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Divergent Reports on Professor Gates' Arrest

by Professor Will Huhn on July 21, 2009

in Wilson Huhn

     I intended to write about the constitutional aspects regarding the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates for disorderly conduct, but I was distracted by the divergence in the news reports and reactions to the incident. And, of course, the facts make all the difference.

     On the following facts all reports agree. On July 16, Gates, who is a prominent African-American academician, had to force open the door of his house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the help of his driver upon returning from a trip. A passer-by called the police, worried that the two men were committing a home invasion. When the police arrived, Gates was already inside; one policeman entered while other police officers waited on the porch ⦠Gates followed the policeman outside onto his porch, demanding to know his name and badge number. That was when Gates was arrested and booked for disorderly conduct. He was held for over four hours.

     What happened inside Gatesâ home that led to the arrest? That is where the media reports diverge. At 7:14 p.m. on Monday evening, which is carried by the Drudge Report, chose to report this version of events:

Gates, who declined to identify himself to police, repeatedly told officers who arrived at the scene: "This is what happens to black men in America."

After the professor, according to the police report, kept on "yelling" at the officer and loudly protesting the situation to passersby, he was arrested.

Gates, who in 1997 was declared to be one of the 25 most influential people of United States, also repeatedly told the officer that he had "no idea who (he) was 'messing' with."

     At 7:26 p.m. The Root published a statement from Professor Gatesâ attorney which included the following version of events:

Professor Gates immediately called the Harvard Real Estate office to report the damage to his door and requested that it be repaired immediately. As he was talking to the Harvard Real Estate office on his portable phone in his house, he observed a uniformed officer on his front porch. When Professor Gates opened the door, the officer immediately asked him to step outside. Professor Gates remained inside his home and asked the officer why he was there. The officer indicated that he was responding to a 911 call about a breaking and entering in progress at this address. Professor Gates informed the officer that he lived there and was a faculty member at Harvard University. The officer then asked Professor Gates whether he could prove that he lived there and taught at Harvard. Professor Gates said that he could, and turned to walk into his kitchen, where he had left his wallet. The officer followed him. Professor Gates handed both his Harvard University identification and his valid Massachusetts driverâs license to the officer. Both include Professor Gatesâ photograph, and the license includes his address.

Professor Gates then asked the police officer if he would give him his name and his badge number. He made this request several times. The officer did not produce any identification nor did he respond to Professor Gatesâ request for this information. After an additional request by Professor Gates for the officerâs name and badge number, the officer then turned and left the kitchen of Professor Gatesâ home without ever acknowledging who he was or if there were charges against Professor Gates. As Professor Gates followed the officer to his own front door, he was astonished to see several police officers gathered on his front porch. Professor Gates asked the officerâs colleagues for his name and badge number. As Professor Gates stepped onto his front porch, the officer who had been inside and who had examined his identification, said to him, âThank you for accommodating my earlier request,â and then placed Professor Gates under arrest. He was handcuffed on his own front porch.

     At 3:53 a.m. this morning Daily Kos published a post entitled "Gates Arrest Brings Issues of Racism to the Forefront" from State Representative Mark Cohen of Massachusetts, who led with this question:

Is Cambridge, Massachusetts, the storied home of Harvard University, the new Selma, Alabama?

     This morning the City of Cambridge dropped all charges against Gates and released a statement absolving both him and the police of any misconduct. Here are todayâs news reports from ABC and CBS about the incident.

     I am not someone who thinks that there are different âtrueâ versions of events, depending upon different peopleâs point of view. I think that there is such a thing as objective reality, and that people often simply misperceive or misremember events because of their experiences, beliefs, or emotional state. That apparently happened here to either Professor Gates or the arresting officer or both of them. It certainly happened among people reporting and reacting to the events.