Although some have decried Professor Gates as overreacting, I know, from personal experience, that what he did was an act of courage. As black boys our very earliest lesson about race and our place in America is that the police judge us as guilty until proven innocent. This is especially true when we stray from majority black neighborhoods, or, as in my case, and in the case of our President, you were raised in virtually all-white environs.
I'm forty-six-years old and to this day I half-consciously make a point to walk slowly -- innocently -- past the theft detectors of every store I exit (especially if I haven't bought anything). Even though I realize that the teenaged store clerk probably just sees me as a middle-aged shopper, I bring to the experience decades of having been followed around by overweight security guards.
I don't know any black man who either wasn't or doesn't personally know another innocent black man who was abused by the police. My college roommate's brother was pummeled by police officers when he was a student at the University of the Pacific.
And then there's me. I was twenty-six-years-old, had just moved to Santa Monica from New York, both to heal a broken heart and to begin my career in the movie business. I was living in a historic hotel room with a balcony overlooking the Pacific. A college crush was in town and we had a date to meet on the Third Street Promenade.
It was a dreamy night, full of sea air and jasmine, and as I walked the four blocks to the restaurant I contemplated creating a life here in California, who knows, perhaps even with the woman I was about to meet.
A police car passed me slowly then turned at the end of the block.
"He was definitely checking me out," I thought.
A block later that same cop had circled around the block, then zoomed past me and cut me off. As the officer, who looked still to be a teenager, stepped out of the squad car, hand on his gun, my heart went crazy in my chest.
"Good evening. Where are you going?" He asked.
"To the Promenade."
"Could I see some ID?"
I pulled out my wallet and he stared at my license with his weaponized flashlight.
"We're having reports of someone fitting your description attacking old people in the neighborhood."
He gave me back my license and drove off.
A profound sadness enveloped me. Then the anger started boiling. All the things I'd wanted to say to him rushed through me; all the things Professor Gates had said, but that at the time I'd been afraid to: "This is not all right. This is not good police work. If you really thought I was the suspect what did looking at my ID prove? You can't detain somebody because you think they look like somebody who might one day commit a crime. Do not humiliate me in my adopted neighborhood. Calmly walking down the street does not automatically make me a suspect. The color of my skin does not constitute probable cause."
I cursed myself for not getting his badge number or the license on his prowler. I cursed myself for not insisting that that kid cop do his job better.
And of course the date was a bust.