Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James M. Crowley: playing jazz while black.
Light from an I and 10th street parking garage blasts out into the night, beaming like an open fridge during a midnight-snack run. Ron Sang’s on the cell phone, chatting intensely in his burnt-orange Texas Longhorns shirt. He hangs up the phone and calls in my direction.
“Who are you with?”
I explain that I’m with SN&R and want to photograph him for this week’s 15 Minutes interview. Sang, a great guy with a vast knowledge of Bay Area sports and Charles Mingus-era jazz, among other things, obliges. But we spend the next hour talking about Rickey Henderson, Bill Clinton, Hurricane Katrina.
And Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James M. Crowley.
You know what happened: Gates, returning from vacation, locked himself out of his home. He broke in. A white neighbor called the cops; Sgt. Crowley arrived and confronted Gates, who became indignant. Crowley escalated the matter, and eventually cited and arrested the Harvard University professor and black-history scholar for disorderly conduct.
It’s a hot-button topic, but Sang remains calm while discussing what he calls a “ridiculous” incident. Sang’s known downtown for playing jazz trumpet in parking garages during the evening. And, no surprise, he’s been hassled by police many, many times.
Yes: for playing jazz in a parking garage.
Sang’s friend Antoine strolls up the block from 10th Street. He finds out I’m with the paper and instantly recounts how he was recently beaten a few blocks away, but was denied the right to file a police report.
Both guys have a long history of being oppressed, especially Sang: He remembers going through the back door and not being able to use the restrooms in the South as a kid. Even when he moved to the East Bay as a teenager, and then to Sacramento, the racial profiling by law enforcement, the “attitude arrest” mentality and hypervigilance persisted.
Don’t believe it? Grab a cup of coffee and observe the difference in how Sacramento bike police treat white and black people on K Street Mall during lunch hours, they say.
I bring the conversation back to that exact moment when Crowley confronted Gates, when Gates denounced the officer’s authority, yelling, “This is what happens to black men in America.” At that instance, both men were triggered: Gates by a history of suffering, Crowley by his own hypervigilance, which too is a unique American cultural torment.
Neither man was able to de-escalate the situation—something President Barack Obama also was unable to do.
The wind picks up, and fewer cars shoot east along I Street. Sang grabs his trumpet and runs through some scales while I snap photos. He says he’ll be 60 this week. Happy birthday.