If there was ever any doubt that race and perception are intimately linked, the bizarre arrest of Harvard superstar Henry Louis Gates Jr. — which hit the news this past Monday — should dispel it once and for all. Gates, of course, was arrested last Thursday, after forcing open the non-functioning front door of his Cambridge home, thus inviting a call to police from a concerned bystander. According to the police report, when officers arrived, Gates was uncooperative and combative, refusing to provide identification when it was first requested and telling an officer who'd asked to speak with him outside: "Ya, I'll speak with your mama outside!"
But Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, who's been representing Gates in the wake of the incident, claims this picture is greatly distorted. Gates promptly provided both his driver's license and Harvard ID to a police officer, Ogletree said in a statement to The Root, the Washington Post–owned, African-American-focused Web site of which Gates is editor in chief. Gates was handcuffed and arrested, Ogletree contends, after twice asking — unsuccessfully — for an officer's name and badge number.
We may never know which version is closer to the truth (though my money's on Gates). As of this writing, the city of Cambridge and the Cambridge PD have suggested that prosecutors drop the case, and the Middlesex District Attorney's office has done exactly that.
What is clear, however, is that this is precisely the sort of story in which the Bay State Banner's voice and perspective could be invaluable.
The Banner, as local media-watchers know, is the African-American weekly that recently suspended publication, citing a catastrophic decline in advertising revenues. Coincidentally, Ogletree was also spearheading efforts to get the Banner publishing again. Now, however, it seems the paper will be restored primarily thanks to a $200,000 loan from the City of Boston made at the suggestion of Boston Mayor Tom Menino. (Neither Ogletree nor Melvin B. Miller, the Banner's publisher, responded to requests for comment by press time.)
True, the Banner's bailout poses a clear journalistic conflict. If the paper makes a comeback, it'll have to convince readers that it's neither favoring Menino thanks to his assistance nor hammering him to prove its independence. This won't be an easy task. But the Gates affair suggests it's a challenge worth embracing.
Consider the way Boston's two dailies covered the story in question. The Globe provided a solid, balanced account, giving ample space to both law enforcement's and Gates's versions. But the story in question was written by an Asian-American — and published by a paper where African-American employees are few and far between. The Herald, meanwhile, relied almost exclusively on law enforcement's account — neither Gates nor his attorney would talk to the tabloid — and highlighted the demagogic Al Sharpton's plans to intercede on Gates's behalf, thereby drawing attention away from Gates's possible mistreatment. (Check out the paper's online reader comments if you're unconvinced.)
What's needed, obviously, is a publication that can size up the Gates controversy from an explicitly African-American point of view — by evocatively explaining what it might be like to be targeted by police for something as innocuous as entering your own home, say, or by connecting Gates's arrest to Cornel West's 2002 decampment for Princeton. The Globe and others can broach these subjects too, of course — but not with the pathos of a black-owned, black-operated outfit like the Banner.
Gates's legal woes may be over, but the broader conversation occasioned by his arrest is almost certainly just beginning. If Miller hurries up, the resurrected Banner could be part of the conversation. Boston would benefit if it was.