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Gates' Lawyer Challenges 'The Presumption Of Guilt'

Jun 22, 2010 (Talk of the Nation)

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In 2009, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested in front of his home in Cambridge, Mass. on charges of disorderly conduct. The charges were dismissed four days later but one of the first people Gates called after his arrest was his colleague at Harvard, Charles Ogletree.

The Presumption Of Guilt is Ogletree's book about the arrest and its aftermath. In it he argues that the incident should serve as a lesson on the abuse of power by police, and law enforcement's systemic suspicions about black men.

"We would think that, in the year 2010, we would be past these issues of confrontations, particularly between professional black men and police," Ogletree tells NPR's Neal Conan. "But the reality that this clash occurred ... means that we still have a long way to go."

In the book, Ogletree writes that the charge of disorderly conduct in this context usually means "contempt of cop." Ogletree says Gates "did mouth off to the police officer, and there's no denying that."

According to Ogletree, Gates gave the officer his Harvard identification — which has his picture — and his license — which has his picture and address. He also asked the officer, "Why are you doing this? Give me your name. Give me your badge number. I'm going to file a complaint." But as the officer refused to comply with his requests, Gates' anger and frustration grew. Ogletree says Gates "never cursed, never seemed demeaning, but had this righteous indignation that he was not respected in his own house by a police officer who could have called the Harvard University police and verified that he was in his own house — that he was not a burglar."

Ogletree sees two reasons the incident got out of hand: race and class.

"I think that some of this is a traditional town/gown problem," he says. On one side you have the working-class police officer and on the other the well-known Harvard professor.

Ogletree says, "I think the clash of those personalities on July 16 is what led to the escalation and the ultimate claim that Gates was engaged in disorderly conduct."

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