; it's his nature to be lowkey, and he realized the best thing to do was to be deferential and then curse the officers once he finally produced proof that it was indeed his rented house. (It was the address on his Florida driver's license.)

To its credit, the Coral Gables police sent over a lieutenant or maybe a captain (African American) right away to apologize to my friend.

Another friend, John, was merely sitting outside the steps of his parents' home in Miami Beach, waiting for them, as he didn't have a key. A passing police car stopped, the officers got out, and questioned what he was doing there.

Maybe they would have done that to a white man of 24 or 25, but I doubt it. It's never happened to me or any other white man I know.

I teach a story by Sherman Alexie, the title story of his first collection, "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," in which the narrator, a Native American (Alexie prefers the term "Indian"), unable to sleep in Seattle, takes long walks and is invariably stopped by the police when he unwittingly strays into certain areas.

The cops tell him they've stopped him because he "doesn't fit the profile of this neighborhood." The narrator wonders if he fits the profile of this nation.

My male students, almost all black or Hispanic or Arab, invariably relate to this even if they've never met a Native American.

The first thing I noticed when I met Prof. Gates when he testified at the 2 Live Crew obscenity trial in Fort Lauderdale in October 1990 was that he walked with a cane. I'd read some of his works, but didn't realize he was disabled.

You would think that a police officer would recognize that few burglars walk with a cane. (It would make fast getaways problematical, no doubt.) Also, Prof. Gates is about my age, late 50s, and no offense to him, looks it.

"Reaganite Republican" is a moron. The "Reaganite" is telling, as he still thinks it's 1980. The white nationalist Pat Buchanan and the other conservative Republicans who called Sonia Sotomayor racist do too.

But it's not. As a teenager, I remember reading James Baldwin: "This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again."

People like Reaganite Republican aren't real Americans in my eyes. Thanks for publishing his idiotic comment.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Richard,
I am always amazed by the unwillingness of some people to see beyond racial privilege.

Thanks for your stories and the necessary expansion of the narrative.