Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. cast his recent arrest in his home in Cambridge, Mass., as part of a "racial narrative" playing out in a biased criminal justice system. The professor, who has spent much of his life studying race in America, said he has come to feel like a case study.
"There are 1 million black men in jail in this country, and last Thursday I was one of them," he said in an interview yesterday with The Washington Post. "This is outrageous, and this is how poor black men across the country are treated every day in the criminal justice system. It's one thing to write about it, but altogether another to experience it."
He was still outraged, but he said he has had time to take a step back and will now apply the scholarship that has been his life's work to the issue of race in the criminal justice system.
Dr. Gates, 58, was arrested Thursday at his home near Harvard University after trying to force open the locked front door. The disorderly conduct charge was dropped yesterday afternoon, Cambridge's police department said in a news release. The department called the arrest "regrettable and unfortunate."
According to the initial police report, Dr. Gates accused officers at the scene of racism and repeatedly declared, "This is what happens to black men in America."
Police came to Dr. Gates's home to investigate a possible break-in about 12:40 p.m. Thursday. The police report said Dr. Gates was arrested "after exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior." Officers said they tried to calm him, and he replied, "You don't know who you're messing with."
Dr. Gates, director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Studies, had been away from home recently, working for a week in China on a documentary called "Faces of America." Upon his return, before joining his family on vacation, he stopped by his middle-class home neighborhood.
Dr. Gates, founder of the Root.com, (www.theroot.com), a Web site owned by The Washington Post Co., spoke to The Post in an hour-long phone interview from Martha's Vineyard.
He described his driver, whose car service he uses regularly, as a large, Moroccan man. The driver brought his three bags to the front door, but when the professor tried the lock, it would not budge. After going around to unlock a rear door, Dr. Gates returned to the front, which still was jammed.
"I thought it had been latched from the inside by my secretary, who comes to get the mail, but the lock had been tampered with. I said, 'Let's just push it.' "
Dressed in a blue blazer and leather shoes, his driver in a black uniform, they began to lean into the door to force it open. They pushed for 15 minutes and got it free. The driver left.
Dr. Gates said he learned that a neighbor called police to report two black men wearing backpacks breaking into his house.
His home is owned by Harvard, so he phoned the university real estate maintenance office. Before he could finish, an officer was at his porch, asking him to come out. He described the officer's tone as threatening.
The officer followed him to his kitchen, where Dr. Gates retrieved identification. "I was thinking, this is ridiculous, but I'm going to show him my ID, and this guy is going to get out of my house. This guy had this whole narrative in his head: Black guy, breaking and entering."
Dr. Gates' next project will be tied to his arrest. "I hope to make a documentary about racial profiling for PBS." The idea "had never crossed my mind" before, he said, "but it has now."