Professor Charles Ogletree
Professor Charles Ogletree is a legend throughout the country in the legal community and is an advisor, and former law professor, to President Barack and Michelle Obama at Harvard
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Sentinel Managing Editor
Professor Charles Ogletree recently wrote another book titled, “The Presumption of Guilt: the Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” The title of the book speaks to the nature of the subject matter and because the incident was, by no means, an ordinary incident/arrest, its implication reverberated all the way to the White House, and triggered what became known as ‘the Beer summit.’ After the charges against Professor Gates had been dropped, President Barack Obama invited Gates and the arresting officer for an informal chit-chat at the White House.
Both Ogletree and Gates are prominent scholars at Harvard University; they both know and are known by President Obama personally. Ogletree recently visited the Sentinel, and expounded on the book and an array of other timely topics.
Commenting on the book, Ogletree started this way, “The book, ‘The Presumption of Guilt: the Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Race Class and Crime in America,’ was based on the Gates’ arrest on July 16, 2009. I actually represented him and after everyone heard about it, I stated getting e-mails, text messages, faxes, phone calls and letters from people saying, ‘This is a major issue of racial profiling, why don’t you do something about it’. And I decided to write about it, not because of Professor Gates, but because of the fact that there are so many other faceless, voiceless, unknown African American men, who have things like this occur and they never have a chance to have anyone talk about it. So this is a book about Gates’ (arrest) as a way to look at the broader issue of racial profiling.”
According to a report by the Cambridge Massachusetts police department, Gates was arrested for a possible break-in and entering ‘his own house,’ and for disorderly conduct after “exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior at his home,” the police alleged. He accused police officers at the scene of being racist and reportedly said, “This is what happens to Black men in America.” The story then took on a life of its own …. comments were being belted all over the media, the internet, twitter and blogs including the White House.
Gates, the director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Studies, had been away from his home much of the summer while working on a documentary called “Faces of America,” and had just returned from China, and had trouble opening the front door with his key. He was arrested by police looking into a possible break-in and for disorderly conduct ‘after exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior’ at his home, according to the police officers who said that they tried to calm him down when he allegedly responded, “You don’t know who you’re messing with.”
In gauging the immediate dismissal of the charges and the so-called ‘beer summit,’ “Gates was arrested on July 16, (2009) and only me, his family and the police knew. I asked him, as his lawyer, not to say anything and he was willing to be silent,” Ogletree went on. “There was no conversation from him on July 16 thru July 20 and the charges were dismissed on July 20. The ‘beer summit’ was after the dismissal because on July 23, President had the press conference about healthcare; and he was talking about how well it was going. The very last question someone asked him was ‘you have any comment on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr.?’ He said ‘first of all, Professor Gates is a friend of mine and second, I don’t know all the facts,’ but two things changed the way that people look at him as president. He said, ‘the Cambridge police acted stupidly,’ and then went on to say that when they arrest a man in his own house and there is a reaction to that where people are saying, ‘the Black president is defending the Black professor against the working class White police officer.’ So in some sense it created a race issue when he was trying to say that this was unfair.”
“The second thing he said that was applauded by African Americans around the country was this, he said ‘ historically, there’s been a problem of racial profiling of Black and Latino men and as a state senator,’ he said ‘I supported legislation in Illinois to address the issue of racial profiling.’ So he raised the issue of racial to a national level like no one else had done before and that became a controversial issue. And Glenn Beck then said that the President doesn’t like White people basically because he supported Professor Gates.” Then out of that milieu of statements by lots of different individuals, the so-called ‘Beer Summit’ resulted – a casual meeting between Professor Gates, Sergeant James Crowley (the arresting officer), Vice President Joe Biden and the President.
Moving on to a different tone in the conversation, Ogletree began expounding on his relationship with the President, as his – and Mrs. Obama – former professor and “kitchen cabinet” advisor. The President was in the middle of his healthcare initiative when the Gates incident occurred and according to Ogletree, “what it did was take his agenda off the front burner and put it on the back burner. But I did have a chance to talk to him before that and I thought that we were on track to do some great things.”
Knowing of his close relationship with the First Family, we asked Ogletree if he is often asked to be a liaison between the President and his friends or individuals that he may meet casually. “First of all, I’m blessed to have two former students like Michelle and Barack Obama,” he said, “who are now on the national and global arena, not only to have had them as students but consider them as friends. Second, people always want the hookup … the connection. So I’m getting information via e-mails, faxes, text messages from people who I don’t even know … ‘don’t you remember me, we went to elementary school together … I’ve got this project that I think the President will love … I want the First Lady to come out and talk about x,y and z’ …
“It does work in some respects. I’m from Merced, California, and I gave the opening address at the new university there in 2005,” Ogletree continued. “The students who were graduating in 2009 contacted me because they wanted Michelle Obama to be the keynote speaker. They sent her Valentines, they sent her cards and I urged her to come as well, and she came. She saluted them for all their hard work and also gave me a ‘shout-out’ as her friend and former professor.
“And I talk to President Obama and we agree on many things,” Ogletree went on, “but we don’t agree on everything.” In the final analysis, that is to be expected; friends are not expected to agree on everything. The real friendship is to disagree without becoming disagreeable and both the President and his former professor seem to have accomplished that.
Finally, “The Presumption of Guilt” could be used as a literary teachable moment in the context of the racial profiling that is often the lot of Black Americans. Among the examples Ogletree alluded to was a practice that held sway in Maryland during the 1990s, when police were trying to intercept crack cocaine on its way through the state: ‘Police reports indicated that 70 to 75 percent of people searched on I-95 were African Americans, even though African Americans represented only 17 percent of those driving on the highway and only 17 percent of traffic violators.’ After Robert Wilkins, a member of a prominent Black family, complained, the state agreed to modify the policy. The book ended with a sampling of those who have been subjected to racial stereotyping; among them were Academy Award actor Lou Gossett and the incumbent attorney general, Eric Holder, who recalled a similar incident while driving in the 1970s, when he was a college student.