Rev Irene Monroe

Living while Black in Cambridge

Filed By Rev Irene Monroe | July 22, 2009 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: African-American, Cambridge, Harvard University, Henry Louis Gates Jr, life, Massachusetts, police, professor, racism

None of us African-American residents of Cambridge are surprised or shocked by the humiliation and harassment Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 58, of Harvard University encountered at the hands of Cambridge police.

My partner, Dr.Thea James, an Emergency Room physician who would drive from home to work was stopped all the time for "driving while black." And when the Cambridge cops realized she's a woman, and a lesbian one at that, their unbridled homophobia surfaces. Thea now takes the bus.

My girlfriend's kids and their friends hang out at the Cambridge's Galleria Mall like kids do. The Cambridge police in the mall stop my girlfriend's kids and their friends; one white and two Asians are not, because "shopping while black" is always mistaken as shoplifting.

These constant shakedowns of us have been deliberately on the down low to the public because Cambridge, proudly dubbed as "The People's Republic of Cambridge," is ranked as one of the most liberal cities in America. And with two of the country's premier institutions of higher learning - Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology - that draw students and scholars from around the world, Cambridge's showcase of diversity and multiculturalism rivals that of the U.N.

Cambridge is also proudly known for a lot of firsts in this country. For example, it was the first city in Massachusetts to issue a legal application for same-sex marriage. It's the first major city in the country to elect an African American openly gay mayor - Ken Reeves. And Cambridge elected its first African American openly lesbian mayor in the country this year with E. Denise Simmons. Deval Patrick is the first African American governor of Massachusetts.

Cambridge is no doubt a progressive city. However, when you scratch below Cambridge's surface there is also a liberal racism that is as pernicious, vile, and intolerant as Southern racism. But unlike Southern racism that sees race and tries to keep blacks in their place, liberal racism claims it does not. Ironically, however, Cambridge's liberal ruling class maintains its racial boundaries not by designated "colored" water fountains, toilets or restaurants, but rather by its zip codes, major street intersections known as squares, like the renown Harvard Square; and residential border areas that are designated numbers, like the notorious Area 4, a predominately black poor and working-class enclave.

It did not matter that the call to police was by a white woman, who doesn't live on the block let alone the area, stating that two African-American men were breaking and entering into one of the expensive homes on a tree-lined street was not only false but actually Gates's home. The woman's call was her civic duty in preserving the neighborhood's integrity, because after all this was happening in the zip code area of 02138, which is Harvard Square.

And it did not matter that once Gates validated his residency to the cop with a legitimate Harvard I.D. that the whole incident should have, at that very moment, ended. But instead the arresting officer called the Harvard University police to once again verify Gates occupancy in his own home.

Also, it did not matter that the suspected robber is a Harvard professor, public intellectual and recipient of the MacArthur Foundation "genius" award. (Some say this incident serves as a cautionary tale to those who want to now define America as being post-racial with the election of Obama.)

What was of great concern for both the white woman who called the police and the arresting office who eventually had to handcuff Gates was the shock and perhaps outrage they experienced seeing this unknown black man in this well-known, high income, and professional area of Cambridge breaking and entering into someone home's and not in the city's known and expected troubled spot - Area 4?

Segregation in this city is not only along race lines but also class. And poor working-class whites and white immigrants do not experience the fullness their white skin privilege would abundantly afford them if they too were part of Cambridge's professional and/or moneyed class.

Area 4 has been labeled a troubled area of Cambridge, an area plagued with all the problems of urban blight and very little resources to ameliorate them. As a densely-populated area, its average household income was $34,306 according the 2005 city census. Harvard Square, on the other hand, in the same year its average household income was $79,533.

Area 4 use to house the city's police station. And white Cambridge police officers assigned to this area unabashedly target and harassingly patrol neighborhood blocks and activities of black male residents - young and old. And their reasons for doing so can easily be attributed to the Cambridge Police Department's lack of funds in its budget to do cultural sensitivity trainings. But their reason is just as much about this country's horrific racial legacy between the two groups as it is also about Cambridge's liberal ruling elite exploiting these tension by their claims to not see race, until of course, an unknown black man appears in their neighborhood

The tension escalated between Gates and Sgt. James Crowley when Gates flipped the script on him. As the person-in-question Gates exercised his legal right to also question:

"Is this happening because you're a white cop and I'm a black man? Is this why this interaction is still taking place? ''

The charges against Gates have been dropped. But many white Cantabrigians chiming in on this incident felt that Gates was being uppity, feeling entitled, and exploiting the race card.

And who would know better about this than them.

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Absolutely ridiculous that this should happen.

Thankyou for telling us your opinion on this. I always am enlightened by your writing and think you are a spectacular woman.

Horrified at the instuitutional abuse of your partner, Irene.

it would have been even worse if he were gay on top of that. why is it that one of the arresting officers was black and did nothing?

hi friends ,it would have been even worse if he were gay on top of that. why is it that one of the arresting officers was black and did nothing?

Excellent, clear analysis of what happened, and continues to happen. Thank you.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | July 23, 2009 9:11 AM

Firstly, it should be noted that "Moremony services" above is an ad come on and inappropriate. Rev Irene, yes it goes on in all major cities. The "Old Boys" network of "Boston Brahmans" is alive and well.

We do not get into their parties and when we do we wonder why we came. I hope your partner resumes driving to work with her "physician" license plates showing. When she is stopped she should be glad to be taking the heat for someone else they would have stopped. Someone less able to take care of themselves.

Shopping while Black? I know the problem, but none of us are in a store all day to deal with the problems they have keeping their doors open. I was once in Louisville Ky (commercial traveler) in a jewelry store where the owner insisted I use the address "4th Street" instead of "Muhammed Ali" Street for his address. In the door walks a substantial woman of color and he was all kindness toward her. Go figure why people are, by situation, smart or stupid.

Police officers do not need sensitivity training. They need better pre hire testing and a higher level of cadet training. Lots of cops just love to be in control of anyone.

A. J. Lopp | July 26, 2009 9:10 PM
Lots of cops just love to be in control of anyone.

Bingo, Robert! The only "crime" Gates is guilty of is being stupid enough (or ballsy enough) to say things, obviously true, that pissed off a (white) policeman who had an easy excuse for arresting him. Yes, this is about race, but it is also about pointing out to a cop that he isn't doing his job properly --- and if you are street-smart, you know that that is a non-no.

I suspect that Gates is smart enough to know what his choice at hand was: (A) Take the abuse, do some policeman ass-kissing, and maybe avoid a trip to the police station, or (B) speak his mind, piss off the cop big-time, and get a free up-to-date mug shot.

(More from me on this, below.)

beergoggles | July 23, 2009 9:25 AM

It really bothers me that Gates didn't keep pushing this and have all the police abuses exposed in an investigation. I can't blame him though, you need power and influence to push against the police and us mere mortals don't dare due to other repercussions.

2 things:

a. You forgot my favorite institution of higher learning, Car Talk.

b. Any commentator who doesn't get what resonated with Obama when he answered the question last night has to be seriously White and obtuse.

Wow! The police respond appropriately to a possible daytime residential burglary and this is the outcome?
Mr. Gates was arrested because of his behavior and owes an apology to the Cambridge police sergeant. His actions will give hope to other less-than-intelligent people across the country who find themselves in similar encounters and try to shout down the police.
While gates tries to shroud this incident under the cloak of racial bias and disparity, this incident can more appropriately be attributed to a member of academia who was forced to account for his actions to a mere police officer - something to which he was completely unprepared.

beergoggles | July 23, 2009 2:05 PM

Umm wow, I don't even know how to respond to cluelessness like that. Since when was being impolite to police grounds for arrest? Although I have to give this particular policeman credit for not assaulting the prof inside his own home and instead baiting him outside.

It's people like you who give police abuse a pass that's responsible for the devolution of liberty into tyrannical police state where authorities have no sense whatsoever on measured response and escalation to incidents. Although it's mainly the drug 'war' that's to blame for the use of helicopters and paramilitary unit responses to noise complaints and swat teams and shooting dogs in wrong houses for simple arrests, the fact that there's a subsection of the public that sees nothing wrong with this is astounding.

Well I guess there's still 20% of the population that stuck by Bush or that voted for Alan Keyes when he ran for senate, so there's always the batshit crazy and insane segment of society on any particular issue.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | July 23, 2009 8:02 PM

Troll much?

Bob: You should be careful of carelessly disregarding free speech rights, particularly when they are spoken in your own home or yard. It is not as simple as you claim. The ONLY person who need remain professional is the taxpaid uniformed police officer. That's it.

Ron Buford | July 23, 2009 12:48 PM

Hi Irene,
Great to read you as always. I will never get used to such discrimination as I too still experience it, as an African American man. Because of my undying hope, it still surprises me when I encounter it.
Working in London a bit these days, I have been shocked by the absence of such racism being directed toward me. Its absence shouts at me. But it is not that the people of the UK are better, they do not have the same genetic code of slavery to discriminate against me that way (although some Eastern Europeans here do); their genetic code runs differently and they discriminate against other groups. People in the UK sometimes against Americans simply because we are Americans, without realizing that they are having the same damaging impact as the White racists in America whom they abhor. And it is not that people of color are superior either, their discrimination runs differently... against gay people for example. And white gay people against Black gay people and women, and so on. Until we all stand against this, point it out, and name it whenever and wherever it appears -- especially when we see it in ourselves, this behavioral scourge will not vanish from among us.
In sports, music, and business, we practice past our failure until such failures disappear. Why do we not do this with bad social behaviors. We must practice excellence ridding ourselves of these old urges and actions until we rid ourselves and society of such old ghosts of active hatred. Perhaps our staff, those who serve our communities, our physicians, the police, the judges, maitre d's, the executives, pastors, and everyone in service should be trained to look for the racism we all have and to rid ourselves of this -- and it needs to be better than the old anti-racism training and more universal. When such social violations are reporter, the alleged participants should be sent back for more training in the same way drunk drivers and others are forced into retraining. Many would change just to avoid the training.
Perhaps we need a Mothers Against Racism. Thank you for challenging us to see more, be more, and to change.

twinkie1cat | July 23, 2009 6:38 PM

Racism is racism. Southerners were a little more open about it with the old De-jure (under the law) in the South under Jim Crow vs De-facto (just happens) segregation of the North, but it was and is still there.

It popped up in a northern place this week and another northern place last week with the kids getting kicked out of the pool, but it is still there just like it was in the 1960s. Southerners just admit to it. I am appalled at what happened in both the above mentioned incidents.

Racism has been exacerbated under our new President. Remember that the adults and youth of today are the children and grandchildren of the racists of the 1960s and it takes a lot to develop a belief system different from your family's. People are screaming against universal health care as hard as they did against Dr. King. They still believe what we were told in the 1960s that Dr. King was a communist and the colored people wanted to take over the world (and make whites slaves). Obama may as well be Dr. King's grandchild for all they know. After all, both are black. So, to them "socialized medicine" is nothing but a step towards communism.

I think, however, the day of "white privilege" has passed and the time has come to recognize prejudice as prejudice. I lost two jobs for teaching while white in urban, mostly black school systems. One principal was real blatant. In the other case it was a combination of age, disability, and race. I have also heard racial slurs in black owned business and the bad words in white owned ones. My white hairstylist friend had trouble getting positions in black shops and has had black customers who did not believe he could do their hair, in spite of the fact that he went to a black oriented beauty college and prefers to work on African-American hair. Recently he has been working in an Asian shop and is in the process of opening his own, with a multicultural staff. He could only take New Orleans for about two months with all the racism before going back to the more advanced city of Atlanta---which has more classism than racism. Classism is just as bad and I think in cities with substantial black middle classes that is where the emphasis on equality needs to shift.

I am sorry your kids get profiled. Children should not have to deal with that. My heart hurt for the little ones who were put out of the pool. They should not have to know what we did first hand. Racism needs to stay in the history books.

Rick in MA | July 23, 2009 8:50 PM

I have a different take. My friends call me one of the last of the red hot liberals but I diverege on this case.

1. Why didn't the afroamerican policeman on the scene for the arrest side with the professor?

2. There is a HUGE cultural difference when it comes to the Police. When I've had them raid a party at my house....I had my ID out before they finished the sentence. It's the lack of respect for authority that got him in trouble. I just shut the heck up do what they want on move on.

3. I know there are other issues with african americans and the law, but just like I've've got to play the game.

4. The professor is a public person. I have to wonder if this was a stunt...I'm just sayin'

5. I know I'm going to get hate mail, but this is just another point of view on what is a senseless situation. The city of Cambridge will not win this. I don't live there but it is one of the most open, aware, culturally diverse cities in America.


Rick: I do not consider it hate mail to say that there are people who believe the police are the enemy and it is perfectly valid for people to feel that way based on their experience. So "lack of respect" is your opinion of what the professor showed. Others think that the police officer is the one who harrassed beyond any point necessary after the ID was presented. It is not illegal to voice your outrage so to "shut the heck up" is a dismissive statement that increases abusive government intrusion because of essentially a stance that resembles fear. Keep in mind there was no case even before a scheduled court appearance BECAUSE THERE WAS NO CRIME. Having said that, i do understand that this was one helluva display of egos out of control but I think this is extremely important because it is about the verbal expression of thought on ones own property and what usually results when a police officer abuses his authority and cannot maintain his professionalism. Professor Gates was on his own time, his own property and a private citizen hence; owes no one any courtesy. You may say that an arrest will occur with an attitude like mine but that, too, does not mean it is legal. Being a mean, awful, rotten, angry person may be unbecoming but it is not illegal. To protect and serve is the obligation Officer Jim Crow(ley) voluntarily took upon himself.

twinkie1cat | July 25, 2009 12:40 AM

This may sound a little crazy to people not old enough to remember the Cold War, but the term "People's Republic...." during that time was the designated name for most COMMUNIST countries. It would be better to call Cambridge the "Democratic Republic...". I don't think you are trying to say Cambridge is communist as they are far from free or liberal, really quite the opposite.

A. J. Lopp | July 25, 2009 5:01 PM
As the person-in-question Gates exercised his legal right to also question:

"Is this happening because you're a white cop and I'm a black man? Is this why this interaction is still taking place?"

The charges against Gates have been dropped. But many white Cantabrigians chiming in on this incident felt that Gates was being uppity, feeling entitled, and exploiting the race card.

Although Gates was entirely within his rights, I suspect that he brought this arrest upon himself by challenging the policeman.

Most policemen have egos the size of Texas, and if you do anything in real time to indicate that they are not doing their job properly, you run the risk of immediate retaliation of some sort. They can accuse you of anything, and then arrest you because a court judge is likely to believe the policeman over the defendant. They will always take the attitude, "Apparently I need to show this smartass who is in charge here."

The reason the black officer did not interfere is because of the old saying common on police forces: "Pick a color: Black or blue?" If the black officer had countered the white officer, that black officer would have become a target to every white policeman in the city. A police officer is trained, and expected, to back up his partner in practically all circumstances.

But it is absurd for anyone to accuse Gates of being "uppity, feeling entitled, and exploiting the race card." He was entitled to enter his own home, when he mentioned race he was only speaking the truth ... and the only thing he did in poor judgment was that he used words that pressed the white policeman's buttons. Gates deserves an apology from both the policeman and the Cambridge Police Chief.

sacredly breathing | July 25, 2009 8:09 PM

What happened to Professor Gates is just a window unto what happens to a lot of black folk who exercise their freedom of movement. This will keep happening until the elevation of some peoples rights, that denies other peoples rights is eliminated.

beachcomberT | July 26, 2009 6:19 AM

I have lived in Cambridge and can vouch it has the same urban problems as the rest of the Boston area, including overzealous cops and rich people who would never consider sending their kids to a public school. If Prof. Gates feels he was terribly victimized by a false arrest, he can file a lawsuit and let a jury decide. Why this incident has preoccupied the White House and the media (and the blogs), all comes down to Gates being a Harvard professor. Why does that make it worse than thousands of others who were unfairly hassled the same day? Incidentally, Prof. Gates should thank the woman who called in the report. My house in Providence, near Brown University, was ransacked during the daytime while neighbors watched and did nothing. Maybe if I had been a Brown professor, it would have made a difference.