President Obama acted yesterday to defuse the intense racial controversy over the arrest of the black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates by personally calling the white police officer involved – and raising the prospect of all three of them getting together for a beer at the White House.
The president made his surprise appearance before the press hours after the row had taken a dramatic new turn, when a multiracial group of police officers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Mr Gates was arrested, demanded Mr Obama apologise for criticising the policeman involved.
The president had waded into the affair on Wednesday when he said Sgt James Crowley "acted stupidly" during the arrest at the professor's home. But yesterday he said he should have chosen his words more carefully.
As the affair threatened to escalate, Mr Obama called Sgt Crowley. Though he does not appear to have apologised, the president suggested he may invite both the police officer and the professor to Washington for a drink.
Mr Obama added, "because this has been ratcheting up – and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up – I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sgt. Crowley specifically, and I could have calibrated those words differently."
The affair, which began when a passer-by reported that Mr Gates, who had found his front door jammed when he returned from a trip, was trying to break into the house, has transfixed the country, rubbing some of the rawest nerves in America's unending debate on race.
All along, Sgt Crowley has insisted he had no alternative, saying the professor, one of the best-known academic figures in the US, was in a "very agitated state... yelling about racism and black men in America," when police arrived at his home last week to investigate reports of a suspected break-in.
But Mr Gates has also given no ground. He maintains he was never unruly and did nothing wrong – certainly nothing to justify being handcuffed and taken to the local station where he was charged with disorderly conduct. The arresting officer by contrast had been "disrespectful" from the outset.
Yesterday Dennis O'Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, said President Obama's remarks were "misdirected", and that the Cambridge police "deeply resent the implication" that race was a factor in the arrest.
In the black community the affair has been seen as proof that racial profiling – the practice whereby race is deemed grounds for suspicion of criminal behaviour – is alive and well in the US, whatever the official protestations to the contrary.
Sgt Crowley has been almost unanimously backed by his peers. His commissioner describes him as "a stellar member" of the Cambridge Police Department.Reuse content