The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America

The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America

by Charles Ogletree

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Shortly after noon on Tuesday, July 16, 2009, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., MacArthur Fellow and Harvard professor, was mistakenly arrested by Cambridge police sergeant James Crowley for attempting to break into his own home. The ensuing media firestorm ignited debate across the country. The Crowley-Gates incident was a clash of absolutes, underscoring the tension between black and white, police and civilians, and the privileged and less privileged in modern America. Charles Ogletree, one of the country's foremost experts on civil rights, uses this incident as a lens through which to explore issues of race, class, and crime, with the goal of creating a more just legal system for all.
Working from years of research and based on his own classes and experiences with law enforcement, the author illuminates the steps needed to embark on the long journey toward racial and legal equality for all Americans.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780230110137
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/10/2012
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 575 KB

About the Author

Charles Ogletree is the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the founding and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at the law school. He is the author of four books on race and the law, including the critically acclaimed All Deliberate Speed, and has received numerous awards and honors, including being named one of the 100+ Most Influential Black Americans by Ebony Magazine. In the immediate aftermath of the Crowley-Gates incident, Ogletree acted not only as counsel to professor Gates but continues to be special counsel to President Obama and advisor on police behavior to both Harvard University and the City of Cambridge.

Read an Excerpt

The Presumption of Guilt

The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Race, Class, and Crime in America

By Charles J. Ogletree Jr.

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2012 Charles Ogletree
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-12065-5


"Keep the Cars Coming." What Really Happened?

Sgt. James Crowley is a Cambridge native who once worked for the Harvard University Police Department for three years as an officer on the graveyard shift. Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has been on the Harvard faculty for nearly two decades. Yet their paths had not crossed formally (or, to their knowledge, informally) in that period of time. On July 16, 2009, Gates and Crowley, who was serving in his eleventh year in the Cambridge Police Department, found themselves on a collision course with history. Their lives changed instantly, as the story of their meeting drew national and global attention. Ultimately, the Crowley/Gates affair itself may fade into history, but the events of that day and beyond will reverberate for some time, given the combustible ingredients of race, class, and crime.

The irony of the events as they unfolded is not only that Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley are as different as day and night, left and right, and Black and White, but also that such an esteemed figure on the subjects of race and equality would find himself in any confrontation with the police. Professor Gates has received dozens of honorary degrees and national awards and has been hailed as one of the nation's leading intellectuals. He has been affiliated with the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton University, has taught at Duke and Yale, and, since 1991, has been the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University. While Professor Gates is known widely for his role at Harvard University, he had traveled there literally and figuratively thousands of miles and many years away from his humble birthplace in West Virginia.

Gates was born in Keyser, West Virginia, on September 16, 1950. While Gates was still in middle school, his parents learned that their son, a very active and outgoing child, had polio, necessitating several operations and extensive medical care throughout his childhood. One of the consequences of his early health problems is that one leg is shorter than the other, such that he needs a cane to get around.

Gates grew up in Piedmont, West Virginia, during a time when segregation was the norm, and every opportunity for African Americans to assert their racial pride was memorable for him. He shared stories in his best-selling memoir, Colored People, about the famous and infamous Black men and women who were celebrated and condemned in the Black section of Piedmont. Both proud of and at times disappointed in the Black cultural experiences in the town, he learned much and grew intellectually as a result of them. Gates attended the local Piedmont High School before going on to Yale for his BA, graduating summa cum laude, and to the University of Cambridge in England for his PhD in English Literature.

James Crowley grew up in North Cambridge, a working-class community that also contained a rising middle-class population. Cambridge is affectionately known as the People's Republic of Cambridge for its progressive politics. Despite the generally liberal ideology, residential segregation, based upon income and personal preferences (by Blacks and by Whites), was prevalent during Crowley's formative years. Following the lead of his older brother, he attended the only public high school in Cambridge, known as CRLS, the Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School. Crowley was a successful but not a star student and was well liked by his teachers, coaches, and classmates. He is well respected by his African American former coach at CRLS, George Greenidge. Coach Greenidge remembers Crowley's remarkable success in wrestling and tenacity on the football field. He speaks enthusiastically about Crowley and considers him one of the most disciplined athletes he has ever coached. Greenidge states that, to this day, he would swear by Crowley at a moment's notice.

After graduating from high school, Crowley worked in several capacities as a police officer and ultimately followed in the path of his father and older brother by pursuing a career in law enforcement in Cambridge. As a result of his success as a police officer in Cambridge, Sgt. Crowley was able to move to Natick, a suburb of Boston, where he owns a comfortable, spacious home and resides with his young family.

Professor Gates rents a comfortable home owned by Harvard in a predominately White neighborhood where residents expect police to investigate any suspicious behavior, prevent as many criminal acts as possible, and maintain the safety of the neighborhood. Residents there have a very different sense of the police than residents of nearby Area IV.

Area IV has a significant African American and Latino presence. Parents there often feel that their children are harassed by the police and that young men are routinely confronted with the misconception that every Black male wearing baggy pants, tennis shoes, and some kind of a baseball cap fits a profile.

Living on Ware Street, fewer than two blocks away from Harvard University, it would seem clear that Professor Gates would be protected—not targeted—by law enforcement. The reality, however, turned out to be quite different. He would soon learn a lot about his own assumptions and understand firsthand the difference between the fundamental principle of the presumption of innocence and the practical application of the presumption of guilt.

July 16 was a bright summer day in Cambridge. Professor Gates was on his way home following a very successful business trip to China. Sgt. Crowley was halfway into his morning schedule, patrolling familiar territory near his old high school. Ms. Lucia Whalen, a circulation and fundraising manager for Harvard Magazine, was working at her desk at 7 Ware Street. The summer pace was a little slower because the next issue of the magazine would not be published until October.

Professor Gates was eager to get home after the grueling and long trip. He was not just exhausted but was also suffering from a nagging cold. Despite his exhaustion, Gates was happy to return home to begin editing the results of the genealogical research and interviews he had conducted in China for his Faces of America PBS series. He also knew that within days he would begin a relaxing summer at his home on Martha's Vineyard in Oak Bluffs, a community where, for hundreds of years, many African American families have spent the summer.

Professor Gates was met at Logan Airport by one of his favorite drivers, Mr. Driss Elghannaz, who worked for the Boston Car Service, and they went on their way. When Professor Gates arrived at his home in Cambridge at noon, he attempted to enter but discovered that his front door was jammed. He and his driver were able to open it by pressing against the door and forcing it open. Then they discovered that the lock was defective and needed to be replaced.

Professor Gates called Ms. Amanda Moore at the Harvard Real Estate Office to report the damage to his door. She arranged to have it repaired that afternoon. He was pleased that this matter was resolved and looked forward to a routine day. But as we all know, it would turn out to be anything but routine. The day would end with the accomplished professor under arrest, charged with disorderly conduct.

Why did Sgt. Crowley actually arrest Professor Gates, and what was the crime or, better yet, the motivation, for the arrest? The short answer is that neither of these men, who both worked in Cambridge, knew each other, and so presumptions ruled the progression of events. During their interaction, neither felt respected by the other and neither trusted the other. Despite the fact that Gates had the First Amendment right of freedom of speech in his own home and Crowley had the authority of law at the moment to make an arrest, the outcome was not inevitable. How much did race and class contribute to the results of that day?

Shortly after noon, there was a clash of absolutes: the man in his home demanding to be respected and understood, and the police officer investigating an alleged breaking and entering who was displeased with what he viewed as a hostile and uncooperative Black man. There would be trouble. A detailed analysis of an event that only lasted for a few minutes reveals both what happened and what did not happen. The threshold question is: What crime did Professor Gates commit, if any, that justified his arrest on the porch of his home?

Among the most significant factors in the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the statute invoked by Sgt. James Crowley to justify the arrest and the officer's narrative of the six-minute encounter.

The Massachusetts statute invoked is generally entitled Crimes against Chastity, Morality, Decency, and Good Order. As defined, the relevant section (53) applies to: "Common night walkers, common street walkers, both male and female, common railers and brawlers, persons who with offensive and disorderly acts or language accost or annoy persons of the opposite sex, lewd, wanton and lascivious persons in speech or behavior, idle and disorderly persons, disturbers of the peace, keepers of noisy and disorderly houses, and persons guilty of indecent exposure."

The penalty for a violation includes "imprisonment in a jail or house of correction for not more than six months, or by a fine of not more than two hundred dollars, or by both such fine and imprisonment." A close examination of this statute reveals that it does not apply to Professor Gates' conduct in his home or on his porch. Yet it is by nature a broad statute that gives police officers virtually unfettered discretion in effecting an arrest.

Sgt. Crowley's police report tells a story that might appear to be difficult to challenge: a seamless discussion of an investigation into a reported crime. Crowley prepared the public document after the arrest, filing it with both the police department and the office which handles criminal matters in Cambridge, the Middlesex District Attorney's Office. All this before Gates appeared in court to defend himself on Friday, July 17, 2009.

Sgt. Crowley's report described the arrest as follows:

On July 16, 2009 Henry Gates, Jr. (of Ware Street, Cambridge, MA) was placed under arrest at Ware Street, after being observed exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior, in a public place, directed at a uniformed police officer who was present investigating a report of a crime in progress. These actions on the behalf of Gates served no legitimate purpose and caused citizens passing by this location to stop and take notice while appearing surprised and alarmed.

At approximately 12:44 PM, I was operating my cruiser on Harvard Street near Ware Street. At that time, I overheard an ECC broadcast for a possible break[in] in progress at—Ware Street....

When I arrived at—Ware Street I radioed ECC and asked that they have the caller meet me at the front door to this residence. I was told that the caller was already outside. As I was getting this information, I climbed the porch stairs toward the front door. As I reached the door, a female voice called out to me. I turned and looked in the direction of the voice and observed a white female, later identified as Whalen. Whalen, who was standing on the sidewalk in front of the residence, held a wireless telephone in her hand and told me that it was she who called. She went on to tell me that she observed what appeared to be two black males with backpacks on the porch of—Ware Street. She told me that her suspicions were aroused when she observed one of the men wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry. Since I was the only police officer on location and had my back to the front door as I spoke with her, I asked that she wait for other responding officers while I investigated further.

As I turned and faced the door, I could see an older black male standing in the foyer of—Ware Street. I made this observation through the glass paned front door. As I stood in plain view of this man, later identified as Gates, I asked if he would step out onto the porch and speak with me. He replied "no I will not." He then demanded to know who I was. I told him that I was "Sgt. Crowley from the Cambridge Police" and that I was "investigating a report of a break[-in] in progress" at the residence. While I was making this statement, Gates opened the front door and exclaimed "why, because I'm a black man in America?" I then asked Gates if there was anyone else in the residence. While yelling, he told me that it was none of my business and accused me of being a racist police officer. I assured Gates that I was responding to a citizen's call to the Cambridge Police and that the caller was outside as we spoke. Gates seemed to ignore me and picked up a cordless telephone and dialed an unknown telephone number. As he did so, I radioed on channel 1 that I was off in the residence with someone who appeared to be a resident but very uncooperative. I then overheard Gates asking the person on the other end of his telephone call to "get the chief" and "what's the chief's name?" Gates was telling the person on the other end of the call that he was dealing with a racist police officer in his home. Gates then turned to me and told me that I had no idea who I was "messing" with and that I had not heard the last of it. While I was led to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence, I was quite surprised and confused with the behavior he exhibited toward me. I asked Gates to provide me with photo identification so that I could verify that he resided at—Ware Street and so that I could radio my findings to ECC. Gates initially refused, demanding that I show him identification but then did supply me with a Harvard University identification card. Upon learning that Gates was affiliated with Harvard, I radioed and requested the presence of the Harvard University Police.

With the Harvard University identification in hand, I radioed my findings to ECC on channel two and prepared to leave. Gates again asked for my name which I began to provide. Gates began to yell over my spoken words by accusing me of being a racist police officer and leveling threats that he wasn't someone to mess with. At some point during this exchange, I became aware that Off. Carlos Figueroa was standing behind me. When Gates asked a third time for my name, I explained to him that I had provided it at his request two separate times. Gates continued to yell at me. I told Gates that I was leaving his residence and that if he had any other questions regarding the matter, I would speak with him outside of the residence.

As I began walking through the foyer toward the front door, I could hear Gates again demanding my name. I again told Gates that I would speak with him outside. My reason for wanting to leave the residence was that Gates was yelling very loud and the acoustics of the kitchen and foyer were making it difficult for me to transmit pertinent information to ECC or other responding units. His reply was "ya, I'll speak with your mama outside." When I left the residence, I noted that there were several Cambridge and Harvard University police officers assembled on the sidewalk in front of the residence. Additionally, the caller, Ms. Whalen[,] and at least seven unidentified passers-by were looking in the direction of Gates, who had followed me outside of the residence.

As I descended the stairs to the sidewalk, Gates continued to yell at me, accusing me of racial bias and continued to tell me that I had not heard the last of him. Due to the tumultuous manner Gates had exhibited in his residence as well as his continued tumultuous behavior outside the residence, in view of the public, I warned Gates that he was becoming disorderly. Gates ignored my warning and continued to yell, which drew the attention of both the police officers and citizens, who appeared surprised and alarmed by Gates's outburst. For a second time I warned Gates to calm down while I withdrew my department issued handcuffs from their carrying case. Gates again ignored my warning and continued to yell at me. It was at this time that I informed Gates that he was under arrest. I then stepped up the stairs, onto the porch and attempted to place handcuffs on Gates. Gates initially resisted my attempt to handcuff him, yelling that he was "disabled" and would fall without his cane. After the handcuffs were properly applied, Gates complained that they were too tight. I ordered Off. Ivey, who was among the responding officers, to handcuff Gates with his arms in front of him for his comfort while I secured a cane for Gates from within the residence. I then asked Gates if he would like an officer to take possession of his house key and secure his front door, which he left wide open. Gates told me that the door was unable to be secured due to a previous break [in] attempt at the residence. Shortly thereafter, a Harvard University maintenance person arrived on scene and appeared familiar with Gates. I asked Gates if he was comfortable with this Harvard University maintenance person securing his residence. He told me that he was.

After a brief consultation with Sgt. Lashley and upon Gates' request, he was transported to 125 6th Street in a police cruiser (Car 1, Off.'s Graham and Ivey) where he was booked and processed by Off. J.P. Crowley.

Officer Carlos Figueroa, to whom Sgt. Crowley refers, arrived on the scene and filed his own short report. Interestingly, while it supports Crowley's report to a large extent, it mistakenly states that Gates had refused to show his ID. It would seem that Officer Figueroa had his own doubts about Gates' right to be in the house. The Figueroa report reads in full as follows:


Excerpted from The Presumption of Guilt by Charles J. Ogletree Jr.. Copyright © 2012 Charles Ogletree. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION The Cop and the Professor,
CHAPTER 1 "Keep the Cars Coming." What Really Happened?,
CHAPTER 2 "President Obama Doesn't Like White People." The Public Reaction,
CHAPTER 3 "Don't Tase Me, Bro!" How Far Have We Really Come?,
CHAPTER 4 Fair Harvard? The Class Issue,
CHAPTER 5 Driving while Black. Fighting Back against Racial Profiling,
CHAPTER 6 Race, Class, Justice, and Post-Racial America,
AFTERWORD Race Matters: The Struggle Continues,
EPILOGUE 100 Ways to Look at a Black Man,

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