Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; “47”; and the Testimony of Gary Sheffield and Bob Gibson

The arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in July, 2009, on his own front porch for having the temerity to rebuke a system that viewed him as an always already target of suspicion provoked a brief flare-up of public attention on the ability of a police force to protect and serve all citizens equally. President Obama, who had only been in office for six months, commented that “there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.” He should have added “as well as beaten and killed” to his statement about “being stopped,” but since Professor Gates had not been physically harmed in the confrontation at his home, Obama refrained from magnifying a volatile situation. The scornful reaction by police officials to Obama’s comment, in which they refused to acknowledge the truth of racial profiling, revealed the extent to which racism is so embedded in this system as to be inextricable in its present superficies.

In contrast with the current occupant of the White House, Obama did not pile on with provocative assessments of the confrontation in Cambridge, but instead invited both Professor Gates and the police officer who arrested him to meet at the White House and engage in a public ritual of mutual mollification. As details became known, it turned out that the police officer was not at all the aggressive stereotype of a cop that it might be easy to regard him as; in fact, according to reports I have read, Professor Gates and Officer Crowley eventually achieved an amicable relationship.

The limits of reconciliation, however, are encased in centuries of relentless brutality that only rarely becomes visible to anyone other than the perpetrators and the afflicted. It is the weight of the undocumented, in all its incontrovertible encroachments on daily life, that most forestalls any appeasement of the justifiable rage that surges like a psychic tsunami through of communities of color. There is so little to protect anyone in those communities from the ravages of violent interdiction. Those who are privileged by their skin color need to begin formally recognizing the odds one faces in having even a flimsy chance of seeing justice administered when police arrogance entraps them. Think of the odds of anyone growing up and becoming a famous professional athlete, and then double, or triple, or quadruple those odds and you’ll have the abyss of American justice.

Even if one is a gifted athlete, however, the likelihood that having an unfortunate encounter with police predators might become publicized, but it is unlikely to lead to any punishment for the criminal behavior of the police. I call to your attention an infamous incident involving two major baseball players, Dwight Gooden and his nephew Gary Sheffield, who were both All-Stars multiple times in the course of their careers.


Imagine that this entire incident had been preserved on videotape, in the way that the Rodney King beating was recorded. Does anyone really believe that it would not be another irrefutable instance of transgressive violence by police officers for which they should have been punished? Would it not then serve to make clear that nothing whatsoever had been learned by police forces in the United States in the aftermath of the King riots? Instead, it was back to business as usual for the so-called “rogue” elements in police departments, just as professional sports serve as a way to smooth over the discomfiting legacy of racism. It’s all well and good for MLB to celebrate Jackie Robinson day by having every player wear his number on the day celebrating the integration of professional baseball in the modern era of the game, but to imagine that this provides some measure of reconciliation for the decades and decades in which the best athletes to play the game, including Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, were denied the chance to play at the highest level, is to engage in an extreme case of the social imaginary.

In a recent interview, Hall of Fame member Bob Gibson talks about an early incident in his career and how little things have truly changed. On the other, he is not a complete pessimist: “But now that doesn’t mean there aren’t things that give me hope, especially in our game. I don’t just see Black players speaking up, the way they always have. I see something deeper. I see white players listening more than they used to.”


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Racial justice requires the elimination of contingency, and in calling for the defunding of police departments, I would like to clarify what should be funded. The budgets for police departments need to be modified in such a way that surveillance of the police is a matter of constant record. Until this supervision is given financial priority, and the oversight remains in the hands of those whose lives are supposed to be protected by the police, then there is no hope that this travesty will ever be rectified.

The problem, of course, is that the funding for an effective system of first-responders is that there is a knee on the throat of those who wish to devote themselves to public service. The budget for the Pentagon has strangled any possibility for social reparations and economic improvement in the lives of communities of color.

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