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Est. April 5, 2002
September 10, 2015 - Issue 620

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“Straight Outta Cambridge”

"Cambridge is no doubt a progressive city.
However, when you scratch below Cambridge’s
surface the city maintains its race and class
boundaries not by designated “colored” water
fountains, toilets or restaurants,
but rather by its zip codes..."

Over the Labor Day weekend my spouse and I went to the Apple Cinema in Cambridge to see the much talked about N.W.A. biopic “Straight Outta Compton.”
As we exited from our row into the aisle and then out the theater door, a white moviegoer, who also saw the film, pleasantly expressed to us she was happy Cambridge didn’t have those sort of problems with its African American population. I asked her where did she lived. She said in Harvard Square on Memorial Drive.

Sadly, Cambridge has its own version of the summer blockbuster movie “Straight Outta Compton.”  If you can stomach the gangster rappers raw and raunchy lyrics for the two hour and thirty minute duration of their biopic it’s not hard to understand that N.W.A. (an abbreviation of Niggaz Wit Attitudes) are the harbingers of today’s “Black Lives Matter” movement.

With young African American males still stopped and frisked arbitrarily for their jarring style - do rags, Jheri curls, deadlocks, hoodies and the signature sagging pants exposing their underwear - and their spewing of profanities these youths are not only angry, but they are also scared for their lives and crying out for help.

Now with an appreciable distance from the shock and awe of when N.W.A in August 1988 stirred controversy with their brutal depiction of police brutality in South Central L.A.  gangster rap sadly became an urban street opera where art imitates life. And this art form caught on quickly with its vulgar, violent, sensationalist style that still is sung, danced, and played out on too many streets across America between young black males and law enforcement officials.

Cambridge, however, is not South Central L. A. While I contest that Cambridge has become a city too expensive for most people to reside in, especially for its working class and professionals, and with Cambridge’s tony enclaves sprinkling with homes at starting prices over a half million dollars, Cambridge is a city that is predominately white and upper class.

But in 2008, nearly twenty year after N.W.A rapped about over policing of black males, African-American residents of Cambridge, myself included, were not surprised nor shocked by the humiliation and harassment Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., then 58, of Harvard University encountered at the hands of Cambridge police.

And when gender identity and sexual orientation come into play, the treatment by police can be harsher. For example, my spouse, an Emergency Room physician, used to drive her new BMW (a vehicle cops believe is stolen if a black male is behind the wheel) to and from work. But she was stopped suspiciously too often for the classic case of "driving while black." And when the Cambridge cops realized she’s a woman, and a lesbian one at that, their unbridled homophobia surfaced. My spouse now takes the bus or walks to work as much as she can due to the trauma from the constant shakedowns.

These constant shakedowns of us have been deliberately on the down low to the public because Cambridge, proudly dubbed as "The People's Republic of Cambridge, is ranked as one of the most liberal cities in America. And with two of the country’s premier institutions of higher learning - Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology - that draw students and scholars from around the world, Cambridge's showcase of diversity and multiculturalism rivals that of the U.N.

Cambridge is no doubt a progressive city. However, when you scratch below Cambridge’s surface the city maintains its race and class boundaries not by designated “colored” water fountains, toilets or restaurants, but rather by its zip codes, major street intersections known as squares, like the renown Harvard Square; and residential border areas that are designated numbers, like the notorious Area 4, a predominately black poor and working-class enclave. 

But Gates doesn’t reside in that part of town but rather in the zip code area of 02138, which is Harvard Square in one of those expensive homes on a tree-lined street. Gates was perceived to be an unknown black man in this well-known, high income, and professional area of Cambridge breaking and entering into someone home and not in the city’s known and expected troubled spot of Area 4.

Area 4 has been labeled a troubled area of Cambridge, a densely populated area plagued with all the problems of urban blight and very little resources allocated to that area to ameliorate them.

Cambridge police officers assigned to this area use to unabashedly target and menacingly patrol neighborhood blocks and activities of black male residents- young and old. In 2015 the Cambridge Police Department, I’m proud to say, have done a lot of cultural sensitivity trainings. Both elected officials and police officers themselves have insisted on the trainings.

But the problem, nonetheless, persist. And the reason is just as much about this country’s horrific racial legacy between the two groups as it is also about Cambridge’s liberal ruling elite exploiting these tensions by their claims to not see race, until of course, an unknown black man appears in their neighborhood. Editorial Board member and Columnist, The Rev. Irene Monroe, is a religion columnist, theologian, and public speaker. She is the Coordinator of the African-American Roundtable of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (CLGS) at the Pacific School of Religion. A native of Brooklyn, Rev. Monroe is a graduate from Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, and served as a pastor at an African-American church before coming to Harvard Divinity School for her doctorate as a Ford Fellow. She was recently named to MSNBC’s list of 10 Black Women You Should Know. Reverend Monroe is the author of Let Your Light Shine Like a Rainbow Always: Meditations on Bible Prayers for Not’So’Everyday Moments. As an African-American feminist theologian, she speaks for a sector of society that is frequently invisible. Her website is  Contact the Rev. Monroe and BC. 

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