Harvard incident has roots in failure to communicate

Herald-Leader columnistJuly 23, 2009 

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a highly respected historian who has spent much of his life documenting some of the cultural differences that exist between blacks and whites.

He works at Harvard, lives in a two-story house that he rents from the university, and travels throughout the world making documentaries.

So when Gates, 58, was arrested for disorderly conduct while standing on his own porch, the news went viral over the Internet and spread to news outlets worldwide.

A neighbor had called police when she saw Gates and his driver trying to force open Gates' front door, which, unknown to her, was jammed. The arresting officer said that Gates was loud and that he called the officer a racist. Gates said the officer lied and owes him an apology.

The charges have since been dropped, but the incident has fueled the undying assertions that, to some people, especially some in law enforcement, it doesn't matter how many degrees a black man earns or how successful he is, he will always be just a black man.

Although we are hundreds of miles away and have only news accounts to go by, I wondered whether a black, male police officer living in Lexington could see both sides of that interaction and give some insight to the rest of us who are still shaking our heads in frustration.

Lt. Lawrence Weathers of the internal affairs department of the Lexington police department, said it appears the officer could have simply walked away.

"I don't know if it was necessary to arrest him," Weathers said, "but I don't know their laws."

In Lexington, he said, the officer would have been trained to defuse the situation by leaving.

"Looking at the story, things were said that got both of them upset," Weathers said. "Gates probably won the war of words."

Anthany Beatty, the University of Kentucky's vice president of public safety and a former Lexington police chief, said he looked at the news report with a critical eye from the beginning, both as a black man and as a police officer.

"I probably would be as angry as (Gates) was," Beatty said. "I've handled my share of complaints about officers, and I ask (those complaining), 'How did you interact with that person?' They can only feed off what you give them."

In sensitivity training, Weathers said, officers are taught about the differences in communication styles. Sometimes those styles come in conflict and can eventually lead to the rise in cultural biases just when those biases should be contained.

"We like to talk about those things with our officers," he said. "We let those emotions come to the surface and teach them how to fight through them and act accordingly and properly."

Still, Beatty said, police are human. "I don't care how well we recruit folks, train them and nurture them, they come to the table with a set of ideas and biases, and they sometimes shine through. It happens more with police, probably because they have authority and power and people react to that."

When the dynamics of a situation change, people will react, he said, and police are trained to react better than most people, but they will react.

As a black man, Weathers said, he understands Gates' being upset at the suggestion that he was breaking into his own home. Was it accusatory or respectful?

And why wasn't the situation defused after Gates showed his university identification and his driver's license?

"What kind of vibes or tones are being given off?" he asked.

I don't know.

Gates, who is biracial, married to a white woman and the father of biracial children, had just returned from a long trip to China. The officer was expecting to find a burglar. Both were probably anticipating some kind of deference, and I don't think either got what he wanted.

But, then, when did being angry in your own house become illegal?

I don't know that either.

Reach Merlene Davis at (859) 231-3218 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3218, or mdavis1@herald-leader.com.

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