Cold Drinks, Race Talks With ObamaAug 1st, 2009 | By Rebecca | Category: Featured Articles, News, Politics
A pre-eminent black Harvard University professor and the white police sergeant who arrested him for disorderly conduct in his own home sat down last night for a beer with Barack Obama, the US president, to discuss the incident that has sparked intense debates on race relations.
James Crowley, the police officer, said the discussion – mainly between himself and Henry Louis Gates, the professor – was cordial.
“It was business, but discussing it like two gentlemen instead of fighting it out either in the physical sense or in the mental sense,” the Cambridge, Massachusetts police officer told reporters after the meeting at the White House.
“Professor Gates and I bring different perspectives to these issues, and we have agreed that both perspectives should be addressed in an effort to provide a constructive outcome to the events of the past.”
The unusual meeting, dubbed a “beer summit,” follows the media frenzy surrounding the July 16 arrest of Mr Gates, who was seen trying to break into his own home, and comments by Mr Obama that the police had “acted stupidly” in arresting the professor after it was established he was not a burglar.
Mr Obama acknowledged that he did not have all the facts and that Mr Gates was a friend, but the qualifications further fueled the storm of outrage sparked by his comments, with conservatives accusing him of racism and political analysts mulling how major a public misstep this was for the president.
Although the disorderly conduct charges were later dropped, Mr Gates has said they would not have been brought in the first place against a white man.
Sgt Crowley and his supporters, however, maintain he was simply following protocol and was not motivated by race. The officer teaches a Police Academy course on racial profiling at the request of a black police commissioner, and his local police department, including black officers, expressed their support for him.
Already losing ground in his approval ratings, Mr Obama may be weighed down further by his handling of the Gates arrest issue, new polls suggest.
By Monday, 41 per cent of Americans disapproved of the president’s handling of the situation, while 29 per cent approved, according to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan organisation. The poll also found 27 per cent of the people surveyed thought Mr Gates was more at fault for the arrest, while 25 per cent thought Sgt Crowley was more at fault.
“President Obama took sides in a controversy,” said Brian Darling, of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “It’s playing out in the court of public opinion.”
Colin Powell, the former US secretary of state who some thought would be the first black president, said earlier this week that his long-time friend, Mr Gates, should have reflected on whether it was appropriate to “make that big a deal” out of the situation.
“The first teaching point is, when you’re faced with an officer trying to do his job and get to the bottom of something, this is not the time to get in an argument with him,” Mr Powell, a career military man who supports Mr Obama, told CNN’s Larry King on Tuesday.
“I was taught that as a child. You don’t argue with a police officer.”
Sam Fulwood, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank, questioned whether this attitude of blanket deference to the police should be accepted.
“Where is it said that you can’t criticise the police?” he asked. “I think it raises some serious questions about free speech more than racial profiling.”
In a written statement published after the men had met, Mr Gates said he was grateful to “live in a country in which police officers put their lives at risk to protect us every day” and also one “where freedom of speech is a sacrosanct value”.
“It is incumbent upon Sgt Crowley and me to utilise the great opportunity that fate has given us to foster greater sympathy among the American public for the daily perils of policing on the one hand, and for the genuine fears of racial profiling on the other hand,” he said in the statement posted to his online magazine, The Root.
In a statement issued by the White House, the US president pulled at least one lesson from the moment: “I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart,” he said. “I am hopeful that all of us are able to draw this positive lesson from this episode.”
NOTE: Story edited slightly from original.