Black Public Scholars

August 5, 2009

Dr. Boyce Watkins: Analyzing the “Jungle Monkey” Lawsuit

Filed under: Uncategorized — Staff @ 10:35 pm

Dr Boyce Watkins, Syracuse University

I did some commentary on CNN last week about Justin Barrett, the cop who referred to Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates as a "Banana eating jungle monkey" in an email. You can imagine my surprise when I found out that the officer is suing the city of Boston, claiming that they violated his civil rights.

As part of my assignment for media work I was doing on the topic, I read through the email by officer Barrett very carefully. The email was not written by a disciple of David Duke, a man with gallons of racism flowing through his veins. Rather, it was written by a man who seemed to hold a great deal of anger and resentment toward almost everyone. In one sentence, he was critiquing the grammar of the journalist who wrote the original Gates article. In the other, he was degrading Professor Gates in ways that a police officer should never degrade the citizens he/she is sworn to protect.

I am not angry with Barrett, I feel sorry for him. In fact, when it comes to Barrett, I offer the following thoughts:

1) There is the broader constitutional issue of whether or not Officer Barrett has a right to say what he said. We do have the First Amendment, and no one seems to clearly understand the great social price we must pay to uphold these rights. Personally, I feel that Barrett has the right to say whatever he wants, but revealing such bias while serving as a police officer becomes a completely different issue. At the same time, should it be ruled by a court that Barrett has the right to say what he says, then I would stand behind his rights as well. I guess if someone calls you a "banana eating jungle monkey," you should just say, "ya mama."

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