Gates' Arrest All Too Familiar For Black Reporter

Last year, former New York Post reporter Leonardo Blair was stopped, frisked and later jailed by New York City police after being accused of trying to steal his own car. Blair sued the department for racial profiling and later won a settlement. He weighs in on the strikingly similar incident involving Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who was recently mistaken for a burglar at his own home.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we go to Leonardo Blair. He's a former freelance reporter for the New York Post who successfully won a settlement from the New York City Police Department after having been stopped on his way home from work, exiting his own car. We spoke to Mr. Blair last year about the incident. This is what he told us.

Mr. LEONARDO BLAIR (Freelance Reporter, New York Post): What are you doing coming from that car? And I turned around. I wasn't sure, I was so shocked by the question because I knew that's, you know, that's my car. And I said, what? And immediately, Officer Castillo(ph), he jumps out of the car and he is in my face, almost spitting in my face. He said to me, do you understand English? He is shouting, answer the question.

MARTIN: Mr. Blair was also arrested after this confrontation. The charges were later dropped. And he was also awarded a settlement. He is with us now on the phone. Leonardo, how are you? Thank you for joining us.

Mr. BLAIR: Good, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: What did you think when you learned of this incident involving professor Gates?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLAIR: It's very classic. I don't know the details - well, I know - the one thing I know is what happened - is what's described in the media. But the reaction by the police is classic, though, you know, very classic to what I experienced, you know, the disorderly conduct, you know. Those accusations were completely false against me.

MARTIN: And I want to mention that the response by the police in your case was very similar, also. They said it was you who was rude to them. In fact, you recall that we spoke to a spokesperson for the New York City Police Department, Paul Brown. This is what he said. This is his version.

Mr. PAUL BROWN (Deputy Commissioner, Public Information, New York City Police Department): I can relate to the story in many accounts. In addition to living there, I also went to Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism as a young man when it was - when the city was a little more dangerous than it is now. But Columbia was very good at instilling elitism. And, you know, we felt very sure of ourselves and that - there was a tendency among the elite, you know, colleges to view cops as just working class stiffs, and how dare they stop and inquire of me.

MARTIN: Again, that was Paul Brown. He is deputy commissioner for public information for the New York City Police Department. In essence he was saying that you were rude to the police. What's your - what do you say to that? Which is, in a sense, what the police are saying in professor Gates's case.

Mr. BLAIR: The response by Mr. Brown was a bit laughable because there is no way, I mean, black or white, that you're going to try to be rude in the first place to somebody holding a gun, especially as a black man. You know, it's - the first thing is you try to be calm, you know, and that's what I tried to do. But when I realized where the conversation was going I, you know, tried to, you know, question, you know, the position that they were taking against me. And I think that's what got me in trouble.

MARTIN: Could you unpack the incident for us because there are those who will listen to both what happened to you and what happened to professor Gates and they will say, why don't you just calm down, show your ID and be on your way? Perhaps a little deference would be, you know, perhaps not what you'd want to do but would be helpful in this case. So could you unpack it for me, how you responded and why you feel you responded as you did?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLAIR: You know, the way the whole situation unfolded, I was never given an opportunity, even though at one point during the incident, I tried to, you know, give them an opportunity to identify who I was and that, you know, I lived not too far from where I was stopped from. You know, I basically parked my car and, you know, checked to see if the locks were fine and, you know, walked - started walking home. And I realized that, you know, this car was creeping up behind me.

And I turned around and realized it was a police car, and I felt comfortable - until, you know, the car - the cops came up to me, you know, they called to me from the car and asked me what I was doing coming from the car?

MARTIN: And they were - and in your view, they were so aggressive with you that your - that you really had no - you really had no opportunity to respond. Is that correct?

Mr. BLAIR: Right, I mean, the cop jumped out of the car. And he was in my face and he was over me, basically, you know, leaning over me. I, you know, I froze, literally. I mean, I didn't know how to respond because I was scared. I mean, what do you say, you know, when you're basically in a Catch-22 situation? No matter what you do, you know, you feel as if you're going to be in trouble.

MARTIN: And can I just ask you, how are you now? As I understand it, you talked about - that this was a very traumatic incident for you. And I do want to mention that you did pursue legal action. You did receive a monetary settlement from the New York City Police. And as we mentioned, the charges against you were dropped. But how are you doing now?

Mr. BLAIR: Well, you know, honestly, I went through several different series. You know, just thinking of how this event, you know, interrupted my life. It's been a tough, you know, past, you know, almost two years since the incident happened, and you know, I've spent a lot of time, you know, breathing, you know, internally, and I had to - I had a lot of anger, a lot of anger, and it - I didn't know how to deal with it. So I've been, you know, going to church, you know, just trying to be calm, you know, trying to stay out of the spotlight and stuff like that.

You know, but it's a process, and I don't think I would wish the experience on my worst enemy.

MARTIN: Leonardo Blair is a New York journalist. He's a former reporter for the New York Post. He was arrested by New York police, accused of breaking into his own car. The charges were dropped, and he received a monetary settlement from the New York Police Department, and he was with us on the phone from New York. Mr. Blair, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BLAIR: Thank you.

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