Four years ago today, racial profiling was America's most dominant—and ugliest—conversation. Less than a week earlier, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a Harvard professor, preeminent scholar, and friend of Oprah, had been arrested on his Massachusetts front porch, after being suspected of robbery when, in fact, he'd been trying to enter his own home. Almost immediately, a national shitshow ensued and even the President got involved.
"This is one of those cases where everyone has an opinion about it," Chuck Wexler, who later headed up an independent investigation of the incident, told the Washington Post. "It's almost like some kind of Rorschach test. People see it and they read into it what they want," he said. "People want to know, 'How did we get here?'"
Sounds familiar. Except for the part about the dead teenager. But how did we get here? Let's briefly recall the last time we did this.
On Thursday, July 16, 2009, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. arrived to his Cambridge, Massachusetts home from Logan Airport, where he’d landed from a return trip to China. Gates found his front-door lock broken. With the shoulder-wedging help of his driver, a man who also happened to be black, Gates forced his way into his own home. A white lady witnessed this and called the local police.
Sgt. James Crowley soon showed up to the Ware Street residence alone, saw Gates standing in the foyer, and asked him to come out onto the porch. Gates refused. Crowley said he'd been called to investigate a break-in and Gates responded, "Why, because I am a black man in America?" The situation escalated, with both men demanding one another's identification, Gates calling Crowley a racist, and back-up officers arriving.
In the end, Gates was charged with disorderly conduct and hauled off to jail.
On Tuesday, July 21, four days after the detainment, Cambridge Police dropped the charges against the Harvard professor, calling the situation "regrettable and unfortunate." That did not quell the ensuing shitshow.
In the week following Gates's arrest, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick characterized the arrest as "every black man’s nightmare and a reality for many black men." Al Sharpton released a statement, condemning the arrest as "at best police abuse of power or at worst the highest example of racial profiling I have seen." It soon came out that Crowley taught police recruits a class in racial profiling.
Meanwhile, President Obama told a reporter that the Cambridge police "acted stupidly," disclosed that Skip Gates was "a friend, so I may be a little biased here," and then refracted the situation back to his own experience, saying, "I guess this is my house now," about the White House. "Here I’d get shot."
Two days later, the President Obama apologized for fueling the media frenzy with his comments and proposed that the two men come to the White House to discuss the situation and have a beer, declaring the debacle a "teachable moment."
On Thursday, July 30, 2009, Gates and Crowley went to the White House to have a drink with Obama and Biden for a "Beer Summit" a/k/a The Lamest Kegger Ever. Humans live-blogged the festivities. The biggest news? What each man chose to drink. (Obama had Bud Lite, Biden chose a non-alcoholic Buckler, Gates sipped a Sam Adams Lite, and Crowley drank a Blue Moon.)
In September 2009, the Police Executive Research Forum, an independent D.C.-based group headed by Chuck Wexler, announced plans to re-examine the incident and evaluate what actions could have created a better outcome. Eventually, the commission released its findings: both men "missed opportunities to 'ratchet down' the situation and end it peacefully."
After their White House beer summit, Gates and Crowley later met at River Gods, a small Cambridge pub, where Crowley delivered the pair of handcuffs used in the arrest. Gates donated the now-historical shackles to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.
In July 2013, what have we learned? That black skin is a sufficient threat to defend yourself against in the United States of America. We've come a long way.
[top illustration by Sam Woolly; Beer summit photo by AP/Ron Edmonds]