Sam Sommers ’97 has more thoughts on the arrest of Williams honorary degree recipient Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Last week’s arrest of Dr. Henry Louis Gates continues to be a story with legs. There’s no shortage of angles on the saga, from the question of to what extent does race influence our daily perceptions to the political matter of whether a sitting president should be commenting on local law enforcement issues. The latest development in the is the Cambridge Police’s release today of the recordings of the original 911 call and police radio transmissions.

The shelf-life of this story is interesting in and of itself. I’m on vacation right now, and have been learning of these developments through TV bulletins at restaurants and other public locations. I’ve started to hear many of my fellow patrons express fatigue at the story, along the lines of enough already.

At one level, I understand. There’s nothing pressing or urgent about this story. The charges were dropped, so it’s not as if Gates is faces an uncertain legal future. On the other hand, the story speaks to broader societal issues that elicit strong, polarizing responses from people. And for that reason, I think I’d rather see us fixate a bit too long on this incident than, say, the latest Jon & Kate developments or many of the other human interest stories that seem to pass for news these days.

Exactly right. Sommers also mentions:

What today’s developments really indicate is that there’s something interestingly problematic with the police report that the arresting officer filed. You know, the report that stated that he had spoken with the witness who called 911, and that she had told him she saw “two Black men with backpacks” barging into Gates’ house? According to the witness, not only did she never provide racial descriptors to the 911 operator, but she also didn’t have any such conversation with Sgt. Crowley.

What we do know is that–surprise, surprise–Crowley’s police report can’t be treated as some sort of first-person gospel that sets the record straight in the matter. At the very least, we now know it contains inaccuracies, and at worst, it could take intentional liberties with the truth. Now to be fair, it would also be less than shocking to find out that Gates’ version of events has holes or inconsistencies. But make no mistake, today was not a good day for the Cambridge Police Department in the Gates matter. Far from proving that the policework in this case was impeccable and race-neutral, today’s developments leave us wondering not whether, but why there are inaccuracies in the police report–as well as how wide-ranging these inaccuracies might be.

See the full post for details. One subtle aspect of the debate is that there were at least two witnesses to the apparent-but-not-actually Gates’ break-in of his Harvard-rented house: Lucia Whalen (who called 911) and the unnamed neighbor (elderly (white?) woman) who alerted Whalen to the event. Would she have alerted Whalen (presumably she was looking for someone with a cell phone) if Gates and his driver had been white?

By the way, I did not know that Gates was a returning from “a trip to China, where he had finished filming a new documentary series for PBS tracing the ancestry of cellist Yo-Yo Ma.” (From Wikipedia.) Yo-Yo Ma is also the recipient of a Williams honorary degree. There are Ephs everywhere in this story!

Side note: The local gossip is that only a tiny portion of the tapes have actually been released. According to third-hand gossip, Crowley had his mike pressed down during long portions of Gates’ tirade, thereby transmitting it to the station and recording it. The reason that Obama backed up so quickly (and the reason that Gates will not be filing a law suit) is that the tapes make Gates look bad. Obama got the heads up from his buddy the governor who got the inside scoop from the Cambridge mayor and police chief. But, again, that is all local gossip.

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