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7.21.2009 Harvard professor arrested at home

Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of the nation's most prominent African American scholars, was arrested last week at his home near Harvard University after trying to force open the locked front door.

According to a report by the police department in Cambridge, Mass., Gates accused police officers at the scene of being racist and said repeatedly, "This is what happens to black men in America." The incident was first reported by the Harvard Crimson.

Gates, the director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Studies, has been away from his home much of the summer while working on a documentary called "Faces of America," said Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor and friend of Gates who is working as his lawyer. Gates returned from China last week and had trouble opening the front door with his key.

Gates, 58, was arrested Thursday by police looking into a possible break-in for disorderly conduct "after exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior" at his home, according to the police report. Officers said they tried to calm down Gates, who responded, "You don't know who you're messing with," according to the police report.

Ogletree said Gates was ordered to step out of his home. He refused and was followed inside by a police officer. After showing the officer his driver's license, which includes his address, Ogletree said Gates asked: "Why are you doing this? Is it because I'm a black man and you're a white officer? I don't understand why you don't believe this is my house." Ogletree said Gates was then arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and racial harassment.

Gates did not return calls to his office Monday, and the police department would provide no further details on the arrest. He was released four hours later, and arraignment has been scheduled for Aug. 26, but Ogletree said they hope to resolve the case sooner.

Gates is resting on Martha's Vineyard, according to Ogletree, and will soon resume traveling. He is scheduled to interview cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whose genealogy he was researching in China.

Gates, is a founder of the Root (http://www.theroot.com), a Web site owned by The Washington Post Co. He is also host and co-producer of "African American Lives," a Public Broadcasting Service show in which he uses genealogical resources and DNA testing to trace the family lineages of prominent black Americans. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1981 and was among Time magazine's "25 Most Influential Americans" in 1997.

Gates's arrest points to broader racial disparities in the criminal justice system, said Ryan S. King, a policy analyst at the Sentencing Project, a think tank that researches incarceration rates.

"If you look at every stage of the criminal justice system from initial police contact all the way through sentencing and incarceration, you see that African Americans are disproportionately impacted by each stage," King said. "What we ultimately see as disparate incarceration rates are contributed to by all of these factors."

As news of the arrest spread Monday from Harvard into broader academic circles, one professor who follows Gates's work said the arrest was both "not surprising" and "disheartening."

"I felt bad that I would hear about something like this happening, especially to someone as recognizable and distinguished as [Gates], but in the academy we still sometimes encounter that. I've been in situations where I encounter people who don't believe I'm a college professor," said Jelani Cobb, an associate professor of history at Spelman College in Atlanta. "We have obvious signs of progress, but we're not there."

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer