Harsh truths, discomforting questions arise at forum on race
There was no shortage of blunt talk Thursday at a forum sparked by the July 16 arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., a black man, by white police Sgt. James Crowley.
The Rev. Irene Monroe spoke repeatedly of the apparent crime of “living while black in Cambridge,” resulting in constant stops from suspicious police officers for herself and her partner. It started when she moved to Cambridge as a Harvard graduate student. “Professor Gates lives in one of these elite areas, close to the university. And I have noticed that the police officers that patrol that area … have this notion certain people, particularly of color, don’t belong there,” she said. When walking there, “Your ID really operated as a South African passport, because you were constantly stopped.”
Hip-hop musician Imam “Flash” Firmin, whose band N.B.S. rapped about the Gates incident in the song “CPD,” showed his feelings hadn’t changed since its August release. The lyrics criticize the arrest, but also point out, “I ain’t never seen Skip in the ’hood … I think [he] might have needed a taste of what jail’s like.” Firmin caused a minor stir by reiterating his stance Thursday, explaining, “He doesn’t do anything for the community.”
Richard Harding, a School Committee member, leader of the Men of Color Health Initiative and forum moderator, also challenged expectations by saying of Gates’ arrest for disorderly conduct — after the professor allegedly referred to Crowley’s mother — “If it is true professor Gates talked about Sgt. Crowley’s mother, if that were me, I would have arrested him. That’s the honest to God truth.” Before that, Harding quoted District Court Judge Severlin Singleton III, a Cambridge native, reporting that police sometimes make arrests to defuse a situation or punish someone who berates them in front of others.
Adrian Walker, a columnist for The Boston Globe, spoke simply and powerfully throughout the night, drawing applause with responses such as this one to Harding: “I think police offices should only arrest people who have broken the law. One thing that stuns me in this is how many people believe police officers have the right to arrest you whether you have broken the law or not,” he said. “I totally reject the idea that it’s fine for the police to arrest you in the name of, you know, defusing a situation. I think that’s nuts.”
Deborah A. Ramirez, a consultant for the U.S. Department of Justice and police forces around the country and once an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston, won more passionate applause when Harding asked, referring to Gates’ arrest, “Can you be disorderly in your own home?” and she replied, “I’m just going to come right out and say this. I’m a lawyer. I do not think there is a court in Massachusetts that would have upheld this charge, and that’s why it wasn’t brought to a courthouse; that’s why it was dismissed. And this is an important point — I want to know how many other kids are getting disorderly conduct charges and not getting them dismissed, but pleading them and getting an arrest.”
Perry L. Anderson Jr., police commissioner for Cambridge between 1991-95 and former chief of police in Miami, agreed the charges against Gates couldn’t earn a conviction. He also had his own tales of being a black man — one with a shag and gold tooth — stopped by police. When stopped once a block from his home, he showed the officer where he lived but the officer didn’t believe him. Another time, he was treated with disbelief when he revealed himself to be a police chief.
He performed another important role at the forum: asking again why these questions weren’t being dealt with on a more official and timely basis. “I’m not on anybody’s payroll now. I’m retired. I can take a risk here and don’t have to worry about it,” he said as preamble. “I think everybody responsible for that situation should talk to the community, and they should explain to the community … I think the city manager should be at one of these meetings, I think the police commissioner should be at one of these meetings. I think a hierarchy of the Cambridge Police Department should all be at these meetings.”
Conspiracy of silence
The theme ran throughout the night, a diverse gathering of about 200 at the Christian Life Center of St. Paul A.M.E. church on Bishop Allen Drive. Although the name of the event wasn’t explicit — “Civil Rights: Policing, Discretion and Race in Cambridge” — the image used to advertise it was: a collage of Crowley, Gates, Obama, an American flag and yellow police tape saying “Caution.”
Among the audience were several city councillors and candidates for state Senate. At the doors of the meeting hall were bulky men in black T-shirts and suits — security in case things got out of control. But the forum remained respectful and engaged, with even the most controversial of comments met only with murmurs from the audience and a reasoned response from the speakers on the dais.
That part of Cambridge’s liberal and politically correct image, at least, worked as expected.
But that image of “the People’s Republic of Cambridge” also contributes to issues such as suspicion and aggression between people of color and the police getting swept under the rug, panelists said. That ended with the Gates arrest. “The perception of Cambridge has certainly changed,” Walker said. “Now it fits into the narrative of Boston and New England as a deeply racially troubled place.”
But while there were countless harrowing tales of racial profiling and harassment over “living while black” just from Thursday’s speakers, city officials have been largely silent since the summer arrest. City Manager Robert W. Healy created a 12-person Cambridge Review Committee on “lessons learned” that met with the public for the first time Jan. 27 and mainly drew questions about its purpose. The city’s Police Review and Advisory Board, leaderless for months, was passed over for the responsibility of looking into the Gates incident, although most would consider that to be its role. Members decided in September to pursue the issue on their own, but haven’t reported on their findings.
A handful of police officers were at the Thursday forum, but stayed at the back and didn’t speak. There was a flood of e-mailed forum invitations to police officials and others, Harding said.
“This incident has been discussed around the country and around the world, literally,” said Ken Reeves, interim mayor, introducing the event. “But back here in Cambridge, very few of us said anything. I have a big mouth and talk a lot, and I defy you to show where I was on television or in any newspapers saying anything. I didn’t say a peep, like many of you. But in the barbershops and in the blogs across the city, I keep hearing discussions about the impact of that incident.”
Discretion and solutions
The stated topic of the forum — how much discretion police have — popped up briefly throughout the talk, but there was no immediate answer to Reeves’ fears that “We have 272 sworn officers. Are there 272 different discretions?”
(Reeves said he asked Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas in a private meeting exactly what crime Gates had committed and whether an arrest was warranted. “If I had gone there, said the commissioner, I don’t think I would have arrested him,” Reeves recalled Haas saying.)
Ramirez, who does this sort of thing for a living, suggested a well-liked idea: the collection of arrest data, with what kinds to collect decided by the community and police, so when an officer makes an arrest there is a history to consider. Ramirez said;
“You could say, I want to know for the past two years, how many times Officer Crowley has arrested someone for disorderly conduct? And I’d like to know more than that. I’d like to know the racial demographics of the people arrested who’ve been arrested for disorderly conduct and compare it with the rest of the officers in Cambridge. And I want to know more than that — and this is a very important question — what happened after the arrest? How many of those disorderly conduct charges by the Cambridge police, and by Crowley, actually went to court and were tried? … Because there may be 272 different discretions with the police, but there’s only one law in Massachusetts about what constitutes disorderly conduct. And you don’t have 272 different judges deciding it differently.”
“You can’t possibly manage what you don’t measure,” she said.
When the community is organized enough to demand the measurements, the police will comply, she said, but not before then.
A return to community policing would also be a good idea, Anderson said, meaning having officers attend meetings of all sorts and being positive, regular presences in the community.
“It’s going back to where it was 20 years ago,” he said of policing, and many at the forum agreed.
Police — represented in a Nov. 5 interview by spokeswoman Alexa Manocchio and Deputy Superintendent Steven Williams — say their approach to community policing hasn’t changed.
Another suggestion was more dialogue between residents, not just with police. “When it comes to race, we’re cowards,” Monroe said, and when there’s a “dichotomy of white guilt and black rage, you can’t have a discussion.”
“It seems what you’ve had here is a suppression of discussion,” Anderson said.
“It’s clear the Cambridge Police Department does not want to have an ongoing discussion about this. They talked about this for about two days, and they’ve said almost nothing about this since then. They don’t want to have meetings about this, they don’t want to have discussions about this, they don’t want Crowley out there talking about it, they just want it to go away, which is exactly the wrong response,” Walker said.
There will be further forums, Harding said, but dates haven’t been set.
Howard Manly, editor of the Bay State Banner, was intended to be on the Thursday panel, but was ill and couldn’t attend. Ramirez, who spoke before the panel discussion, was drafted to fill in for him.
The sponsors of the event were the Massasoit Elks Club, The Men of Color Task Force and the city’s branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.