Thursday, July 23, 2009

Who is my Neighbor?

So, the whole situation with Henry Louis Gates Jr. keeps perking on. I find this story a very sad one indeed. I have no doubt that there is an element of racial profiling at work--the policeman in question says that Professor Gates was unruly, but would he have thought a past middle-aged white man to be unruly if he were upset, standing on his own front porch?

In all the hullabaloo this story has generated, there is a missing piece. I have heard nothing about the anonymous neighbor who made the 911 call, saying that two BLACK men were trying to break into a nearby house.

For me, the real crux in this story is how well connected was this neighborhood that Professor Gates lived in? Did the person who made the call not know what the professor looked like? Did that person (reported to be a white woman) not know what her neighbor looked like?

Maybe I am too spoiled by my neighborhood--I know most everyone in this neighborhood. Even if I don't know their names, I know their dogs' names, their children's names. True--I might refer to the house as the place where two dogs live, or where the crazy poodle lives. But I know who lives where.

I know when people are away--not because they tell me, but because there is no activity around this house. Maybe the fact that I go for several walks a day with my dog helps.

But, I keep thinking about the professor Gates' story. How long has he lived in that part of Cambridge. Reportedly the woman who called 911 also works for Harvard. Is she so unaware that she doesn't know what a world famous scholar looks like? I have never met Professor Gates, but I know what he looks like.

In many ways, beyond the comment of what this story might say about the built-in set of assumptions almost all of us carry around about someone whose race differs from our own, there is a sad loss of community as a concept.

I appreciate that the woman made the call--it is reported that Professor Gates' house had been broken into earlier, so perhaps she was hyper-aware. But the story still speaks to a loss of community.

Maybe I should confess that I am curious (some people might say nosy) about the on-going lives in my community. I don't mean that I want the low-down and dirty on my neighbors. I just want all to be well in my small corner of the world. If a newspaper sits outside for too long, or if a trash can is not moved from the curb up to the house, I will place the newspaper on the front step or move the trash can to the garage side.

And when I see people I do not recognize in our neighborhood, I try to be cordial. We live in a very small community bounded on the east and the west by large apartment complexes. Our streets make for convenient cut-through between these points. So I frequently see young people, usually young men --some of whom are black, walking through. If I am doing something outside, I make it a point to say--Hi. I don't assume they are up to something bad.

That's the missing piece for me. Where is the sense of community in the Louis Gates' story?

Let's hope that this current news story doesn't spill over into something more toxic.


Jayne said...

I'd say the truth is somewhere in the middle. I am sure Professor Gates was firstly frustrated that he'd locked himself out, but then when confronted by officers once he was in his home asking him who he was, I am sure his frustration boiled over. As he was showing them ID, I am sure he was probably verbalizing his frustration about being seen as suspicious in his own home, and the officers, who probably should have realized his frustration (and once they SAW he was the homeowner), and tried to diffuse the situation instead of then getting "one up" on him for venting his frustration by charging him with "disorderly conduct." Everyone should have taken a deep breath and reassessed, including Professor Gates, after all, what if it HAD been intruders in his home?

It is sad, though, like you pointed out, that his neighbors did not know it was him.

Anvilcloud said...

I wasn't aware of this story until now. Interesting. We're in townhouses with a lot of neighbours, so for the most part I am just familiar with the folk in our section.

warriormom said...

An interesting "rest of the story" observation I had not thought of. In a world with lots of cyber connections, it does seem physical connections are sadly lacking. I am, however, disappointed that the President felt the need to comment about it during the press conference and how unfortunate that neither man could back down and breathe.

Anonymous said...

Makes me glad I am living in a small town. When we lived in Palo Alto, another large college town!, I would have been hard pressed to recognize my neighbros and would have been surprised if any of them called the police for suspicious activity. Here, though, my neighbors know as much about me that if we went out of town unexpectedly, I know my mail would be picked up, my trash cans put out, and the dog feed if we had to leave her. I know someone would notice if someone unexpected showed up. It helps that 3 of my neighbors are retired or work at home. Being aware of neighbors isn't a bad thing.

NCmountainwoman said...

This is a sad story on so many fronts. I have no doubt that given a chance to repeat their actions, both sides would have acted differently and the President would have declined to comment. The point you make is a good one. What a shame the woman did not recognize her neighbor.

I have lived in many different neighborhoods, some more friendly than others. But I have never lived in an area in which I did not know my neighbors at least by sight. Right now we have very friendly neighbors. No one goes away for more than a day without letting the neighbors know.

We are known by name by everyone on our street. Around the rest of the community, we are known as the couple with the two Golden Retrievers, or Ellie and Lucy's mom and dad.

Climenheise said...

Your comments resonate with me. I am glad someone was watching Gates' house and called the police; but couldn't they tell who it was? And when the situation escalated, couldn't they come forward and vouch for their neighbour?

I wish I could see how to avoid the situation. I wish I knew what the officer in the case would do if he faced the same situation again. I know that his adamant refusal to consider any apology did more to persuade me that he may have been wrong than anything in the original report. I get suspicious when I'm supposed to think that anyone simply couldn't get it wrong. That idea is so unlike life as I have experienced it.

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

You are right. It would be interesting to know what the lady who made the complaint did after the fact. I would like to think that afterwards she went over to Mr Gates and said she made the call and that she did not recognize the two of them trying to get into his house. She may Have express regret as to how things worked out. I think I am dreaming here.

Having lived in Boston, no misbehaviour by the police surprises me. The police force is made up of working class Irish and Italians from tight knit neighbourhoods. Boston is a racist city. If you are black and get caught in North Boston(Italian) or South Boston(Irish) after dark you are at risk of arrest, a beating or death.

I had a minister friend who complained about police behaviour. He asked me to be with him when two policemen from the Policemen's Benevolent Association (Union) came to see him. They basically threatened him saying they have successfully prosecuted those who complain about the police. They had a paper with them that said the person the police were beating up wrote that the police did not do anything to him. They also told us his charges were torn up. My friend withdrew his complaint.

In the Black community the police alway showed up in force. (There were at least four at Gates and I suspect many more policeman). I witness this first hand one night in Roxbury when I was awaken by flashing lights. The police were at a place in front of my house. In the middle of the night I went out to see. I was the only white person on the street except for the dozen or more policemen who were all white. There were 6 or 8 vehicles, three of them paddy wagons. It turned out the problem was a sick woman on an upper floor. They brought her down sitting on a chair. As they passed me I heard the policeman say, "Where to do take this fucking one?" Such is that attitude of those who "protect and serve" in Boston.

Even the FBI office in Boston was corrupt and protected Whitey Bulger, the head of the Irish mob in South Boston. He is still at large while on the most wanted list. (Google his name some time.

Mauigirl said...

The same thought crossed my mind as well when I heard about this. I had read it was a "passerby" who called 911 but then she stayed there when the police came, etc., so it made me think she actually is a neighbor or she might not have hung around. It's sad that someone might not know their neighbor; but of course Cambridge is a more urban environment and it's not as likely everyone would recognize their neighbors there. I definitely think racism was involved both by the caller and the police. I suppose Mr. Gates may have overreacted but after a lifetime of racism he may just have been understandably sensitive to the issue.

Ginnie said...

I think this is a perfect example of how things can get muddied up. It seems to mimic what is going on every day somewhere in our nation.

dog-geek said...

What saddens me is that people are leaping to conclusions about the woman who saw what looked by all accounts like a break-in in progress, and did the right thing by calling the police. I guess no good deed goes unpunished, because I have seen people, even in these comments, accuse her of being a racist for making the call (even though she apparently didn't really say it was "two black men") and maligning her for not knowing everyone in the neighborhood and being able to recognize them with their backs turned, (even though one the men was NOT a neighbor, but a car service driver, and even though it is not clear that she actually lived right there.)

Not to pick on you, KGMom, but I doubt that everyone who lives in those apartment complexes who uses your street as a shortcut would recognize everyone who lives in the houses on your street, even though they live close by. Still, if they are driving or walking past and see what looks like a break-in, I would hope they would call the police.

I feel awful for that poor woman who absolutely did the right thing by calling the police, only to have total strangers across the nation making assumptions about her and ascribe horrible motives to her. She saw what looked like a break-in. What should she have done?

amarkonmywall said...

I just forwarded this onto my husband, Rich, who has been researching community life in America ( It's a good piece that speaks directly to the whole issue of well we live as neighbors- and how we sometimes fail. Thanks, Donna.

RuthieJ said...

You know Donna, I thought exactly the same thing when I heard it was a neighbor who called.
I know all my neighors--especially their dogs! (Of course we've lived here over 20 years too, so that helps.) It's unfortunate that some people just don't have the time or chances to get to know their neighbors anymore.