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Should Highly Educated Black Men Accept Special Treatment?

New America Media, Commentary, Edwin Okong'o Posted: Jul 31, 2009

If the law had treated Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. like it treated me in Minneapolis last year, he would have reacted differently to the invitation to have a beer at the White House with the president and the man who arrested him.

Gates experience would have been drastically different. He would have faced charges like disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, open bottle and loitering with intent. He would have only stepped out of jail after posting bail.

During his numeral trips to the courthouse, Gates would have seen what happens to black men who have no money to pay for a lawyer. He would have seen a court-appointed attorney spending five minutes with clients and advising them to take the prosecutors deal. If you plead guilty to one of the three charges, the public defender might have said, you will get 30 days minus time served. The judge will defer the jail time and place you on probation for 90 days if you promise not to commit similar offenses.

While waiting for the judge to call his name, Gates would have wondered if it was possible that all of the 20 people who took the plea bargain with him in the courtroom were guilty. Did they understand the deal, or were they just signing anything to avoid taking another day off to come to court?

But Gates went to the White House to share a beer with his arresting officer and the president because he hasnt experienced the police profiling and brutality many black men experience. And because we black people tend to think that the highly educated are exempted from racism and police profiling, we might have made Gates feel that his high status warrants special treatment at the hands of police.

Before I came to America 15 years ago, I admired and even idolized American police officers. In Nairobi I had seen them on television shows like Top Cops and Real Stories of the Highway Patrol, not only doing heroic things, but also unlike Kenyan cops being courteous and helpful. But the longer I have been in this country, the more officers have disappointed me.

My ordeal at the hands of police began six months after my arrival in San Jose, Calif. One night, as I drove into a pizzeria with my teenage cousin and his friends, all of us clad in oversized jackets, a police officer followed me to the parking lot. We ate pizza and played video games for about two hours. As we were leaving, we noticed that the officer was still in the parking lot. As soon as I drove into the street, six other police cruisers intercepted my car from all sides. They pointed their guns and flashlights and ordered us out of the car to the ground, face down. They handcuffed us and searched our pockets. When they couldnt find anything on us, one of them said, Someone reported that this vehicle was stolen. You guys have a good night.

Its an excuse I have heard several times after a cop pulled me over. A San Jose cop who arrested me for public drunkenness later admitted he singled me out because you opened your mouth. I had tried to tell him that I was waiting for a ride. This is the wrong night to be [expletive] with us. We are hot tonight. An officer just got killed in San Leandro, one policeman said as he ushered me into his car.

On another occasion, a policeman followed me for three miles before pulling me over. He claimed that the cars air freshener that little piece of scented cardboard dangling from the rear view mirror could distract my view. You might hit a kid, he explained.

I dumped the car that I thought was the cop magnet and decided to go back to college, thinking that as a highly educated black man, Id be exempt from police harassment.

After college, I moved to Berkeley, Calif., to start graduate school. There, my transformation into a highly educated black man continued. My graduate school friends did not drink Hennessy, the cognac that graced my San Jose house parties they drank wine. They introduced me to organic food and sushi.

After graduate school, I took a job as the editor in chief of a Minneapolis-based African immigrant newspaper. People began to invite me to places I whose father dropped out of high school and whose mother didnt make it beyond the fifth grade never thought I could attend: the grand opening of a bank; a fancy dinner at a golf course, hosted by a retired judge; an awards gala at the private Minneapolis Club.

Following every dinner, I drove home wishing that my late father had been there to see that I was finally on my way. Here at last was an end to the nightmare that had been my life.

But on one snowy night in Minneapolis I argued with a cab driver for refusing to turn on the meter after demanding that my friend, Andy, and I pay him $20 for a taxi ride that was usually half the price. He called 911. The responding officer arrived and, without a word, pointed a Taser at us.

Get out or Im gonna Tase you, the officer screamed.

I told him that I was going to lodge a complaint against him for the biased way he handled the conflict.

Do you wanna get arrested? the officer asked.

For what? I asked.

If this had been five years earlier, I would have just stayed quiet. In fact, I would have left when the taxi driver threatened to call 911. But that night I was a different black man a highly educated one who knew his rights. So I asked the officer for his badge number.

Open your mouth one more time if you want to go to jail, the officer warned.

I turned to Andy as we walked away and called out the officers squad car number, Remember it, Andy, I said. We have to file a complaint.

The policeman walked toward me and, with the laser on me, ordered me to get on the ground. I immediately obeyed. As the police officer drove me to jail for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and failing to pay a taxi fare, I asked him what I had done wrong.

You should have kept your mouth shut, he answered.

I spent that night in jail. Andy, who was new in town from Seattle, came to bail me out in the morning.

Over the next two months I used the tools of my newly acquired education to prepare my own defense. I cited the Freedom of Information Act I had learned from journalism school to request documents from the police. When I learned that the policeman had confiscated a receipt that would have proven that I had paid the cab driver $20, I requested a video tape from the jail lobby to show that Andys reaction to the fare evasion charge was, You have the receipt, right?

I obtained several statements from the officer and managed to convince the prosecutor that the officer contradicted himself. In the initial police report he had written that it was a citizens arrest. In a second report the officer said he had arrested me because I disobeyed an order to leave and continued to argue. And a third report said he arrested me after I became angry and charged at the cab driver.

The prosecutor dismissed all of the charges.

Seeing less knowledgeable people take plea-bargains because, Its your word against the officers has made me appreciate my education. But my arrest in Minneapolis taught me that despite my education and expensive clothes, in the cops eyes, I will always be a black man, an automatic suspect.

If Gates case was anything like mine, hed have been so angry that he would have demand any invitation from President Barack Obama to, at least symbolically, include all black men from across the United States who have ever taken a plea bargain due to bogus charges.

Related Articles:

Know Your Rights: Criminal Justice Reform After Gates

What if Henry Louis Gates Were Not an Acclaimed Professor?

The Curious Case of Henry Louis Gates...

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