Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Gates' 911 tapes seem to absolve Lucia Whalen, but is this case still about race?

Recently released tapes of the 911 call that resulted in the arrest of Harvard professor and well-known academic Henry Louis Gates reveal that, contrary to earlier news reports, caller Lucia Whalen did NOT mention race in her communication with the 911 operator. When asked by the operator the race of the men she saw, Whalen wasn't sure, but thought one may have "looked kind of Hispanic." Whalen was also very clear that the situation she was witnessing may well have been what it was actually revealed to be: A home owner returning from travel and having trouble with a door.
BOSTON - The 911 caller who reported two men possibly breaking into the
home of black Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. did not describe their race,
acknowledged they might just be having a hard time with the door and said she
saw two suitcases on the porch.

Cambridge police on Monday released the 911 recording and radio
transmissions from the scene in an effort to show they had nothing to hide, but
the tapes raised new questions about how and why the situation escalated. Read

Given Ms. Whalen's very measured call, why did the situation at Gates' home intensify so quickly? And why, in James Crowley's police report, is Whalen said to be more confident about the race of the subjects and more suspicious than in the 911 call? Was Crowley's handling of the situation, as he described it in his report, consistent with what a reasonable officer would do when faced with a situation where even the reporting witness admits there may not be a break-in at all?

Of course, those who wish to believe that race played no role in this case are caterwauling "See! See! No racism! You people always jump to conclusions!" In comment threads around the Web, folks are holding up these recently-released tapes as evidence that those who claim race played a role in this case are wrong.

Hold on there.

It does seem clear that Lucia Whalen was wrongly vilified, but those of us who questioned her racial bias were not making assumptions without evidence. We were trusting widely-circulated, now-contradictory reports from Crowley, Gates and the media. And we still don't have resolution on what happened between Crowley and Gates. Likely, we'll never know without a doubt how much or how little race played a role in the professor's arrest. We only have what Gates said vs. what Crowley said. Even if the Cambridge Police Department chooses to release tapes of Crowley's transmissions, revealing an audibly agitated Gates, we can't know what happened in those first minutes that the officer approached the intellectual.

Those who think black people are stubbornly determined to find racism in this situation should understand this. Personal experience can be its own evidence. Every human being assesses situations based on facts and logic born of learning and experience. The black community's experience with law enforcement is unique and, yes, often tinged with racism. At least half of the black men I have spoken with--law abiding citizens all--know what it is like to be accosted wrongly by police officers. They know what it is like to "fit the profile." My own brother and his friends were once stopped on an interstate by a phalanx of police, guns drawn, because a woman at a hotel where they were staying thought four, young black men exchanging money couldn't possibly be college students settling up a hotel bill after a weekend getaway, but instead must have been conducting a drug deal. Imagine that. Imagine how quickly that situation could have gone wrong. Think of living with the prospect of that happening every day. Black men, no matter how educated and prosperous, do live with that.

And so, most black people, other people of color and anti-racist allies legitimately view the Gates controversy with suspicion. In most cases, it is a suspicion borne of real-life experience. It is legitimate. And the recently-released Gates 911 tape doesn't change a thing.


Lady C said...

Tami, I heard the tape.

My skepticism has increased regarding Whalen. When is it necessary to say, when reporting a break-in to the police, that it could be someone who forgot his key and is just trying to get into his house. Why was that necessary, if she actually felt that Gates home was being burglarized? Why didn't she just state the facts?

Another thing that appears suspicious is the cop accepting Gates ID and then calling for back up.

If the incident was not racially motivated, what was it? If Gates presented valid ID to the cop, as the tape confirms, why was he subsequently arrested?

The muffled voice in the background of the tape, does not confirm the cops assertion that Gates was "ranting." I know ranting and that aint it.

Secondly, I agree that Obama should have not called the move "stupid," but that doesn't mean he should invite that idiot cop to the WH. Obama basically apologized, and the cop refuses to apologize. What the heck is that all about?

Help me out here.

Julia said...

Amen, Tami!

RMJ said...

Gotta say, I feel bad for Lucia Whalen. She's probably gotten a lot of hate coming her way for no good reason.

But this doesn't change the incident, in my view.

Anonymous said...

What does her mentioning race or not mentioning race have to do with her racism? Whites are savvy enough not to mention race but deeply harbor racism anyway.

I would think, if your neighbor's door is jammed....the neighborly thing to do would be to come out of your house and actually help your neighbor get inside his house. But if you're black, you hide behind the curtains of your house and call the police. I guess an old black man with a walking stick is regarded as 'dangerous' nowadays.

My point...she doesn't have to mention race to be a racist. Most racists are not that obvious. 95% of racism is intangible.

Her actions proved to be racist.

Satsuma said...

I think the bottom line of all of this, is that most white people simply don't believe black people are routinely racially profiled by police, just like almost all men I know flat out don't believe sexism still exists.

The people that are never subjected to the police like this, have no idea what is going on for other groups.

Typical response is to deny the existence of racism, for example.

Now the tide has turned, a black man can be defended by a black president, and for the first time in history, black people can go all the way to the top for restitution. No more sweeping the dirty little police secret under the carpet anymore.

Now let's see if men start taking sexism as seriously. Guess I'll have to wait for a woman president to do that!

Melanie said...

Who calls the police on someone who is outside their front door with suitcases?

What kind of criminal breaks into the front door, carrying suitcases, with cars driving by.

A thinking and considerate person driving by would, if anything, offer assistance.

And whether or not she knew what race the people she saw were, only an incredibly ignorant person doesn't take into consideration the possible consequences of calling the police.

The police are not all our friends. You have to live in a bubble not to know that.

Anonymous said...

You don't even have to be male,just about everyone in my family has been hassled by a suspiciuos cop.I grew up in a white town and we were often questioned, it gets irritating after the third time.My mom was doing laundry at the laundromat and a cop came in and kept asking her what she was really doing since he had a report of a burglar in the area.She was folding daipers!I was also mistaken for a blonde Latina with a purple backpack and purple dress by mall security at the mall I had been working at for 2 years.I have never been even close to blonde was wearing a brown dress and had a green backpack.I never even got an apology even though I was escorted away from my car and through the mall to be questioned in private.My husband used to always get pulled over if he drove through a section of Diamond Bar,CA by the same officer.Yes I did identify with Gates because this is a duoblethink rule that I will have to go over with my kids that my white friends will never have to think about teaching thiers.

Jason87 said...


You made some really good points there, but I think the rub here is not that "most white people simply don't BELIEVE black people are routinely racially profiled by police," but rather, they really DON'T CARE if it happens to every racial minority everyday of the week. I would venture to wager, due to their own insecurities, they would love it if it happened more.

Remember when the Japanese-Americans were sent to concentration camps during WWII? That mentality is still very much alive today.

Anonymous said...

And why have I not read your apology to Ms. Whalen?


KLS said...

I came across this when I was googling Lucia Whalen in search of the tapes. I haven't heard them; I only heard what the content is.

I'm a tiny white female. I have never had any problem with the police, so naturally, I'm well aware that I can't know the extent of racial bias. I know it happens, but it still horrifies and shocks me every time I see stories like other posters here have given.

As for what I believe on the issue:
Maybe Whalen didn't know the two were black, but as she stated, one looked Hispanic (from behind, I assume). Either way, I'm guessing she figured out--even subconsciously--that they were not white. Accidental racism happens, and white people need to accept that so they (we) can stop to think about our actions.

I assume that yes, he did have his stuff with him besides just backpacks. If I suspected someone was breaking in, and I had some kind of way to directly approach them, then yes, I would ask if he needed help carrying his stuff. Whether it was racially motivated or not, Whalen made a mistake. She made a mistake that seriously screwed over someone else, and in the statement that I heard her give, she doesn't acknowledge that at all. She just says she would do the call again and didn't think there was anything else she could have done.

Whalen made a call that she shouldn't have--at least not without trying something else first. Crowley overreacted to Gates, and would not let the issue slide even after Gates showed ID. Maybe Gates reacted to Crowley in a way people probably shouldn't treat police officers (I wish I could hear a tape of the actual situation), but after seeing just a few examples of how officers treat minorities, you really can't blame him at all. Especially if you're white and don't understand what it's like, not like that's stopped people.

tinfoil hattie said...

Why are people blaming Whalen for Crowley's b.s.? HE is the one who said she referred to "two black men with backpacks." She did nothing of the sort. She also did not mention race until the 911 operator specifically asked her about it.

Crowley is a racist and a bully; I don't care how many "multi-culti" classes he has taught.


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