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The Stories Below the Fold: a Reflection on Henry Louis Gates

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Jul 23, 2009

Rev. Meg RileyRev. Meg Riley is the director of Advocacy and Witness at the Unitarian Universalist Association.

I still remember where I was when the Matthew Shepard killing made national news:  rural West Virginia.  To say that I was shocked to see the headline in that paper about a gay man being brutally murdered is an understatement.

I was not shocked about the murder, mind you.  As a lesbian these past thirty years, I have marked hundreds of deaths of victims of such senseless acts of violence against GLBT people.  What shocked me was that this was presented as news, as if residents of  rural West Virginia would find it noteworthy that such a thing had happened.

This experience haunts me now, with Henry Louis Gates’ arrest for being in his own house on the front page.  The fact that it happened is not what is surprising.  The fact that it is noteworthy is.  Both Gates and Shepard could pull on other privilege besides the identity that caused them to be targeted:  privilege of class, of connection, of being the exemplary person.

Don’t misread me, I am delighted that the media is paying attention to both of these stories.  It’s just that 99 times out of 100, the victim’s profile is more complicated and they don’t have standing to get noticed.  We’re all complicated.  Some voices online would try to paint even Gates as a person who deserved what he got.

The truth is that no one deserves to be violated, to be arrested, to be oppressed, to be excluded, simply for being who they are.  That includes everyone I like and a heck of a lot of folks I don’t.  (Alice Walker:  God loves everyone you do and a mess of folks you don’t.)  Standing on the Side of Love is important in high profile cases, like this one, and I hope that the Gates arrest will create opportunities for a great deal of action against racial profiling in every town in this nation.  I intend to write a letter to my own local paper, here in Minneapolis, where the incidence of racial profiling is staggering.  I urge you to do the same.

But if we make this about Gates, we’re missing the point.  We need to speak out for the unnamed people, the ones without the connections to make all the papers.  We need to stand on the side of love with communities who live exclusion, oppression, and violence daily.  We need to learn their stories firsthand, because they will never be above the fold in the paper.

9 Responses to “The Stories Below the Fold: a Reflection on Henry Louis Gates”

  1. Bill Baar says:

    I fear you trivialize Shepard’s brutal murder by linking it to Gate’s story.

  2. chris kajzer says:

    I wasnt at mr Gates house so Im not sure exactly what went down. I have long hair and tattoos and ride a Harley. I rode back in the day where that in it self was enough to get you pulled over and told to assume the position. Since 1992 I have tried to be a good citizen, I belong to a church, PastMaster of my lodge, Scottish Rite, Shriner, but I am kinda scary looking.(I look like a biker) Im also a home owner, if someone saw me forcing my way into my home and didnt personally know me, I would hope they would call the police.
    If when the police arrive I was not cooperative, (refuse to show ID, verbaly abusive, dont follow the officers instructions) I should be taken into custody for THEIR SAFTEY!
    I quit having problems with the cops when I learned to say “yes Sir, no Sir, and answer their questions with respect. If I dont want to answer their questions I dont have to. This has consequences, being taken to jail till they can get things figured out, once again MY choice. The police have a dangerous,thanklless job that requires split second life and death decisions. Do they make mistakes? Yes. They are human. They deserve our respect!

  3. Marnie says:

    I hear you, Bill, but I’m with Audre Lorde. There is no hierarchy of oppressions.

    Does making such comparisons really help any of us?

  4. I don’t think Meg’s intent was to trivialize Matthew Shepard’s death.

    She says, “Both Gates and Shepard could pull on other privilege besides the identity that caused them to be targeted: privilege of class, of connection, of being the exemplary person.”

    To me, this illustrates how stories like these are severely underreported, and only come to light when the victim is ‘of a certain background’ and is the event is deemed newsworthy.

    True, the incident with Henry Gates doesn’t begin to compare to Shepard’s murder in terms of severity…but they both serve as examples of what it takes to get national attention for an issue. I think that was her point…but I could be mistaken.

  5. Allen Hoey says:

    Why do we assume that Gates was “targeted” at all? A possible break-in had been reported. The police are obliged to follow up. When a cop comes to the door on business, he’s not likely to look happy. He doesn’t know what’s behind that door. Gates seems to have assumed that he was being targeted from the beginning. Should the cop be able to distance himself from a civilian who’s hostile and uncooperative? Yeah, probably. In the real world, he’s human, and if you begin to run a script on him, he’s likely to become impatient.

    The cop doesn’t know Gates from any other resident on that block. Why does everyone assume that he thought Gates was guilty because he was black? First, he didn’t assume anything except that a break-in had been reported. He was investigating. Somebody reports a possible break-in at my home, I don’t want the cop to be all smiles when I answer the door. I want him to be sure that I am who I say I am. Period. To that end, I’m not going to argue. He wants me to step outside, I’ll step outside. He wants to see ID, I’ll show him what I’ve got.

    Gates immediately behaved as though he were being victimized, not thinking that, if there had been a break-in, he’d be glad the cops came and demanded proof that the guy who came to the door really lived there.

  6. As someone who is LGBT, thank you, Bill, for your concern. I have been harassed by LE for my identity and as bad as it was, it was certainly not as bad as being murdered. Your fear is noted and appreciated, but let’s be clear – the time to sort out who wins the award for “most oppressed” is AFTER oppression has ended. Time we spend sorting out whether it is harder to be an African American lesbian who is hearing impaired or an undocumented immigrant who is transgendered and HIV+, is time that the forces of oppression can continue to chew through the lives of these people. The underlying point here is that when we see these cases, they are only the tip of an iceberg that is usually hidden because, for example, Sakia Gunn wasn’t a white male with a promising future and a middle class family when murdered brutally for being queer.

  7. John says:

    Before you make a martyr out of the Gates case, it might be good to wait for all the facts to be presented to the public as there are always two sides of any story like this.

    Was the arrest about racial or other bias? Was the arrest justified? We may never know. And I agree that we can use this as a learning tool to prevent racial situation in the future.

    But before we jump on that wagon lets make sure all the facts are correct so the point you are trying to make will not be made less relevant due to an emerging and changing situation.

  8. Kat says:

    I was thinkng that too. Gates’ arrest is being talked about because he is famous and well-connected. Similar arrests, ones where the victim did even less to provoke them, happen every day and do not make the news. That we are having a national dialogue is good, but it shouldn’t be about Henry Gates.

  9. Old_Boh says:

    Do we really have the facts about what said what to whom on the Gates doorstep? I’m not sure we do.
    I have both good and bad experiences with policemen; I am happy to give them the benefit of the doubt — as having to do a hellacious job for me and my neighbors; but when we run into a bullying out -of-line cop, I wish they would not just sweep it under the rug.

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