Whose 'Post-Racial' America?

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NPR Producer Enrique Rivera shares his thoughts on the arrest of Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who says he was racially profiled. Rivera says, along with many persons of color, he can relate. He tells the story of how in 2006, was beaten and arrested by other police officers of color.


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, our monthly visit with the magazine mavens. But first, as we have already mentioned today, the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has stirred strong reactions by many people who see their own experience reflected in different aspects of the story. And our own Enrique Rivera has something he'd like to tell you. It's not, in his eyes, a simple matter of black and white.

ENRIQUE RIVERA: When I heard about the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, it reminded me of an old and somewhat inappropriate Dave Chappelle comedy routine about police brutality.

Mr. DAVE CHAPPELLE (Comedian): You know, that's a hell of a brutality thing. See, that's common knowledge now. There was a time when only minorities really knew about that. I'm not going to say white people didn't believe us, but you were a little skeptical. You were a little skeptical. I mean, I don't blame you. And then Newsweek printed it, and you knew it was true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHAPPELLE: In Newsweek, white people are, like, oh my God. Honey, did you see this? Apparently, the police have been beating up Negroes like hotcakes.

(Soundbite of applause)

RIVERA: You see, the thing is, African-Americans and yes, Latinos, have been the victims of police abuse and discrimination for many years. In my case, I was standing outside a nightclub three years ago, just after it closed, and a friend of mine got into a shoving match with another guy from the club. The Washington, D.C., police officers who were there pounced. My friend, who was obviously Latino, was handcuffed, and the police were shouting at him to stop resisting arrest.

I know my friend, and I saw very clearly that he was not resisting. As several police officers were applying handcuffs, one officer came out of nowhere and started punching my friend in the back of his head. After holding him for about 20 minutes, they uncuffed him and let him go. I was upset after seeing this, and I decided to get the officer's badge number. My father works for the police department, and this is something he has advised me to do, but that probably wasn't the smartest thing I could have done at the time.

Here I am, another Latino, covered in tattoos, asking a police officer for his badge number while his adrenaline is still pumping hard. The officer was immediately hostile, and he screamed: What? I repeated that I wanted his name and his badge number, and he screamed again: What? Another officer then approached me from my right and asked: What do you want? I said, I saw him beat up my friend, and I want his name and his badge number.

Before I could say anything else, I was being slammed into a car, and at least four cops were handcuffing me and punching me in the back of my head. Some of the officers were beating me with their batons on the back of my legs and shouting: Stop resisting. I repeatedly told them that I was not resisting, but they didn't care. After things calmed down, one officer pulled out my wallet and searched for my ID. He came across my student ID that read American University, and he was shocked.

He said: You go to American University? I said: Yes, I do. The officers then started to behave somewhat repentantly but still put me in the back of a squad car and hauled me to jail. When I arrived, I used my one phone call to contact a close friend of the family who was a veteran police officer. It turns out he knew one of the arresting officers and because of this, they immediately rolled out the red carpet, giving me my own cell and acting concerned for my well-being.

I spent the night in jail and was released the next morning, but the pain from bruises on my head, face and legs didn't go away for another week. I know this wouldn't have happened if my friend and I weren't Latino. This also brings up the sad fact that many times, police abuse isn't just black and white. In my case, it was black officers abusing a Latino, something that has a long history in the D.C. area.

Oftentimes, it's Latino officers abusing African-Americans. One of the arresting officers in the Skip Gates case was named Carlos Figueroa. This sort of thing happens all the time, but more often than not, it doesn't happen to world-renowned scholars like Skip Gates. It happens to those that don't have a voice.

I've been constantly harassed by police officers since I was 11 years old. The only reason I get to tell you this story now is because I work here at TELL ME MORE. If there's any silver lining to the arrest of Skip Gates, it's that public awareness of this problem has increased, and the country gets closer to realizing what Lawrence Bobo, Gates's Harvard colleague, said after he picked him up from jail: Ain't nothin' post-racial about the United States of America.

MARTIN: That's Enrique Rivera, editorial assistant here at TELL ME MORE.

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