Being while black

The many reasons for arresting a black man in his own home

On July 16, 2009, Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of the foremost scholars in this great nation, couldn’t get in his front door. Gates lives in Cambridge, Mass., and teaches at Harvard University. A neighbor woman saw him and his driver trying to force open the stuck door, and she called the cops. Gates and the driver got in through the back door, and the driver left.

When the cops got there, Sgt. James Crowley asked Gates for identification, which he produced. Crowley insisted that Gates go outside, which Gates loudly refused to do. So the cops arrested him for insufficient humility—“loud and tumultuous behavior,” in copspeak—and took him away in handcuffs. Gates got hassled at home and arrested for not liking it.

With Homeland Security encouraging 24-hour fear, cops can do everything on suspicion of anything. Still, it was a bit much—Gates was at home, for Pete’s sake, and quite reasonably thought a person could yell at home. As it turns out, he was right.

Years ago when I saw the barrel of a shotgun outside my back door, I asked the cop who was holding it if I could help him.

“Do you live here?” he asked.

Rather than yelling like Henry Louis Gates, I said, calmly and clearly, “Yes.”

“You got ID?”

“Not on me,” I said.

I spoke calmly and clearly and ended up handcuffed in the back of a squad car because I wasn’t carrying identification in my kitchen. I told the cops—there were five or six of them—where my ID was and they searched my flat while I sat on my hands.

The cops found my driver’s license where I told them it was and verified that they hadn’t surprised me cooking in the kitchen of an apartment I was in the process of burgling, but, as I had said calmly and clearly, I actually lived there. They’d gotten a call from a neighbor woman who had seen me ride up on my bicycle with helmet, cleats and lycra, and of course she thought I might be a burglar.

One Sunday I answered our front door, and the cops on the porch asked me to come outside. When I did, they had me drop the bundle of clothes I was holding, handcuffed me, and made me kneel on my front lawn. Just then my wife got home, and she and the neighbors convinced them to let me go.

It turned out that our 4-year-old had dialed 911 and, finding that he had nothing at the moment to say, hung up. The cops said whenever they get a 911 hang-up, they always handcuff whoever comes to the door. We thought it an odd procedure at the time, and that was before Homeland Security.

The Cambridge police dropped the charges against Henry Louis Gates, so next time I’ll yell.