How Henry Louis Gates Blew It

| Tue Jul. 21, 2009 2:23 PM EDT

Smiling triumphantly, I opened the front door only to stare straight down the barrel of a police 9mm. I don't think I said a word. Just slowly put my hands in the air. Let the officer cuff me and put me in the cramped backseat of his cruiser.

The scene was Emeryville, California. It was 1993, and I had just entered an unlocked upstairs window to gain entry to the residence where my companion was house sitting. We'd accidentally locked the keys inside. The neighbors didn't know that, though. They just saw an unfamiliar white man trying to get in. Eventually, I was released, upset and humiliated to be treated like a criminal, but I knew better than to get righteous on a police officer. As I'd learned the hard way four years prior, that's a losing game.

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Flashback to one Sunday in the summer of 1989, when police had reported to the West Oakland BART station parking lot in response to noise complaints about an afternoon party across the street.

Juke, my old punk-rock band, was playing at a run-down rental house along with Green Day (in its pre-stadium days), and a couple of others. After we'd finished our set, I wandered across the street with a friend. That's when an altercation of other partygoers broke out in the BART lot, not 100 feet from several Oakland police cruisers.

The cops did nothing to stop the fight, but we helped separate the brawling parties, and the cops detained them. Shortly thereafter, with observers crowding around the lot, one officer walked a full circle around my friend, then told him to take a hike or get arrested. At the first word of protest out of his mouth, the officer grabbed and cuffed him.

This struck me as completely unjust, so I spoke up, "Why are you arresting him? He didn't do anything!"

"Shut the fuck up," said a couple other officers.

I wasn't finished. "I have a right to know why you're arresting my friend!" I protested.

They tackled me from behind. Twisted my arm painfully behind my back. Somebody kicked my head into the pavement, leaving a large welt on my forehead. I was cuffed—so tightly it hurt for weeks—and thrown in the backseat of a cruiser piloted by one Officer Jim Burns.

"Name?" Burns finally demanded upon returning to the cruiser. I had no wallet or ID on me.

"Michael Mechanic"

"NAME!" he repeated.

"Michael Mechanic"

"I'll just put John Doe, then," Burns said.

"It's my fucking name!" I responded.

I proceeded, through tears, to taunt Officer Burns, equate him to a Nazi, question his education, his upbringing, and his patriotism. In retrospect, I was lucky he didn't take me to some vacant lot somewhere and beat me to a pulp. Because he could have.

Long story short, I was transferred to a stinking paddy wagon and driven around the city for hours, with no bathroom breaks, until the van was packed with crackheads. I then spent the night in the city jail and was charged with interfering with the police—a felony—and, just for the hell of it, resisting arrest and public intoxication, which was entirely fabricated. Because they can. In the end, it cost $1,500 to hire a lawyer to convince the DA none of it was worth pursuing.

I was shell-shocked by the whole experience. It took me a long time to get over it, but it taught me an important lesson, one that many a poor black kid in Oakland learns from an early age: You don't talk back to the police. You don't question them. And you certainly don't call them a racist, even if you think they are profiling you. (And they most likely are.)

Because you will lose. It doesn't matter whether you're a black Harvard prof, a white kid on his way to attend graduate school there, or a Hispanic high-school dropout. I understand Gates' indignance and what he must have been feeling at that moment. But Gates has clout in the Cambridge community. He could have brought his complaints straight to the brass or to local politicians—and he no doubt will now. But get righteous on a street cop and you will lose every single goddamn time. Gates should have known as much.

Follow Michael Mechanic on Twitter.

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