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What If Gates Were An Unrenowned Jewish Black Woman?


Soon after Cambridge police arrested and handcuffed Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. on a disorderly conduct charge, they realized the black man they wanted to prosecute was a renowned academic. As a result, he was released and the charges against him were dropped.

The ensuing public debate – in which Cambridge authorities now try to justify arresting a man because he refused to comply in his own home with police directions and deny that race had any influence on how the police reacted – suggests that if an ordinary black homeowner, rather than a Harvard professor, had been arrested under these circumstances, the criminal charges would not have been dropped so readily.

Consider the pending case of Rivka – a black, very dark-skinned, extremely devout Orthodox Jewish woman. Rivka is employed in New York, spends Shabbat in Washington, and her work frequently takes her on extended trips overseas. Being single and in her mid-fifties, she rented a 3-bedroom apartment on the West Side of Manhattan, and advertised on Craigslist for female roommates willing to accept short subleases. All applicants were informed by Rivka that the apartment was strictly kosher. A special page prescribing the kashrut rules was added to the lease that each roommate signed.

The rules were followed by a series of women Rivka accepted as roommates. In July 2007, a white blond-haired girl named Brooke answered Rivka’s ad and signed a five-month lease with the kashrut provisions. Brooke promptly violated the kashrut rules and admitted, in sworn testimony, that she brought nonkosher food into the apartment in knowing violation of her signed agreement. Rivka told Brooke she would have to leave.

Having e-mailed Brooke that she had arranged, at her – Rivka’s – expense, for a hotel room where Brooke could stay while she was looking for other accommodations, and believing that Brooke had agreed to have her belongings transported to the other location, Rivka began moving Brooke’s clothing to the hotel. Brooke arrived at the apartment unexpectedly and called the local precinct, reporting, “My roommate is currently stealing stuff out of my room.”

When Rivka returned after depositing Brooke’s belongings in the reserved hotel room, she found two policemen at the apartment with Brooke. The senior police officer (who is white), testified that Rivka showed them the lease and the e-mail she had sent to Brooke, and explained that she had moved Brooke’s belongings to the nearby hotel because she had an agreement with Brooke to do so. Rivka insisted to the officers that she wanted Brooke out of the apartment. The officers testified that Rivka interrupted her conversation with them to spend ten minutes in prayer.

Rivka then left the officers and retreated to her bedroom and locked her door. The officers demanded that she come out. On her cell phone, Rivka called a friend from the Georgetown Synagogue in Washington who had a law degree but was not in private practice. He told her to ask the officers for a warrant and for their precincts and badge numbers. The white policeman said in his testimony that he “did not recall” whether he gave his precinct and badge number.

When Rivka did not emerge voluntarily from her bedroom, the sergeant called the Emergency Services Unit – the police department’s riot squad. They came in full force, with more than one dozen policemen. They broke down the door to Rivka’s bedroom, dragged her into the hall and up against the wall at gunpoint, handcuffed her, and then took her downstairs to a waiting ambulance.

The ambulance drove to a nearby hospital. One of the officers tried to have her committed to the psychiatric unit. After an examination, the hospital said there was no basis to admit her. The police then took Rivka to the police precinct, where she was permitted one phone call. She called a person she had befriended while regularly attending Shabbat services at the Georgetown Synagogue, but the arresting police officer hung up the telephone in the middle of Rivka’s call.

Rivka was then taken to another hospital, where she was handcuffed to a bed. Next morning, she was returned to the precinct. The rabbi at the New York synagogue she attends on weekdays heard of her plight and brought a kosher meal to the precinct – the first meal Rivka had since her arrest the day before.

Rivka was charged with “Obstruction of Governmental Administration in the Second Degree” and with “Unlawful Eviction.” The New York D.A.’s office refused to dismiss the charges even after all the facts were presented. The young prosecutor first demanded that Rivka plead guilty and perform community service and ultimately was willing to accept an unconditional “Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal.” Rivka refused to accept any terms other than outright dismissal because she insisted she had done nothing wrong.

The case went to a nonjury trial before a (white) judge who was a former prosecutor. He excluded much defense testimony as irrelevant and hearsay and rejected out of hand Rivka’s right to remain in her own bedroom after her discussion with the police. At the end of the trial, he found Rivka guilty on both counts and fined her $500. Rivka is appealing.

Would the police have broken the bedroom door of a white gentile and charged her with crimes after being called to a dispute between her and a roommate? Is this another instance – as the Gates arrest is said to be – of injustice against blacks, aggravated by Rivka’s Jewish identity?

Rivka is suing New York City, the policemen, and Brooke in federal court. The docket number of her case is 08 Civ. 10065. I am her lawyer.

About the Author: Nathan Lewin is a Washington, D.C. lawyer who has argued numerous cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and teaches a seminar in Supreme Court litigation at Columbia Law School.


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