Harvard Scholar's Arrest Stirs Race Debate A distinguished professor at Harvard University was arrested after police investigated claims that he was trying to break into a house. The professor is Henry Louis Gates Jr., and the house was his own. His race factors into the incident because of how it started — with a call to police about what "two black males" were doing.
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Harvard Scholar's Arrest Stirs Race Debate

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Harvard Scholar's Arrest Stirs Race Debate

Harvard Scholar's Arrest Stirs Race Debate

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A distinguished professor at Harvard University was arrested after police investigated claims that he was trying to break into a house. The professor is Henry Louis Gates; the house was his own. Gates is African-American. He's written many books on race relations, hosted a public TV series and much more. His race factors into this because of how the incident started — with a call to police about what, quote, two black males were doing.

We've called Tracy Jan, who's a reporter for The Boston Globe covering this story.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. TRACY JAN (Boston Globe): Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Glad you could join us. And I've got a couple of documents here. Let's just go through them in the order that they were put out. The first is the police version of events. There's an incident report here, number 9005127. What is the police story?

Ms. JAN: Well, according to the police, the sergeant was just responding to a passerby who called about a possible break-in. He arrived at the house. He saw Professor Gates inside the house, talking on the phone. And he knocked on the door, asked for ID. According to the police, the professor was questioning why he was being asked, and refused to come out of the house. Police had asked him to step onto the porch.

Eventually, after first refusing to provide ID, this is according to police, the professor went inside to get his Harvard ID, showed it to police. Police saw that he was a Harvard professor, called the Harvard University Police Department for assistance, and the professor became irate and kept yelling at him, calling the cop racist. He was basically saying, this is happening because I'm a black man in America - once the cop told him he was investigating a possible break-in.

And then it just escalated from there and the police eventually, according to the police report, recognized that this was Gates' house, and was trying to leave the house when Gates stepped outside onto the front porch. There were other police - half a dozen other police officers there, as well as about half a dozen passersby. And he said Gates became belligerent, and so he arrested him.

INSKEEP: So we have this case of a man who seems to be locked outside of his house, some…

Ms. JAN: He actually was not locked out. The door was stuck.

INSKEEP: The door was stuck. Okay. And a neighbor calls in and is concerned it's a possible break-in. It escalates from there. That's the…

Ms. JAN: I think it was a woman who did not live there. Her address is in Malden, in a totally different city. Yeah.

INSKEEP: She just saw two black males and was concerned. Two black males -that's a quote from the police report. What is Henry Louis Gates saying about this through his lawyer?

Ms. JAN: Well, Professor Gates had just gotten back from a weeklong trip to China, where he was filming a documentary. When he got home, the door wouldn't open so he asked his driver to help him. It wouldn't open so he went around to the back of the house, unlocked the door with his keys, tried to open the door from inside. It still wouldn't open so he came back out, and the two of them finally were able to push it open.

INSKEEP: And these are the two guys that the woman saw. So we've got a situation here - to summarize, if I might - I mean, it seems that there's disagreement over details, like did Henry Louis Gates yell at the cop or did the cop properly identify himself. But in outline, we do have an escalating series of misunderstandings, starting with this phone call.

Ms. JAN: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: And how have people in Boston responded - or around Boston responded to this?

Ms. JAN: Well, a lot of his colleagues, prominent African-American scholars themselves, say that there is racial bias involved in this incident - probably not just on the woman's part but on the fact that the cop was questioning his presence, whether he actually belonged there, and the repeated questioning.

INSKEEP: Belonged in a nice neighborhood of Cambridge.

Ms. JAN: Right.

INSKEEP: Is this an area where race relations remain a sore spot?

Ms. JAN: I actually don't think so. Harvard - you know, Cambridge is really diverse. There have been racial incidents, but Cambridge is one of the most liberal enclaves in America.

INSKEEP: So what happens to Henry Louis Gates now?

Ms. JAN: He was handcuffed, arrested, booked. And he waited for four hours for the processing to go through. He bailed himself out with $40. And there's an arraignment date set for the end of August.

INSKEEP: Tracy Jan of the Boston Globe, thanks very much.

Ms. JAN: Thank you. Thanks for your time.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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