A Tale of Two Cities

It’s only about an hour drive, on a good day, from Braintree to Cambridge, Massachusetts, but they are worlds apart. And, it’s not so much a question of geography, but of race.

In late July,2009, you’ll recall, a distinguished professor of African-American studies at one of the oldest, and best universities in America, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested, and detained by Cambridge police for several hours after they were called to investigate what looked like a home robbery in an affluent residential part of the city. Before leaving campus, Dr. Gates apparently lost his house keys, something that happens to most of us at one time or another, and only aroused suspicion when he tried to force his way into his own house. A neighbor spotted him, and called police.

The Harvard professor was arrested, once inside and after producing irrefutable proof of identity including his driver’s license, and Harvard I.D. card, according to Boston.com. The arresting officer booked Gates for disorderly conduct after “exhibiting loud and tumultous behavior” which allegedly involved screaming and name-calling.

Now fast rewind to 1986, and have a look at the treatment another professor, Amy Bishop, received at the hands of Braintree police who showed up at her family residence after as a youngster she shot, and killed her brother. According to the AP, there were no ballistics tests done after the shooting, and more than a week elapsed before authorities even questioned members of Bishop’s family about the murder.

The death of Amy Bishop’s 18 year old brother, Seth, was ruled accidental, the case was closed, and the police file mysteriously vanished into thin air. It is only in the wake of this University of Alabama biology professor’s recent killing spree, that claimed the lives of three of her colleagues, that anyone has called for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding her brother’s death.

What’s more, not only did Bishop put a bullet in her brother’s chest, she then went to a local car dealership, pointed the shotgun at employees, and demanded a getaway car for which she was caught, but never charged.

When they were finally questioned by police about the shooting, the Bishop family backed their daughter up when she said she was only trying to learn how to load a shotgun. Mission accomplished. The families of three of her colleagues will attest to that.

What we learn from the incidents in Braintree and Cambridge is that prosecution is selective.

Braintree’s current district attorney now says that even if the shooting had been accidental, there was probable cause to arrest Bishop in 1986, and charge her with assault with a dangerous weapon, carrying a dangerous weapon, and possession of a firearm. Why was the case summarily dropped, and the file lost?

And, a larger question is — how far have we come, really, when a Harvard professor, who happens to be black, loses his keys and is arrested in his own house, after producing documentation proving that he is the home owner, is held for several hours, and only released when it is discovered that not only is he a distinguished professor and scholar, but a friend of a sitting president? Think about the fact that Professor Gates’s arrest, and detention, comes nearly a quarter of a century after a young woman shoots and kills her brother, under suspicious circumstances, then terrorizes a car dealership, for which she is neither charged nor investigated.

Who would think, even for an instant, that had Henry Louis Gates, Jr. been a white man trying to gain access to his home in a quiet, residential part of Cambridge that he would have been humiliated by being booked, and having to serve several hours at his local police station?

Those who talk about racial profiling are right, but there is another factor at play here which is that not only race, but socioeconomic status played a role in the instant vindication of a young woman who clearly grew up to think that she could get away with anything, and she would have had it not been for her university’s refusal to grant her tenure.

The sooner the criminal justice system faces up to the egregious, and grossly unfair arrest and conviction rates of people of color as compared with their white middle class counterparts, the better.

What happened that day in the picket fence house of a suburb 75 miles outside of Boston is no more representative of that town than the arrest of a Harvard professor on charges of house burglary represents life in Cambridge. This is not about geography, but preconceptions on the part of law enforcement, and the courts. Such prejudice needs to be scrupulously examined, and quickly overcome.

JAYNE LYN STAHL is a widely published poet, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter, member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA.


JAYNE LYN STAHL is a widely published poet, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter, member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA.