A week after Henry Louis Gates was arrested in his home last month, Bob Dylan was stopped by police in Long Branch, New Jersey because someone thought he looked ‘suspicious.’ The police officer who responded to the call didn’t recognize Dylan. Neither did the officer who arrived to back her up. Did either of them feel threatened by the 68-year-old who looked ‘disheveled’ and gave somewhat unclear answers to their questions? No. Was Dylan arrested? No. He had no ID, but said he was staying at a local resort, so the officers drove him there and staff identified him. Apologies all around, end of story.
(Forget about Dylan and Gates for a second. This story troubles me enormously. Why shouldn’t a man be able to walk around in any neighborhood he chooses? There aren’t any laws against wandering around and looking disheveled. There aren’t any laws against not carrying ID. There aren’t any laws against being a vagrant. The neighbors might not like seeing disheveled men wander around their streets, but there’s no reason to call the police unless the disheveled man gets up to some trouble. Years ago when my mother, sister and I lived in Byram, Connecticut, I was often stopped by police when I was out walking. They questioned my right to be on the street, in that neighborhood, didn’t believe I lived there. I am angry that this is who we still are, that we continue to be this kind of society. I’m angry that people are afraid of and police are more than happy to go check out a man who is doing nothing more suspicious than taking a walk.)
The police were called by a resident who thought Dylan looked suspicious. Part of what made him suspicious? He was a white man wandering around in a predominantly minority neighborhood. No, really. So the people who claimed that Gates over reacted to his situation last month on the grounds that what happened to him could have happened to anyone, have latched onto this story, crowing that whites can be victims of racial profiling, too. Yes, clearly whites can be profiled.
It’s true enough that Dylan was profiled — as a white man or as a vagrant. But there’s more here. The police confronted Dylan, a man who looked like a transient and who said he was ‘on tour,’ and claimed to be ‘looking for a house for sale,’ claimed to be staying at a swanky resort. The man had no identification. Did they slap cuffs on him and bring him to the station? No. They took him to the swanky resort and cleared up their confusion. Gates, on the other hand, was not wandering the street giving vague, dreamy, out-of-focus responses to police questions. He was in his own home, a fact that was established fairly early in the encounter. He produced ID that said exactly who he was. And he was cuffed and arrested. Yes, white people can be profiled, but it seems that, when they are, they still get treated with more courtesy than blacks.
Gates’ situation was maybe just as ‘suspicious’ as Dylan’s and yet he was treated like a criminal. But nevermind the professor. If B.B. King or Al Jarreau had been wandering around in Long Branch without ID and claimed to be looking for a house, claimed to be on tour and staying at the Ocean Place Resort and Spa, would either of them have had the same experience as Dylan? Something tells me the answer is no.
People keep claiming the ‘upset’ over Gates’ arrest is a lot of noise about nothing, say there was no racial component to the story, claim that we are all over reacting. The amount of writing I’ve seen in the last few weeks painting Gates as an arrogant, angry, belligerent man who spoke disrespectfully to Officer Crowley galls me. The shouters of this hateful hysteria must be thrilled with the Dylan story: see, if Gates had just ‘behaved,’ he wouldn’t have been arrested. Of course. Let’s check in with Lynn Westmoreland to see how he would describe Gates.