Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Vindication for Lucia Whalen, or Why the 911 Call Means Everything and Nothing at All

July 27th, 2009 by Ajuan Mance

911-call

Caller: Umm, well there were two larger men, one looked kind of Hispanic, but I’m not really sure. And the other one entered and I didn’t see what he looked like at all. I just saw it from a distance and this older woman was worried, thinking someone’s breaking in someone’s house, they’ve been barging in, and she interrupted me, and that’s when I had noticed. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it at all, to be honest with you. So I was just calling ‘cause she was a concerned neighbor, I guess.

– Lucia Whalen to the 911 dispatcher who alerted Cambridge police to a possible burglary at the home of Henry Louis Gates (from The Boston Globe)

***

With today’s release of the exact content of Lucia Whalen’s 911 call, assertions that Gates and the rest of the U.S. Black community (including our Chief Executive) have overreacted and falsely “played the race card” have reached a fever pitch. I certainly hope that that today’s revelation of the content of that call does not completely derail what might well have been a productive national dialogue around race and law enforcement in the U.S.

That said, I must acknowledge my error in casting Whalen as the catalyst in the racially fraught encounter between Gates and the Cambridge police. I regret any hurt or inconvenience that my comments may have caused Ms. Whalen. She probably did not intend to launch the tempest stirred up by her effort simply to come to the aid of an “older woman [who] was worried.”  In fact, based on the 911 transcript, two things seem to be true:

  1. Lucia Whalen reserved judgement about the events that she witnessed, remaining (admirably, I would say)  non-commital about whether or not a crime was even taking place and whether or not the men who entered Gates’s house might well have been residents who were simply having trouble with their key.
  2. The true instigaor of the call was an elderly female neighbor of Gates, who may or may not have been motivated by her perceptions of Black men/men of color.

The motivations of this neighbor, however, are the the subject of this blogpost. Lucia Whalen’s 911 calls suggests that she was more unsure of the race of the perceived burglars and — most importantly — less sure that an actual crime was being committed than the first week of reporting on the Gates arrest seemed to indicate. Although her description of the (I’ll call them) suspects as two larger men seems to contradict what we now know to be the reality of what she actually saw, the text of her 911 call makes clear that she was very open about being unclear about the implications of what she and the neighbor had actually seen.

Of course, some questions do remain. For example, if Lucia Whalen seemed uncertain of both the race of the possible burglars and whether or not a burglary was taking place at all, then one question remains: How one earth such a tentative report end up in the arrest of Professor Gates for what was eventually revealed to be no crime at all? This is a question that Black and non-Black people will probably answer quite differently. Like the racial divide between those who questioned the actions of Officer Crowley and Lucia Whalen and those who believed that their actions were justified, the perception of the justice or injustice of arresting Gates reflects two very different perceptions of law enforcement and the relationship of race to the policing of Black men.

This is why I say that the revelations of Ms. Whalen’s 911 call will mean everything and nothing. For those who believe that the outcry by many (not all) Black people over the events surrounding Gates’s arrest are just another example of Black peoples’ overreaction to issues related to race, then the fact that Whalen seems not to have initially identified the race of her assailants will mean everything. For Black people (and others) who feel that the arrest on the grounds of his home of an African American man who did not commit a crime simply underscores the problematic role that racism plays in interactions between Black people and the police the fact that the 911 caller did not initially name the race of the perceived burglars will mean nothing.

The reason that so many people of African descent (including Gates himself) have reacted so strongly to this encounter is because so many Black people have been accused of and even been convicted of crimes and misdemeanors that they did not commit. Some Black people have even been killed by the police for such crimes, or even in the absence of a crime. Because he is a nationally and internationally noted scholar based at one of the world’s most prestigious universities, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was able to quickly resolve his wrongful arrest in a relatively short time (and I do believe that it was a wrongful arrest, as is any arrest for a crime that the arrestee did not commit), and without any injury to himself or others.

It is important to note, though, that very few Black people (indeed, very few people of any ethnicity) have Gates’s name recognition, education, or influence. However tempted anyone might be to dismiss the reality of racism and racial profiling by the recent revelations surround  her  911 call, we must all understand that the strong reaction to what transpired between Lucia Whalen and the CPD, Officer Crowley and Professor Gates is a reflection of Black people’s fear of and anger about  being treated as criminals by police and by civilian witnesses, even when they have not committed a crime.

Having followed the ongoing dialogue around these incidents on my blog and in the responses to other bloggers and journalists who have written on the subject of the Gates arrest, I have to conclude that many outside of the Black community believe that race  is simply not a factor in African American encounters with law enforcement. Specifically, it seems that many outside of the African American community are unaware that lurking in the back of many Black peole’s minds, in any encounter with law enforcement, is the memory of cases like those of Keith Spence, Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Lafonso Rollins, Steven ToneyPaula Gray, and too many others to include here.

Most officers do not, of course, set out to deliberately abuse, injure, unfairly arrest, or kill Black people; and it may seem unfair for Black people to assume that any officer who approaches them is doing so because of racism. To an African American who finds himself or herself questioned by the police for a crime he or she did not commit (or in the absence of any crime at all), the motives of that officer are almost necessarily suspect.

Once could say that this is the mess that racism has wrought, and not just past racism, either. Arrests, imprisonments, convictions, and even shootings of Black people for crimes they did not commit continue to happen today. Lucia Whalen, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Office Crowley are learning now that their actions on that fateful afternoon did not happen in a vacuum. Rather, the actions of each of those three players in this controversial and problematic case took place against the backdrop a cultural, political, and historical matrix that clearly demonstrates that African Americans are under greater suspicion that their white counterparts.

Neither Gates, nor Crowley, nor Whalen created this larger environment of distrust; but each is now most certainly — and probably painfully — aware of its inescapable control.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

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Posted in Academia, African Americans, Current Events, Harvard University, Henry Louis Gates, Higher Education, race

13 Responses

  1. cheryl

    As a white grandmother of black children the police reaction in the Gates case deeply disturbs me. It is really easy for white people to believe that racism is over yet it’s alive in this nation. The 911 caller was a busybody and the police were racist idiots. Just consider this, would you like Professor Gates be irate if a cop demanded that you prove your right to enter your own home (owned or rented). I know I would have been equally irate but a lily white woman I believe that cop would have shown me more respect. Is the nation equal for all? Only in our dreams!!!!

  2. jan

    SHAME is on you cheryl!
    many people would agree the caller was just trying to be a good samaritan, guess you aren’t one! Thank you caller for doing the right thing!!! unfortunately, there are too many ignorant people like cheryl, and who cares about the color of your skin!
    for those reading this, don’t waste your breath for cheryl to ever come to your aide..

  3. Ajuan Mance

    Cheryl, thank you for your comments. I think that this incident raises important questions about what someone should do if they see something that looks odd, but not necessarily like a crime. The fact is that for Black people, an encounter with police officers can end up in an arrest, incarceration, or even injury or death, whether the person in question has committed a crime, or not. And so that the question Jan raises of whether or not the caller “did the right thing” is, I think, not so easy to answer.

    Jan, I appreciate your passion on this issue, but I also believe that Cheryl’s concern for the safety of her Black grandchildren is real. Whether we like it or not, encounters between Black people and police who believe that they might have committed a crime have far too often ended in the unwarrented arrest, incarceration, or even murder of that person. We have to remember that there have even been occasions when white officers have shot Black officers who were not in uniform, Black officers who were not committing criminal acts.

  4. jaks

    This is getting rediculous Ajuan.

    Plain and simple, attitudes such as Cheryl’s have to stop.

    The professor involved is black, the mayor involved is black, the goverernor involved is black, the president involved is black. We need to wake up, look around, recognize that amazing fact, and move forward.

  5. Anonymous

    Cheryl is a moron and I’ve seen her crap on other blogs. Even despite the 911 tapes and proof Ms. Whalen isn’t a racist, she STILL has to be “right” in her own mind so she still refers to Ms. Whalen as a busybody and racist. I’m glad you, the writer, have apologized for your actions. I’d urge you to do so to Ms. Whalen’s face. I’d say it’s more than an “inconvenience” to label someone a racist all over the internet and then say “oops, sorry, I was wrong,” like “oh well, now your name is trash all over the web and you have to deal w/ it Ms. Whalen.”

  6. Anonymous

    OH YES…and this “lily white woman” is actually a Portuguese American with olive skin according to her attorney. I seriously hope something horrible happens to Cheryl and nobody helps her. Then she’ll be whining that nobody called the cops because they’re racist. You can’t win w/ that [epithet deleted by Black on Campus].

  7. Ajuan Mance

    Anonymous, I edited out the epithet in your comment. I hope that you will use some sort of name or pseudonym in future posts, and that you will refrain from using epithets or other profanity in describing other respondents.

    I absolutely welcome a diversity of opinions. But this crosses a line.

  8. Anonymous

    It crosses a line to call someone out because after there is proof that someone is not a racist, they continue to say the person is a racist and continue defaming that person? Hmm. Interesting. I would urge you then to edit Cheryl’s “lily white” stuff out then as that’s offensive to white people. I also am using Anonymous because as a Caucasian, I’m afraid of putting my real name because then I might be labeled a racist just for sticking up for Ms. Whalen by someone like Cheryl or other people who are whacked and choose to defame people w/o knowing facts. I don’t want my name all over the internet as a “racist” like Ms. Whalen has had happen. You take a nice long look at some of the blog posts on her and you tell me it isn’t disgusting. The media and stupid faux bloggers who think they’re journalists have no problem accusing people of things they didn’t do but they aren’t as quick to apologize for their actions and the story isn’t as big a deal when they realize their errors. Years from now, Ms. Whalen will probably still be remembered as “that white lady who called 911 on Professor Gates and people thought she was a racist.” That is awful! And, the stuff on the web stays there forever so if anyone not knowing the situation were to read about her, they would still see awful posts saying she is racist when she is clearly not. How fair is that?

  9. Maggie

    Hi Ajuan,
    I don’t follow your blog but was just looking for some Internet chatter about Ms. Whalen following her press conference.

    I thought you would be interested in two legal opinions regarding the arrest of Professor Gates. I really feel that if the media had focused first on the legality of the arrest that some of this pain might have been alleviated. It was quite disgusting to see people jumping to support Officer Crowley without knowing any of the facts except his police report, which is looking less and less credible. I’ll put the two links at the bottom of this post, you may include them at your discretion. Both references basically say that it is not illegal to shout at a police officer. It is not disorderly conduct. And there is nothing in Officer Crowley’s report (nothing specific) that can be described as disorderly conduct.

    I had never thought about NOT calling 911 because the suspects appeared to be minorities and then might not get treated fairly by the law. That’s really frightening. I’ve really had my illusions shaken with this incident. I really thought the closet racists were a minority, but the number of people who jumped to Officer Crowley’s defense without ever questioning what happened or why Gates was released was astounding. Now maybe some of that is anti-intellectualism, or perhaps a combination because they seem to go hand in hand. But it was very depressing. As a white person, I really don’t see it. And I will probably never think of everything, like thinking twice before calling 911 when the suspects are people of color.

    Take care,
    Maggie

    (I apologize if these are redundant and you already knew about them. As I said, I found your blog through an Internet search.)

    Mass Lawyer’s Weekly: http://blogs.masslawyersweekly.com/news/2009/07/22/making-legal-sense-of-the-gates-arrest/

    Huffington Post:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/adam-winkler/obama-was-right-about-the_b_244888.html

    Also supportive opinion from Time, but not a legal opinion:
    http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1912778,00.html?artId=1912778?contType=article?chn=us

  10. Valerie

    I find your “i’m sorry” blog incredibly funny since you now turn your racist remarks against the older woman who saw gates trying to break into his own home…obviously the older women NEVER mentioned RACE to the woman who eventually called the police otherwise she would have said…the older woman said there were black or blue or purple men breaking in. I believe the black community is so stuck on race issues they hang their hat every day and cry pity and Gates banks his dollars on the HOPES racism is alive and well … racism is alive and well in the black community…but I live in a “community” neither black nor white…and this call proves that racism is alive only in the minds and wallets of black racist leaderships in our country.

  11. regulary guy

    I remain hopeful that some positive dialogue will come of all of this, but the vast majority of what I have witnessed thus far is simply more of the same quick-to-judge, eager-to-dismiss, slow-to-think, and seemingly intentionally polarizing garbage we see on most of the important issues in our country.

    Is it possible that the Cambridge Police responded poorly to the situation because Gates is a black man? –Absolutely

    Is it possible that the Cambridge Police did not act based on race in any way and that Gates, who is almost certainly quite used to racial injustice, assumed otherwise and behaved defensively and aggressively enough to aggravate the situation? –Absolutely

    The truth is, none of us were there and being there to hear what was said and how the communication occurred could very well be the difference.

    So, white audience…

    Try to understand that, whether this particular event warrants the response it is getting or not, there is absolutely no doubt that the uproar from the black community comes from somewhere real and that history has absolutely shown a continued mistreatment of black people, particularly black men, by officials, particularly the police, and that, even if it has been reduced in recent years, it is not likely this type of racial injustice has suddenly disappeared.

    And, black audience…

    Try to understand that the vast majority of your white compatriots are truly in support of a mixed society free of racism and would not condone racist behavior in their own friends and family and that many of those same white compatriots are in law enforcement and also would not condone racist behavior in themselves, their friends, their families, or their co-workers.

    As I see it, the biggest problem we have around race in America these days is that both sides of the argument continue to try to use race as a delimiter. Fortunately, our society has progressed to a point where that just doesn’t work anymore.

    The truth is, we are more alike than we are different and there are more of us that care about the content of a person’s character than there are those of us that would judge on anything as innocuous as race.

    So, I for one will largely stay out of this one and simply continue to try to be a fair and reasonable person while expecting the same of the others around me.

    -A Regular Guy in Utah

  12. Ajuan Mance

    Valerie, thanks for your response. From what I have seen and read, your perspective shared by many. As I mentioned in a previous most, some people believe that even suggesting that someone’s actions may be racially motivated (consciously or unconsciously) is as egregious as committing an actual racist act. I do not agree with this perspective, but I do understand that this is how many people feel.

    Regular Guy, thank you for your post. I do believe that one solution to the heat that has been generation around this controversy would be for both people of color and white people to try to understand the perspective of the other group. This is not the same as agreeing with the other side/opinion, but I does go a long way toward creating understanding.

  13. lucy

    Isn’t shifting the blame to the older woman the EXACT same thing that happened to Ms. Whalen? Sorry, but no one knows crap about what she said or thought, either. More ignorant speculation.

    I really hate to burst your bubble, but there are white people who are treated badly by the police, and there are white people who have been killed and falsely arrested by the police.

    One group of people claiming the sole right to claim persecution is ignorant and arrogant.

    You might want to learn a bit of history about those “lily white” Irish who were treated like subhumans in this country, or those “lily white” Jews who were treated (and exterminated) like subhumans in Europe. The dirt poor hillbillies of Appalachia. The Arcadians….Et tu, Brute?

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