The summer of 2009. It was that long ago when the arrest of an African American scholar at his home by a white police officer in Cambridge, Mass., had the country choosing sides and a president convening a beer summit at the White House to cool things down.
What most remember as a political spat that ensnared Harvard University's Henry Louis Gates, Sgt. James Crowley and President Barack Obama didn't start or end that summer. When Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree -- Gates' lawyer and friend -- visited Charlotte, N.C., recently, it wasn't just to sign copies of "The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America," his book published last summer.
It was also to seek remedies for an issue so raw that it was barely touched on by the time a photo-op -- with the president, Vice President Joe Biden, Gates, Crowley and smiles all around -- took the story out of the headlines.
The point isn't that high-status black men have it tough in America -- though the book ends with a long list of PhDs, lawyers, and doctors who were pulled over and frisked, arrested or had a gun drawn on them because they "fit the description" or were thought out of place in a certain neighborhood, often their own.
Gates was arrested while Crowley was investigating a possible break-in at the professor's home. "It's a surprise to the world that a prominent Harvard University professor would be arrested in his own house," Ogletree told me. "But it says more about the broader issue that Gates is the one who has a lawyer -- me -- who has resources, who can get a positive result, and that's not the case for most people in America who are black or brown and poor.
"It reminds us that we can't focus on Gates as a success if ... women and men, black and brown, around the country can't find the same kind of justice." The answer is "to find a kind of system that's more just and more respectful of individuals."
It was the president's sentiment that the Cambridge police "acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own house" that made headlines and launched debate on whether he should have said anything at all. Lost were his comments on racial profiling and a bill he worked on in the Illinois legislature.
"That doesn't lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony," he said. "And yet, the fact of the matter is . . . this still haunts us. And even when there are honest misunderstandings, the fact that blacks and Hispanics are picked up more frequently and often time for no cause casts suspicion even when there is good cause, and that's why I think the more that we're working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we're eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody's going to be."
In a program at the Charlotte School of Law, sponsored by the school, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee, the Mecklenburg County Bar and the Community Building Initiative, Ogletree moderated a panel on the realities of race and justice in America and his belief that "in America today, race trumps class."
A police chief, district attorney, activists and lawyers who defend clients without the profile of a "Skip" Gates agreed with Obama and Ogletree that it's an essential conversation. This one took place in a city often touted as a New South model, the site of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, which will place Charlotte in an international spotlight. It's a city with a majority white population and an African-American mayor and police chief, but one where disagreements about which schools and libraries should close to balance county budgets have raised issues of race, class and privilege.
Mayor Anthony Foxx listened as Chief Rodney Monroe said that effective policing puts emphasis should "on conduct, not one's race or certain acts that people attribute to race." Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray, elected in November, said he is reaching out to civic organizations so his office can better work with community members. "Race should never be a factor" when enforcing the law, he said.
As panelists pointed out, the U.S. prison population has grown from fewer than 500,000 in the late 1970s and early 1980s to more than 2 million today, with much of the increase caused by the war on drugs. Minorities are disproportionately affected, though drug usage crosses all communities.
The country is "suffering from the over-criminalization of society and the racialization of crime," said longtime civil rights attorney James Ferguson. "When people think of crime, they think black, and increasingly Latino." Adriana Taylor of the Latin American Coalition said there are differences in the law and how it's enforced.
A police record can tag a person and follow him everywhere, preventing him from voting and getting a job or a bank loan, alienating him from society. Public defender Kevin Tully said he reminds his young minority clients of what's at stake when they insist on their right to wear a certain hairstyle or outfit to court. The people who will be judging them "watch a lot of TV," Tully tells them, where "this is what the bad guys look like." Lenny Springs, an education official with the Obama administration, said that "the television and motion-picture industry needs to take a look at themselves."
Three seniors from predominantly black West Charlotte High School -- including the class' top-ranked student who is headed to Wake Forest University -- sat in the audience as rebuke to the stereotype they said they have to face every day.
After the discussion, I had a chance to talk with Ogletree, whose seminar I took when I spent an academic year at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow. The police, he said, need help, too. "We put too much pressure on police to solve all of our problems," and "many of them have nothing to do with law enforcement."
"I think about the senior citizen in Roxbury [a black neighborhood in Boston] who sees some young black men with baggy pants pass outside her apartment building, and she knows they don't have drugs or guns, but she doesn't want to walk through them."
"She calls the police, they'll come, they'll make those young men get on the ground and they'll search them." They won't find anything and the men are upset because they didn't commit a crime, he said. "That's how we misuse the police sometimes." He said police departments don't have the training, or as much diversity, as they should have.
"Give them the resources to do prevention," Ogletree said, "get on the streets and get out of the car and make sure the community knows you're there not to just arrest but to really protect and to serve."
"That needs to be a transformative aspect of law enforcement," he said, and it's something he's optimistic will happen sometime in the 21st
century. "I've been talking to police chiefs around the country, and they're saying we need to be smarter on crime and not just tougher."
"We can focus on the dangerous people in the community, and not just stop everybody that we think might be involved in crimes," Ogletree said. "It makes everybody safer."
But the community also has to be involved, not just by cooperating with police but by doing its part to keep neighborhoods clean and safe, he said. "Pick up that trash, don't double-park here, don't leave your child at home."
As Charlotte prepares for 2012, it is trying to become known as something more than just a place for a party. The city is tackling issues of equity, access and inclusion, even if, as Springs said, "Charles Ogletree of Harvard University has to come down to get this forum to talk about it."
Click here to follow Mary C. Curtis on Twitter.