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Jeff Sessions Appears to Refer to Renowned Black Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as ‘Some Criminal’ in New York Times Interview

Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. holds an appointment in the African and African American Studies deparment, housed in the Barker Center.
Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. holds an appointment in the African and African American Studies deparment, housed in the Barker Center. By Kai R. McNamee
By James S. Bikales, Crimson Staff Writer

Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared to refer to prominent Black Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. as “some criminal” in an interview published by the New York Times Tuesday.

The remark apparently referred to a 2009 incident in which a Cambridge Police officer wrongfully arrested Gates for disorderly conduct as he attempted to enter his own home. The arrest prompted widespread criticism of CPD for racial profiling, leading then-President Barack Obama to invite Gates and the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, to the White House for a “beer summit.”

Sessions — who faces a tight primary contest July 14 in his bid to return to the U.S. Senate — made the remark while comparing his position on law enforcement as Attorney General with policing reforms undertaken by Obama’s Justice Department. Sessions described his philosophy on policing to the Times as “back to the men and women in blue.”

“The police had been demoralized. There was all the Obama — there’s a riot, and he has a beer at the White House with some criminal, to listen to him. Wasn’t having a beer with the police officers. So we said, ‘We’re on your side. We’ve got your back, you got our thanks,’” Sessions said, inaccurately stating that the officer was not invited to the meeting.

The Times attempted to clarify whether Sessions was referring to the beer summit with Gates, but a Sessions spokesperson “declined to elaborate.”

Gates and a Sessions spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment from The Crimson Tuesday evening.

Gates — who holds one of Harvard’s few prestigious University Professorships — directs the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" in 1981, was named one of Time magazine's "25 Most Influential Americans" in 1997, has created fifteen documentaries based on his scholarship, and currently hosts the show “Finding Your Roots” on PBS.

Sessions’ remark comes during a time of national reckoning over police brutality and anti-Black racism following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police.

Gates’ wrongful arrest likewise sparked a nationwide conversation on racial profiling by the police at the time.

In July 2009, a woman called the Cambridge police when she saw Gates and his driver trying to force open Gates’ jammed front door after returning from a trip. The officer, Crowley, arrested Gates for disorderly conduct. The charges were dropped the next week, and the district attorney’s office and the City of Cambridge released a joint statement with Gates calling the incident “regrettable and unfortunate.”

A report by the Cambridge Review Committee in June 2010 concluded race was a minor factor in the incident; instead, it blamed the arrest on missed opportunities by both Gates and officers to de-escalate the situation.

Obama commented at the time that Cambridge Police “acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home,” though he and Gates both later softened their remarks.

Gates and Crowley have met cordially multiple times since the incident — including at the White House — and Gates told New York Times Magazine this February that he does not believe Crowley is racist.

Clarification: July 1, 2020

A previous version of this article stated that a Cambridge police officer wrongfully arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. as he attempted to enter his own home. To clarify, the charrged — which was later dropped — was for disorderly conduct.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at james.bikales@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

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