The weeks-long hubbub over the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. by the Cambridge Police Department has centered on race, understandably, for two reasons: 1) the African-American population has suffered inequitably in its relations with law enforcement across this country, and 2) a race story is easier for the media to tell — and to sell.
But the racial façade of the story has obscured two other bottom-line truths that should govern the "Gates-gate" conversation.
First, the case is fundamentally about Cambridge Police Sergeant William Crowley's unconstitutional effort to punish a citizen for, in the officer's view, disrespectfully mouthing off to the badge-and-gun-toting man-in-blue. Second, the Cambridge Police Department — much like police departments elsewhere in the country, and indeed around the world — operates in a culture that historically has ignored citizens' free-speech rights, no matter the citizens' skin color.
I've learned this, unfortunately, over the 42 years I've been doing criminal-defense work. Early recognition came in the late 1960s, when I represented a then-recent MIT graduate (a PhD in biology, no less) who was arrested at an anti-war demonstration, taken back to the Cambridge police station, and beaten seriously by what he described as a "blue-eyed psychopath in uniform." My client was white, as was the cop, so there was no racial element. At bottom, it was a violation of my client's right to due process of law and to be free from "cruel and unusual punishment" (more cruel, alas, than unusual). That client went on to an illustrious career in the medical-and-healing-arts field.
I had a more personal taste a few years later. I was called by a radical leftist commune that rented an apartment on Putnam Avenue in the Cambridgeport section of the city, less than a block from where I now reside. Cambridge police were inside searching and tearing up the place, unwilling to show a search warrant. I arrived, entered the flat, and started taking notes with a pencil and pad (cell-phone cameras and YouTube were a ways away). A plainclothes detective walked up to me and asked what I was doing. When I explained that I was the tenants' lawyer, taking notes of a possibly unlawful search and seizure, the detective drew his revolver, pointed it at my right temple, and said he could shoot me for "assaulting a police officer with a dangerous weapon." I asked: what was the dangerous weapon? "That one," he answered, pointing to my sharpened pencil. (Years later, after the detective's retirement, I ran into him at a café on the very block where the search took place. He greeted me heartily, slapped me on the back, and asked how I was doing — either forgetting what was for him a run-of-the-mill forgettable incident, or thinking that it was no big deal.)
Still later there was the case of another client, now a successful professional, in what bears some similarity to the Gates case: he was arrested for supposedly breaking and entering into his own Cambridge apartment. The police, who went to the building based on an erroneous tip, filed this charge against the resident despite being informed by the landlord that the resident was in his own residence. My client, who was white, had entered the apartment peacefully with his key — evidence of his residency that he handed to the police when arrested. He needed to hire a lawyer (me) in order to get the abusive and absurd charge dismissed.