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A Harvard prof versus a Cambridge cop: Who do you believe?

Aug 3, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 43 • By MICHAEL C. MOYNIHAN
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On Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, across from the Harvard campus, the Maoist proprietors of Revolution Books provide reasonably priced pamphlets from the Revolutionary Communist Party (Mao Tse-tung's Immortal Contributions, $4.95) and offer for purchase "many volumes" of Stalin's writings. If the neophyte finds the jargon-laced language of dialectical materialism indecipherable, but is nevertheless determined to irritate his capitalist parents, further up Massachusetts Avenue the Center for Marxist Education, on the second floor above -Teddy's Shoes, will, for a modest fee, help separate the proletarian wheat from the bourgeois chaff.

It was this atmosphere of ultra-radical chic that William F. Buckley evoked when famously declaring a preference to entrust the U.S. government to the first 400 names in the Boston telephone directory rather than the Harvard faculty.

Those not breathing the rarefied air of radical Cambridge might chuckle, but many Cantabrigians, 88 percent of whom cast a ballot for Barack Obama, consider the mocking appellation given their city, "The People's Republic," a badge of honor. The city's mayor, E. Denise Simmons, is the first black lesbian mayor in the United States, having succeeded Ken Reeves, Cambridge's first gay black mayor. The Cambridge Police Department has long tried to mirror the city's cultural and demographic shifts. As one police officer said in 1997, after the appointment of the city's first "liaison to the gay community," the Cambridge cops are as diverse as the city they serve: "[W]e have a black commissioner, female deputies, black deputies, gay officers."

It was in this tradition of progressive policing that former Cambridge police commissioner Ronny Watson, the first African American to head the department, tapped Sergeant James Crowley to teach a class on the dangers of racial profiling to young police recruits. Crowley, who has taught the seminar for five years, is by all accounts respected by colleagues of all races and, one presumes, particularly sensitive to the issue of racial discrimination. But that all changed last week, when he slapped a pair of handcuffs on Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard.

The undisputed facts of the case are these: Returning from a trip to China, Gates arrived at his Cambridge home to find his front door was jammed. With the help of his driver, he attempted to pry the uncooperative door loose. A passerby observing what appeared to be a break-in in progress (Gates's house, according to media reports, was recently burgled), alerted the police, and Crowley showed up to investigate. It is at this point that Gates's and Crowley's stories diverge, though both agree that, before being arrested, Gates yelled to a gathering crowd of neighbors and police, "Is this how you treat a black man in America?"

According to the police report, Gates reacted in a "loud and tumultuous" manner, justifying his arrest on disorderly conduct. Whether or not it was appropriate to haul Gates to the police station--and a compelling case can be made that loud and boorish behavior, while inadvisable in such situations, shouldn't be an arrestable offense--is at this point largely irrelevant. Gates isn't quibbling with what constitutes "disorderly conduct," but rather maintains that he was "racially profiled" by a "rogue policeman" who "couldn't stand a black man standing up for his rights."

Despite a lack of evidence suggesting that Crowley was motivated by racial animus--he used no racist language, for instance, and is being supported by a black officer who arrived at the scene--Gates flatly claims that he "presumed that I was guilty because I was black. There was no doubt about that."

Many of Gates's defenders agree. The single-named journalist Touré, writing in The Daily Beast, argued that "Malcolm X's 40-year-old quote is still true: 'What do you call a black man with a Ph.D.? A nigger.' " Boston-based journalist Callie Crossley compared the incident to the case of Charles Stuart, a Bostonian who murdered his wife and told police that a "black man" had committed the crime, setting off a two-month manhunt for an invented suspect.