A racist incident, in the immortal words of the MacPherson report, "is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person." By that token, what happened to Henry Louis Gates Jr outside his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts last week was certainly a racist incident. Indeed, if the officer's report is to any degree accurate, almost the first thing Professor Gates - Skip to his numerous friends and admirers - said to Sergeant Crowley (who was attempting to ascertain his identity) was: "Why, because I'm a black man in America?" Thus began a steady escalation of emotion (if not violence) on both sides which ended with the 58 year old academic being handcuffed and bundled into a police car. He was later released, and yesterday all charges were dropped. The bad feeling it has engendered will take much longer to clear up.

Racist or otherwise, the incident has been commented upon everywhere, but the facts remain contested, even obscure. There have been inevitable contributions from reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who saw - as Gates himself did - the arrest in the wider context of US racial tension. "The charges have been dropped, but the stain remains," orated Jackson. "Humiliation remains." And the humiliation - he didn't need to say it - was the humiliation born of three hundred years of slavery and a further hundred of racism and poverty as much as it was the humiliation of a middle-aged professor. Indeed, whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, Gates's experience sounds comparatively trivial.

"If you have ever met Skip Gates, as I have, the idea that such a distinguished and refined gentleman could partake in any illegal activities is simply laughable," writes Lola Adesioye on CIF. On the other hand, Damian Thompson (from whom I first learned of the incident) thinks Gates "self-important" and someone who "has never been slow to allege racism". On that reading, the allegation of racism is a red herring at best, and possibly a deliberate stunt on the part of a man whose predicament was largely his own fault.

Such an interpretation relies heavily on the accuracy of the police report, which you can see here - and that, of course, is the problem. Crowley states that he was alerted by a neighbour, who had seen what appeared to be "two black males" breaking into a house (Gates's own). That is not in dispute. But between that and the moment of Gates's arrest there is considerable scope for disagreement. Crowley describes Gates as abusive, uncooperative and even threatening; making unfounded accusations of racism, constantly "yelling" at the officer and warning him that "You have no idea who you're dealing with". Gates responds that he was merely trying to gain access to his own property (he had locked himself out); that he walks with a cane and thus posed no sort of threat to the much younger policeman; that he feels "outraged"; and that the incident makes him "so keenly aware of how many people every day experience abuses in the criminal justice system". Today we learn, to little surprise, that he is consulting his lawyers.

Who is telling the truth? Perhaps they both are. Gates, who had just returned from China, may have been in an unusually irritable mood - and being unable to open his front door is unlikely to have improved his temper. He may have been unaware that he was behaving in an overbearing and unreasonable manner. And perhaps he was also less inhibited than he would ordinarily have been in the presence of a police officer who, while not a famous Harvard professor, did have the power of arrest. For, even if he was entirely in the right, his behaviour seems unwise. When faced with someone holding a warrant badge and, in America, a gun, even the most distinguished professor is at a disadvantage.

As for Sgt Crowley - well, even if he were more aggressive than he suggests in his report (which is quite likely) he would scarcely be the first police officer, on either side of the Atlantic, to speak to respectable citizens as though they were hooligans. Some police officers enjoy the power; for others, rudeness seems to be a default mood. In this case, Gates was not merely making loud accusations of racism (to which he expected the sergeant to immediately defer), he was abusing his position as a Harvard professor to overawe a social inferior. Of course Crowley shouldn't have risen to the bait; but that doesn't make him a racist, merely a typical police officer.

That Henry Louis Gates should have interpreted Crowley's challenge as racist isn't surprising, though. Gates isn't just black (African-American, if you insist). He's a professional analyst of the black experience. And he has always been a politically-engaged scholar. He is, perhaps, primed to see racist behaviour where there is none. And in this particular case, whatever else may happen on police patrols in the United States (or over here, for that matter) no evidence of racism has thus far been provided. You don't have to be black to be mistreated by the police - although, admittedly, it helps.

Would a white professor have been treated in this way? I can easily believe that he would. A couple of years ago, the distinguished Anglo-Spanish historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto was attending a conference in Atlanta, Georgia when he was arrested for jaywalking. "There was no traffic in sight and no danger to me or anyone else", he later recalled. Nor was he aware that he had done anything illegal. What happened next was "shocking, traumatising and deeply educational":

A young man in a bomber jacket accosted me, claiming to be a policeman, but with no visible evidence of his status. We got locked in mutual misunderstanding, demanding each other's ID. I mistook the normal attitude of an Atlanta cop for arrogance, aggression and menace. He, I suppose, mistook the normal demeanour of an ageing and old-fashioned European intellectual for prevarication or provocation.

His behaviour baffled me even before he lost patience with me, kicked my legs from under me, knocked my glasses from my nose, wrestled me to the ground, and with the help of four or five other burly policemen who suddenly appeared on the scene, ripped my coat, scattered my books in the gutter, handcuffed me, and pinioned me painfully to the concrete.

I was bundled into a filthy paddy-wagon with some rather unsavoury-looking fellow-prisoners and spent eight hours in the degrading, frightening environment of the downtown detention centre, with no humiliation spared: mugshot, fingerprinting, intrusive search, medical examination, and the frustration of understanding nothing: neither why I was there, nor how I might get out.

Fernandez-Armesto was not the victim of police racism. He was the victim of police insensitivity, arrogance and bullying. He seems to have had a far worse time than Gates did - and for less reason. But, despite the urgings of everyone including the judge who dismissed the case against him he declined to sue the police. He "had no stomach for such a hostile and elaborate strategy".

More fool him.


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