Saturday, May 25, 2024

Trayvon Martin, 17, is dead, and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested in 2009 in an increasingly forgotten incident. But there are connections between the cases.

The Trayvon Martin killing in Florida is incalculably worse than the 2009 arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. in Cambridge, but comparing the two illuminates why the Cambridge case was, and remains, important.

In Cambridge, an older, cane-using Harvard professor was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct at his own home after being cleared of suspicion, raised in a 911 call, that he’d been breaking in. Charges against him were dropped. In Sanford, Fla., a 17-year-old with Skittles and iced tea was shot by a guy who said he’d simply seen the kid and thought he was “a real suspicious guy.” He’s dead.

In both cases, the victim was a black man — Henry Louis Gates Jr., a celebrated 62-year-old scholar and media personality, and Trayvon Martin, a slight, sweet-looking teen who played football and had been suspended from school for pot possession. In the Cambridge case, race was rejected as a factor because the white arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, taught a course in racial profiling for five years at a police academy and was supported in the arrest by officers of various races; in Florida, race is said not be a factor because the shooter, 28-year-old George Zimmerman, is Hispanic.

Crawley had eight previous citizen complaints against him, but had been cleared. Zimmerman has faced charges of domestic violence and criminal misconduct, but has “avoided conviction,” in the words of The Washington Post.

Both black men were in an area described as having suffered a series of recent break-ins. And what a 12-member panel called the Cambridge Review Committee said of the Gates-Crowley incident — that “for various reasons, each man reported feeling a certain degree of fear of the other” — certainly seems like it will be claimed in Sanford. Zimmerman, in the 911 call made before he rejected police advice to stand down and instead followed Martin and shot him, said the teen “looks like he’s up to no good or is on drugs or something … he’s just staring at me … he’s coming towards me … He’s got his hands in his waistband … he’s coming to check me out, he’s got something in his hands.”

Later, Zimmerman could be said to be afraid of Martin because, he claims, the teen confronted and punched him. When police arrived, reports say Zimmerman was bleeding from the nose and the back of his head, although a minute-and-a-half video of Zimmerman in police custody immediately after he was taken from the scene of the shooting, obtained and confirmed by ABC News, shows no sign of injury.

Here’s where the “fear” argument will fall apart for some people: Crowley is a beefy, longtime police sergeant with a gun who, at the moment of the Gates arrest, had lots of backup around him and nearby — Cambridge and Harvard University police — and had already literally turned away from Gates after confirming he was the legal resident of the supposedly burglarized house. Zimmerman is a beefy, 170-pound man with a gun who followed Martin after reporting that the teen was running away from him. And, to be clear, a 911 dispatcher told him not to follow Martin, but he followed anyway because “These assholes, they always get away.”

In Cambridge, as everywhere, police officers have “discretion” to arrest people “to deal with a wide variety of unpredictable encounters.” In Florida, there is a “stand your ground” law, in place since 2005, that says a person can use deadly force in self-defense if there’s reasonable fear of a deadly threat, without having to retreat first. According to a letter signed by Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr., explaining why Zimmerman hasn’t been arrested:

“Zimmerman provided a statement claiming he acted in self defense, which at the time was supported by physical evidence and testimony. By Florida Statute, law enforcement was PROHIBITED from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time.”

But The Christian Science Monitor reports further:

Florida’s Stand Your Ground law would have been legally irrelevant to this determination …Florida has other statutes that allow the use of force against a criminal attack, as do virtually all states. Zimmerman’s story has been that he was doing exactly that: defending against an assault by Martin. In his version of events, Martin knocked him down, then straddled him and pounded his head on the ground. He did not have an opportunity to retreat, he told police.

In Cambridge, it has gone largely unremarked that Gates, as an expert on race in civic affairs, would have been aware even as he talked with Crowley that day in 2009 of the long string of unarmed black men harassed, imprisoned and even killed by police for no reason other than that they reach for a wallet or even answer their door to, say, an officer whose rifle accidentally goes off while making an ultimately groundless arrest. (The string goes on, of course. That’s what happened to former Cambridge resident Eurie Stamps Sr., 68, during a drug raid by Framingham police in January 2011. He’s dead.)

In Florida, it has gone largely unremarked that even if Zimmerman was attacked by Martin, it wasn’t Zimmerman who was following the law; it was Martin.

It was Martin who ran away but was followed by a large man with a gun, while it was Zimmerman who brought a gun to follow a kid who ran away. Even if Martin attacked Zimmerman, quite possibly because he was fearing for his life but standing his ground, he was punching and struggling with a man carrying a gun — which is more likely deadly than fists and hands whether the person wielding it is close or far away. The girl Martin was talking to on his cellphone said she heard Martin say he’d escaped Zimmerman (although he also said he would walk fast, but not run, while Zimmerman said the teen ran away) but then heard Zimmerman find him again:

“Trayvon said, ‘What are you following me for,’ and the man said, ‘What are you doing here.’ Next thing I hear is somebody pushing, and somebody pushed Trayvon because the headset just fell. I called him again and he didn’t answer the phone.”

A second 911 call, made by neighbors who were hearing this fight, reveals cries for help. They sound either like a young boy’s cries or those of a man in the midst of a vast, utterly hysterical fear. After a moment of these high-pitched, urgent pleas, there is a loud shot followed by silence. Zimmerman’s family says it is Zimmerman crying out for help, and if so clearly this ridiculous man — who went following a kid with a gun despite being told not to by police and apparently freaked out when it turned out the kid could fight back — is capable of shooting out of fear.

Then there’s the police reaction. In Cambridge, police claimed to do an initial investigation of Crowley’s actions, but decided further action wasn’t warranted after speaking to five people, only one of whom had seen Gates’ arrest. The many questions raised by Crowley’s arrest report were apparently deemed unimportant, including his description that he was looking for black men with backpacks when the 911 caller had said no such thing; her report spoke of suitcases and two men, of which “one looked kind of Hispanic.”

In Florida, police tested Martin’s body for drugs or alcohol, but never tested Zimmerman. A month has passed, but police officials never charged Zimmerman with a crime despite the urging of the case’s initial lead investigator. The Miami Herald reported a week ago, as the Sanford police chief and state attorney stepped down, “Witnesses whose account differed from Zimmerman’s said their calls were not returned, and it was Trayvon’s dad who discovered a key witness, a girl who was talking to Trayvon on the telephone moments before the shooting.”

The Firedoglake blog notes further that the police chief “downplayed the racial elements, stating that Zimmerman didn’t know the race of Martin … also, key details about Zimmerman — claims that he showed signs of a struggle — magically appeared in a second police report, after the first one left out those details.”

A final way the Cambridge and Sanford incidents are similar: They start out with race consciousness at their core, explode and inspire reporters to ask President Barack Obama his take on the matter. And in each case, the president speaks at length only to have what he says boiled down to less than a single sentence (in Cambridge it was “The Cambridge police acted stupidly,” while in Florida, since Obama was asked Friday, it has become “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”) that brings about the complaint Obama is injecting race into a situation.

In each case, critics ignore the context and nuance of Obama actually said. Here’s what the president said Friday:

Obviously, this is a tragedy. I can only imagine what these parents are going through. And when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids. And I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together — federal, state and local — to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened … all of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how does something like this happen. And that means that examine the laws and the context for what happened, as well as the specifics of the incident. But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. And I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we’re going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.”

Here’s what he said in 2009, six days after Gates’ arrest and one day after the charges had been dropped:

I should say at the outset that Skip Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here.

I don’t know all the facts. What’s been reported, though, is that the guy forgot his keys, jimmied his way to get into the house; there was a report called into the police station that there might be a burglary taking place …

My understanding is, at that point, professor Gates is already in his house. The police officer comes in. I’m sure there’s some exchange of words. But my understanding is — is that professor Gates then shows his ID to show that this is his house, and at that point he gets arrested for disorderly conduct, charges which are later dropped.

I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But I think it’s fair to say, No. 1, any of us would be pretty angry; No. 2, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.

And No. 3, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcing disproportionately. That’s just a fact … when I was in the state legislature in Illinois, we worked on a racial profiling bill because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately. And that is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in the society.

That doesn’t lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that’s been made. And yet the fact of the matter is, is that, you know, this still haunts us.

And even when there are honest misunderstandings, the fact that blacks and Hispanics are picked up more frequently, and oftentime for no cause, casts suspicion even when there is good cause. And that’s why I think the more that we’re working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we’re eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody’s going to be.