July 25, 2009
My Henry Louis Gates, Jr. MomentBy Larrey Anderson
If it can happen to Professor Gates and to me ... it might happen to anyone. I am talking, of course, about being handcuffed by the police in Cambridge, Mass.
Most Americans have heard Professor Gates' story. Here is mine:
It was a bitter cold winter night in Cambridge. I was a student at Harvard and I had a job (as part of my scholarship) washing dishes in the Freshman Dining Hall.
I worked until about midnight most nights of the week. I was in charge of the dish room for the dining hall and at the end of the day I had to spray down all of the walls and equipment in the dish room with a high-pressure hot water hose.
On this night, like most nights, when I left the dish room I was wet, tired, and shivering. It was freezing outside the dining hall. Icicles started to form on the soaking sweatshirt and sweatpants -- my work clothes. I trotted down a side street, hurrying to my apartment, trying to stay warm.
As I raced along the sidewalk, I spotted a couple of men with flashlights searching in cars, behind trees, etc. The men were dressed in street clothes. I caught a glimpse of what I thought was a handgun. I ducked into an alleyway and plastered myself in a little alcove.
"Police!" one of the men shouted at me when he saw me turn tail.
"I see the gun. I need to see a badge," I told the men as I peeked around the corner of the little brick cubicle where I was hiding.
"Cambridge Police. Put your hands where we can see them and step out from that wall."
"Show me some ID or I am gonna start screaming for help," I responded because I had seen the second man pull a weapon. Two guys two guns. No badges. I was really scared.
"Step out of there now."
"@%&$ you! Badges first," I said ... loudly.
"We cannot see your hands. Show us your hands and Officer Smith will show you his ID."
At that moment, it dawned on me that I was not the only person who was afraid. I was cornered, frightened, belligerent, threatening -- they had no idea why I had darted into the alley.
"Put the guns up!"
"Show us your hands!"
"Not until I see some ID!"
And round and round we went.
It was after one o'clock in the morning. I was screaming now. They were screaming back. The lights in the building across the alley from me came on -- much to my relief.
I could now get a better look at the two men. Both were fairly young (though not as young as I was). One was white -- the other was black. The white guy had long hair and a beard. He didn't look like much of a cop.
"You're not &%$@ing cops," I shouted -- hoping that whoever had turned on the light had also opened a window.
"Yes we are. Undercover. There have been a series of robberies in this neighborhood. We just got a report about a stolen television. Show us your hands."
"I can't show you my &%$# hands because I am carrying this great big TV!"
The black guy started to chuckle. "Look man, here is my ID," he said as he put up his gun. He took his wallet out of his jacket, opened it, and pointed the beam of his flashlight at his badge. "Why you runnin' at this hour of the morning?"
I stepped into the light and showed them my TV-less hands. "I'm a student at Harvard. I wash dishes at the Freshman Dining Hall. I just got off work and I was going home."
Now it was their turn to doubt me. The white cop shoved me against the brick wall and cuffed me. "Harvard brats don't wash dishes," he said.
"I do. I wash dishes. Look, man, I am soaking wet. Freezin'. Here. Get my ID. I'm a student."
The black cop found my ID. "I'll be damned. He's a student. You're freezin' man. You're shakin' bad." I was.
The white cop mumbled something to himself. He took off the handcuffs. Then he removed his long wool jacket and wrapped it around me. The black cop rubbed my shoulders.
"You guys scared the crap out of me," I confessed.
"We couldn't see you in that cubbyhole. You ducked in there like a rat. We never know. You know. We never know," the black officer replied.
"I do. I mean, I know now."
The Cambridge Police escorted me to my apartment. Unlike Professor Gates, I had the key.