The Gates Affair: Why We Care

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

-- 4th Amendment to the The Constitution of the United States of America

I'll never forget that hot, sticky Sunday afternoon at twilight. I was sitting alone in my old Chevy C- 10 panel truck in the trash-strewn parking lot of Church's Fried Chicken on Mount Pleasant Street on May 5, 1991. My Sunday routine was to drive up to Glen Bernie, Maryland for a night of dancing and buffet food for the five-dollar admission at Cancun Cantina and I was getting ready to depart. I didn't live in Mt. Pleasant and I don't remember why I was there that day, but that night would be unlike any other and my trip was not to be.

In the days before gentrification, Mount Pleasant Street was a slum where Central American immigrants dwelled in overcrowded apartments. During the 1980s hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans and Nicaraguans descended on the area around Washington, DC via the porous Mexican border in the belief that the capital city would hold the greatest opportunity. They wanted to escape the bloody civil wars between the Left and Right in their home countries; wars fueled on one side by Ronald Reagan's foreign policy even as U.S. law prohibited it. It made sense that male immigrants outnumbered women ten to one since women were neither combatants nor breadwinners in most cases. The men were typically Brown and barrel-chested with black mustaches, stubby calloused hands and gold teeth. They wore cheap gold chains and wore bedroom slippers in the street, white socks with black Payless dress shoes to be cool and leather cowboy belts, boots and hats to show the world they had truly arrived. Men took child brides. A pickup truck was their ultimate ride and they drove without insurance or a U.S. driver's license.

Their musical patron saints were the Mexican Don Vicente Fernandez and Los Tigres del Norte, who sang ballads about wetbacks and wily bandits and sang odes to Pancho Villa accompanied by accordions and squeaky violins. Watching these men on the street was like envisioning the cast of extras for Ruben Blades's Pedro Navaja set to Mariachi music. They could neither read nor write in Spanish, let alone English, and they were all here illegally except for a few Nicaraguans who had been granted asylum. The men spoke the countrified Spanish of hicks from the remote hills of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere where indoor plumbing and electricity are still goals for future generations. "Va pue' " they would say, meaning ok, its all good. They were illiterate but had infantry training or combat experience and could work like oxen under punishing conditions while subsisting day to day on a poor peasant's ration of corn tortillas, rice and beans. American employers were eager to hire them and they displaced Anglophones Black and White, causing great resentment. The few housewives and babies they brought with them led a sheltered, sedentary lifestyle and quickly turned into flesh-and-blood Botero sculptures.

When the weekend rolled around it was time to dress up and get sloppy drunk, just like in the old country. The streets of Mount Pleasant flowed with alcohol and urine. Crowds of men in Cowboy hats and baseball caps congregated on peeling tenement stoops to escape the heat and loitered in front of convenience stores because there was no place else to go. Drunken brawls ensued. They settled scores with machetes and passed out disheveled and intoxicated in vestibules and redbrick alleyways. Citizens complained. The new arrivals were on a collision course with the District of Columbia Police Department and the feculent streets of Mt. Pleasant would soon mix eddies of high BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration) blood to the beer and piss on the pavement.

My education in the unwritten codes of conduct with a cop started in the 80s during the (Mayor for Life) Barry years. I was like a fly on the wall as I watched the cops I knew, Black Vietnam veterans all, shoot the breeze on Park Road about how many enemies they took out over there and how many knuckleheads they stomped out over here. I quickly understood that these were men to be avoided if you valued your life and liberty and all that nonsense about the scales of justice was a crock. If they liked you, they might sell you a .32 you could hide in your pocket and feel like a man with, DC's gun ban be damned. If they didn't like you, you could be killed and no one would be the wiser or inquire because you would be just one more stat. Chocolate City's coroner was working overtime but still couldn't keep up with the bodies arriving at the morgue. It was a scandal and the Washington, DC basketball team abandoned the name Bullets because of it. But Hizzoner reassured us that "If you take out the killings, Washington actually has a very, very low crime rate."

Bad Cop, No Donut

I had spoken with the Mayor for Life a few years back at a community gathering of worried citizens at an upscale restaurant in Adams Morgan. He had an electrifying personality and I understood why he was popular, but the allegations against him in the Washington Post were eye-popping and causing an international uproar. The city was in a fiscal crisis and Congress would neither meet the city's budget needs nor permit a commuter tax, so the city starved for cash like a banana republic whose U.S. aid gets cut for bad behavior. It was the federal government's way of pressuring Washingtonians to get rid of Mayor Barry. To this day Washingtonians do not have a voice in Congress, and its residents hear the echo of Jim Crow disenfranchisement loud and clear. As with everything else of significance concerning people of color in America, the issues of representation in Congress and Mayor Barry's competency degenerated into a racial poker game cloaked in language that strenuously avoids mention of race until the endgame, when the race card may or may not be played in a gambit to win by either side.

D.C. city government was mostly Black, rude and dysfunctional and tried to even the score with Congress and suburbanite commuters via fifteen-minute timers on greedy parking meters, exorbitant and aggressive parking tickets and orange car boots. Vehicles with out-of-state tags were prime targets in a new sort of profiling: parking while from out of town. Cars were impounded and fees accumulated so quickly that many people just abandoned their vehicles to the city. City governments around the world looked on in awe as the Barry Administration raised hundreds of millions of dollars this way, and they sent delegations of their own police brass to learn how it was done. What they didn't know was that "Operation Revenue" required an expansion of police power that is always accompanied by abuse regardless of the cop's race, a theme I will return to shortly. Corrupt cops were emboldened, towed people's cars away and sold them to chop shops. In response, somebody went berserk and decapitated hundreds of parking meters across miles of Washington's potholed streets, creating instant free parking and a lot of chuckles. Then it dawned on city government that harassment of motorists might drive city retailers' revenue down and cause sales tax receipts to fall. This is exactly what happened.

The Criminal Just Us System

On January 18, 1990, Mayor Marion Barry was covertly filmed smoking crack cocaine in a hotel suite with a female government informant and was pounced on by FBI agents hiding in the next room. His first reaction was, "the bitch set me up."

The shame he brought on the African-American community is indescribable. Black talk radio wept and WPFW was in mourning while whites un-popped bottles of champagne and Latinos were smug. How could Washington blame Columbia, a Latin country, for America's drug problem when the mayor of its capital city was a user himself? Pablo Escobar laughed up his sleeve.

Barry would go on to be tried and convicted and served six months in prison. He got paid $.65 an hour while he worked in the prison woodshop and joined the 50%+ of Black men caught up in the criminal Just Us system, a problem more severe now than ever. The United States imprisons and executes more people per capita than Iran, China, Cuba or Russia. Most inmates, like Troy Davis, are Black or Brown. In America, race heavily influences who gets arrested but the race of the accused determines trial and sentence outcome far less than the race of the victim.

Mayor Barry had indeed been targeted and set up, but America's instruments of coercion and its massive prison industrial complex are hemmed in by public opinion and the democratic traditions, due process of law and constitution of the United States. This is why Abu-Ghraib is such a scandal and Gitmo is a conundrum. Not coincidentally, a number of the U.S. soldiers accused of abominable behavior at Abu-Ghraib are career law enforcement officers and prison guards in the United States. What kind of horrors have Americans been subjected to at their sick and sadistic hand?

Arrest and detention in America is skewed towards the Black, the Brown and the poor, especially in combination, but it is not arbitrary, nor is it under the direct command of a central authority. The spigot of prisoners is not controlled by dictate, as in an authoritarian society, but by debate amongst people who count and the appropriations they influence. In America, there is no knock on the door in the middle of the night, there's an arrest warrant duly served. In the case of Dr. Gates, the "disorderly conduct" charge, a catchall for the cops to seize whomever they want on the spot, was his unexpected knock in the middle of the night... in broad daylight. In a free and legally de-segregated society based on truth and justice for all but awash in guns, where colored people can no longer be required to carry papers to justify their presence or prove their right to be out and about, arrest and incarceration must follow protocol, e.g. seatbelt law violations. It is no coincidence that thousands of new laws have been enacted and police powers and budgets have mushroomed since the 1960s as the Civil Rights struggle forced change onto American society.

In my previous life as a shopkeeper, I was accosted on the street by a Black cop who demanded my I.D. I told him I had no I.D. on my person and he had no constitutional right to make such a demand. Enraged, he followed me on foot for forty-five minutes while I kept my lawyer live on my cell phone to hear what was going on. The cop then attempted to have my car towed away even though it was on my own property in a ploy to force me to produce I.D. No tow trucks were available. A week later, he and other officers conducted a stakeout of the property and pounced on a group of my employees, including a manager in his sixties, as they left the property one night. The manager called me at 1:00 AM and wailed "I didn't know Blacks could still be treated this way by the police." He was traumatized by the experience and quit.

What all people but especially men of color in the United States must know and openly discuss is that the Just Us system needs passive cooperation to work. It is racist but not random. Mayor Barry, a man smart enough to get a Ph.D in chemistry, knew he had powerful enemies but was reckless and careless anyway. He set himself up to be set up. He played an essential role in his own downfall and some people enjoy watching this happen because it is confirmation of an ideology that is on the defensive. The only way to survive is to deprive friend and foe alike of any opportunity to take you down, be it on the corner, on the job, in a hotel room or in the Oval Office. Just ask Bill Clinton, our first Black president.

American society works this way everyday and it doesn't make the evening news... Colored students are written off to fail and get in trouble with the police at a young age. Mediocrity and a checkered past is their lot. This tired script was written long ago and you can either accept it or manifest your own destiny against the expectations of strangers, family and peers.

That Sunday night in Mount Pleasant, a Black police officer shot and wounded a drunken Salvadoran man for resisting arrest on a disorderly conduct charge. Word quickly spread that he had been killed and the community exploded like a Molotov cocktail. A torrent of pent-up rage built up over years of slights and manhandling by the police had been unleashed. Hundreds of enraged men picked up bricks and cinder blocks and turned them into projectiles. The police retreated in terror. The mob's military training kicked in and they instinctively formed barricades with dumpsters and overturned cars. The cops called for backup but were shut out. Clouds of thick black smoke rose into the haze high over the city. Over sixty police vehicles and city buses were attacked, turned over or set alight. As nighttime descended, I saw a thousand Black and Latino youth, their faces covered in bandannas, make common cause with the Central American men on Mount Pleasant St. as they chanted "F*** the police!" over and over and over again. They smashed scores of shop windows all up and down Columbia Road. The police fired teargas canisters and the youth tossed them right back at the police. I caught a whiff and gagged. Armed men in helicopters with bright searchlights flew just overhead. On the ground, the police abandoned the area, a curfew was set and Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon, a colored woman, declared a state of emergency. The city hadn't seen anything like it since 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated. The irony was overwhelming.

On April 29, 1992, almost a year to the day of the Mount Pleasant riots, Los Angeles exploded in an orgy of deadly violence after White L.A. cops were acquitted of the brutal tasering and beating of a Black motorist on March 31 of the previous year. The awful pummeling was caught on videotape in what would become the most prominent case of inverse surveillance to date. The grainy amateur video was obtained by news agencies around the world and showed Rodney King supine as police broke bones in his face and leg after a high-speed chase. Mayor Bradley, also a Black man and theoretically the boss and backer of every L.A. police officer but sensitive to the views of all his constituents, declared that the disgraced officers had no right to wear the uniform of the LAPD... Without that seventy-five second videotape, no one would've cared about Rodney King; but the video was real. It was shockingly graphic and damned the LAPD to instant condemnation by any objective observer. Their acquittal was proof that the Just Us system is rigged against people of color of modest means, but also against anybody in a dispute involving the police. Rodney King's beating would have been no more acceptable had some or all of the cops been Black. Big city police of all backgrounds abuse people of all backgrounds, while their superiors, police chiefs and officials at City Hall are often Black themselves. Rodney King symbolized the bottled-up frustrations of millions of ordinary people in Los Angeles and across the country who had not been fortunate enough to have their own ordeal immortalized by a bystander; it is doubtful that many of them actually felt empathy for Rodney King. The outrageous arrest of Dr. Gates in his own home in 2009 in a state where the governor is Black and even the president of the United States is Black strikes a similar chord in millions of people of color today, but the old paradigms no longer apply because the country has changed too much since the days of Bull Conner. Whites across the blogosphere are baffled by the allegations of racial profiling against Officer Crowley because they miss the essential element of the controversy: is an American citizen of any color required to be obsequious to the police, even in his own home? Is that the land of the free and the home of the brave? The only thing black and white about this question is the answer: democratic societies do not behave that way.

For people of color and African-Americans in particular, all that's needed is to change the circumstances, names, places and dates and we have all been in Dr. Gates's shoes; hence the public's fascination with the arrest even to the detriment of the national debate on healthcare, an issue affecting hundreds of millions and linked to the untimely death of thousands every year. Forced to comment on the matter, President Obama correctly used the adverb "stupidly" to describe the actions of the Cambridge Police Department but did not call the police department stupid. Nevertheless, the remark hit a raw nerve, the Cambridge Police Department took it very harshly and felt compelled to go on the defensive and stand by their man against the ultimate law enforcement official of the United States himself. Presidential involvement like this in a local misdemeanor arrest is unprecedented and proof of the symbolic, even historic importance of the incident. It is indeed a teachable moment. Like the surprise videotape of the Rodney King beating, Dr. Gates's unusual access and connections have shed the national spotlight on what would have otherwise been just another law-abiding person humiliated or beaten, booked, fingerprinted, strip searched and released within seventy-two hours; something repeated so often every day that it is not newsworthy. But it's not just people of color taking a beating and it's not only White cops who harass, arrest, injure and kill Black civilians and others in the interminable wars on crime, drugs and terror. We now live in a complex society that sends 18-year-olds of any race and immigrants hoping for permanent U.S. residency to kill and be killed in Iraq while 20-year-olds can't buy a beer and illegal immigrants that do jobs Americans don't want cannot get a driver's license to drive to work.

Like the army, police departments across the country are equal opportunity employers and equal opportunity heroes or abusers. But cops, like criminals, are opportunists, and there is more opportunity to arrest Blacks than Whites and a better chance of conviction if the accused is Black. This is racial profiling today and it need not be intentional or conscious on the part of the arresting officer, any more than it was Officer James Crowley's intention that his very name smacks of Jim (James) Crow (Crowley).

Theory and Practice Lag Behind the New Reality

I know my country well and I firmly believe that had Dr. Gates been the spitting image of absent-minded Albert Einstein or befuddled Mr. McGoo locked out of his own home no one would have thought to call the police in the first place and had they been called no I.D. would have been required and an arrest would never have occurred, everything else being equal.

But everything is not equal and to pretend that it is is to live in denial. In the choreography of American life at the close of the first decade of the 21st century, a casual observer might see a few discrepancies like these: a bailout is White but a handout is Black. Fashion magazine covers are White and mug shots are Black. The family vacation to Disneyland is White and the three-hour Saturday bus ride to visit daddy at the state pen is Black. Inheritance is White, poor credit scores, Black. A missing woman is White and a fugitive on the loose is Black. Nose candy and ecstasy at posh nightspots are White while drug busts, plea-bargains and drug-free school zones are Black. Pounds of pot at a Grateful Dead concert are White but undercover drug stings for grams of crack are Black. A suspended sentence is White and a threat to the community is Black. A White man with a gun is exercising his Second Amendment rights but a Black man with a gun is shot dead whether or not he had a gun. Driving under the influence is White and driving while Black is still Black, even without a car. Centuries of White privilege are a free market and fair elections and forty years of affirmative action are reverse racism. Finally, an IPO that raises hundreds of millions of dollars for a company that will buy distressed mortgages on the cheap then make a killing when the market recovers (PennyMac) is White but the Cleveland boyhood home of Langston Hughes in foreclosure and sold for $14,000 in 2009 is Black. Now here's the confusing part: sometimes White is Black and increasingly Black is White, including the White House. When Black and White converge this way, Americans' eyes cross and they get a headache.

If only James Baldwin were here to bear witness! The election of 2008 crossed the eyes of African-Americans and many withheld support of Barack Obama until after he won the Iowa primaries...long after many White youth were already committed to his triumph. I saw this with my own eyes. People clung to hackneyed half-truths until the Iowa wake-up call. Now the Gatesgate sounds the tocsin of change to boundaries of police power, thanks to our dear POTUS! We need new ideological software to understand contemporary American life!

Not Going Back to the Future

Our view of what occurred to Dr. Gates in Cambridge is a generation behind the times but our outrage is right on schedule. It's not too hard to guess why: the assassinations of Malcolm and Martin.

Malcolm became El-Hajj and was transformed. He abandoned the personality cult and bizarre theories of Elijah Mohammed then took the road to pan-Africanism and internationalism. Broadly speaking, he represented one school of thought of the African American body politic. His intellectual journey mirrored similar processes occurring in the minds of masses of Black people as they came out of their stupor. They looked to him for guidance and he eclipsed Elijah Mohammed, who had him killed.

Dr. King had come a long way between his 1963 I Have a Dream Speech and the speech against the Vietnam War in July 1967. He had gone far beyond the mere desegregation of city buses and lunch counters in the South and was moving towards Liberation Theology and anti-Imperialism, global themes that transcend American race relations. By the late 1970s his unparalleled personality could have led a coalition movement of millions that could have shook the foundations of the established order of American politics, changed election patterns and forced philosophical and practical changes on the policies of the United States at home and abroad. The powers that be could not tolerate this, and he too was killed.

Both men were assassinated before they were forty, just over forty years ago. Its leadership decapitated, African American thought froze over as the new generation was left with bow ties, bean pies, grainy re-runs of I have a Dream and the subliminal underscore that those who challenge the system will be martyred. The new focus was reduced to the creation of a federal holiday honoring Dr. King as sports idols and entertainers became the new leaders of Black America. In 1986 the Greaseman said, "Kill four more and we can get a whole week off."

Brilliant personalities like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan tried to fill the void but were unsuccessful. As time moved on, conditions changed and the era of mass incarceration took off in earnest but African American prescriptions remained mired in the past. This created a window of opportunity for astute Black conservatives like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice and explains the racial tinge to the Gates affair when it is, as we have seen, an all-around American problem that is informed by race but no longer limited to it. A Black cop could have been the arresting officer...would that be Black on Black profiling? Should it be called Blue on Black profiling? Indeed, a smirking Black cop, hands on hips, was present as Gates was pushed out of his home and conspicuously present at the Cambridge Police Department's press conference, held in the shadow of the hall where an authority on the subject electrified Harvard seminary students half a century ago. His name was Malcolm X, and it is this generation of Americans' task to complete the journey he started.