Oh, I see. Profiling is colorblind, and we all over reacted about Professor Gates.

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.

14 thoughts on “Oh, I see. Profiling is colorblind, and we all over reacted about Professor Gates.

  1. aka Mopsy

    There was a really interesting Op-Ed piece by Barbara Ehrenreich in the New York Times a few days ago about the increase in legislation regarding people who are identified as in poverty. One thing that really pissed me off was the following quote ”How do you know when someone is indigent? As a Las Vegas statute puts it, “An indigent person is a person whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive” public assistance.” I mean, really.

    Here’s the link to the piece –http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/09/opinion/09ehrenreich.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&sq=indigent&st=cse&scp=1

    If it’s any consolation to you, I think that Bob might have been picked up in Las Vegas…

    ~ Mopsy


  2. Is it strange that I would be more able to identify B.B. King than Bob Dylan? I had an argument with my stepfather over Gates. I brought up that I once broke into my own house. Literally, had a friend pick me up and shove me through a window that we’d pushed the screen out of. No one thought a second about it.


  3. I probably wouldn’t recognize either King or Dylan, but if the lead singer of Metallica gets arrested, I’ll be all over it. I one hundred percent agree there was a racist aspect to the arrest of Gates–it seems glaringly obvious. I thought what Obama said was just fine, and I’m sorry he got in so much trouble for it.


    1. I’m with you about the President. I haven’t managed to articulate my thoughts well enough to post. It drives me crazy how delicately he ‘has to’ tread when it comes to race.


  4. molly

    Gates was in his own home. The police even knew he was in his own home. The police do not seem to have handcuffed Bob Dylan, who also did not need to be re-handcuffed in front of his body, in order to be able to use his cane to walk. Bob Dylan is used to people thinking he’s unacceptable — it comes with his territory, and probably reacts more calmly to it. He also knows that there will be major waves from arresting him, so he probably could chuckle and wait for that, instead of getting very angry. Also, I repeat, Bob Dylan was not in his own home.
    Other than that, it was fun to think of how fast culture changes, and that a young person could not know who the hell he is. And very nice that Bob likes to walk around strane neighborhoods before a concert. This was a public street, of course not a gated community or private road. They tell us to go out and get exercise. Where?
    On a different note, Alan Ginsberg, when asked by a stranger, “Are you Alan Ginsberg?” answered, “one of them.”


    1. I have to say, I doubt that I would recognize Dylan on the street. I saw him in concert several years ago, and it took me a while to figure out which guy he was on stage!

      It’s interesting what you write about Dylan maybe reacting more calmly because he’s used to looking ‘unacceptable’ to people. I hadn’t thought of that. A friend told me the other night that she isn’t sure she agrees with me that there was a racial element to the Gates story. And, of course, she has the right to disagree with me, but I was surprised to hear her say that. I know we are coming to that story from different places (as a black and a white person, as people with difference backgrounds and experiences, etc.), but in my mind the ‘racial element’ seems so obvious. Crowley says he arrested Gates because of his ‘tumultuous behavior.’ Ok, maybe Gates got angry and yelled at Crowley. That probably upset Crowley, but was it actionable? Hardly. The situation had been cleared up. All Crowley needed to do was to (maybe apologize for the misunderstanding and) leave. End of situation. No arrest of Professor Gates.


  5. Pingback: Cold Spaghetti » Blog Archive » Just Posts: August 2009

  6. underdogsoldier

    The difference in the treatment of Bob and the treatment of Prof. Gates had to do with their reactions. Clearly if Bob acted belligerently and calling the officer racist rather than respecting that the officer was merely responding to a call he would have been cuffed in a hurry. Courtesy and humility are safeguards from the situation Prof. Gates created for himself.


    1. Thanks for stopping by my page and sharing your opinion, underdog. I don’t agree with you, but I welcome the opportunity to hear differing views. I certainly agree that Bob Dylan and Prof Gates surely have very different personalities and responded to the officers differently. Maybe if Dylan had had to live his life facing racism regularly, his response to the officers in New Jersey would have been similar to Gates’ response to the Cambridge police. I still hold to my belief that, if either man’s race were changed, they would have had very different experiences in either situation. Again, thanks for stopping by.


  7. Pingback: Best of the 2009 Just Posts: The Semifinalists « collecting tokens

  8. Pingback: Cold Spaghetti :: The Best of the Just Posts for 2009: Semi-finalists!

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