Several years ago a friend of mine, a young black man, came over to my place to rehearse for a performance I had planned. He entered my building through the back, up the fire escape.
When we were done, we went out for a cup of coffee. In my hallway, there were about a dozen policemen wandering around. I realized immediately what had happened: somebody had reported a black man coming in the back of the building - even though the back entrance and the fire escape are routinely used by people who live there.
Up to that point, there was really no problem. One could even say that the police might have had reasons to be suspicious. Someone had called them; they had to investigate. As I said, no problem. I explained calmly to the police that I lived there, that this man was a friend of mine and that he had come to visit me. Just a simple mistake.
Then the police pushed my friend against the wall, searched him and and handcuffed him.
Now, I don't know exactly what Henry Louis Gates Jr. told the policeman. I have heard him speak and he's a very eloquent man, much more so than I am. However reports indicate that, on this occasion he set aside his eloquence, so I imagine that what he said then wasn't very different from what I said when when I saw my friend being attacked. Really, there are only so many ways to say "Fucking racist pig". I do know that if I hadn't been white, I might well have been arrested or killed. (My friend, in the meantime, knew the drill. He kept quiet and was eventually released)
That was back in 1999 and things have changed for me. I no longer argue that real political change is impossible without violence. Also, for the first time since 1980, the US government, or at least its president, has become a symbol of intelligence instead of willful stupidity. And President Obama had a different reaction from me or Professor Gates.
The President is probably right. I certainly lost my cool, which was exactly what the police wanted. After all, the police themselves hold to an ideology of hatred, they thrive upon a culture of violence. When they're not beating prisoners (we don't call it torture in the U. S.) it seems like they're punching out their wives or their girlfriends. When we give ourselves over to hatred, we are playing the police's own game, and they will always be better at it than us.
Finally, we might consider exactly what crime, if any, was committed that day in Cambridge. The woman who reported the crime was just doing her civic duty. Henry Louis Gates Jr could never be convicted for breaking into his own house. And all the reports all say that it's no crime to stand in your own home and insult the police. However, to drag an innocent man off to jail for no reason sounds to me definitely like a crime.