After Arrest, Cambridge Reflects on Racial Rift

By Krissah Thompson and Cheryl W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 2009; 5:22 PM

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The town where a white police officer and a black scholar ignited a national conversation on race and law enforcement has started to open the dialogue that President Obama invited.

Before summer's end, the mayor, district attorney and police officials will convene a forum to grapple with the controversy over the arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Sgt. James Crowley -- which exploded into a divisive debate that drew in the president.

Obama, who spoke to both men last week, called it a national "teachable moment" on a "troubling aspect of our society." Gates said in an e-mail statement that he accepts Obama's invitation to begin talking and wants to work with the Cambridge Police Department.

A meeting between Gates and Crowley, hosted by Obama at the White House, could take place "in the next several days," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Sunday on Fox News.

"It's our hope that as the president said . . . this can be part of a teachable moment, that we can create a better communication and a dialogue between communities and police and help everyone do their job a little bit better," Gibbs said.

Residents of Gates's neighborhood, mostly upper middle-class whites and a transient but diverse group of students in university housing, have begun pondering the meaning of the incident. Other questions also have emerged: What does it mean to have the nation's first black president involved? Will the discourse have lasting impact on the relationship between police and blacks and Latinos?

"It's disappointing," said Lawrence Neely, a 33-year-old doctoral student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who lives in a university-owned apartment building next door to Gates's yellow wood-frame house. "We're in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We have an African American mayor. We have an African American governor. We have an African American president, and just looking at the situation strictly at face value -- without getting into who is right and who is wrong -- we are now having a conversation about the question of whether one of the most influential African American scholars in the country has been racially profiled. It all makes it clear that this is still a reality."

Though others have been critical of Obama's role, Neely, who is black, said he was glad that the president weighed in and hopes the conversation on race will not go back underground.

People in the neighborhood are friendly and speak to one another, Neely said, but he considers the horde of reporters and television cameras outside Gates's home during the weekend a reminder that the deeper issues of race are still little discussed.

Much is known about Gates's arrest on the charge of disorderly conduct, which was later dropped, but the folks who live here acknowledge that the incident did not happen in a vacuum.

Demographically, Cambridge is a liberal college town of about 101,000 people -- 65 percent white, 11.5 percent black, 12 percent Asian and about 7 percent Hispanic. The divide between the intellectual university affiliates and the rest of the mostly working-class residents is "from time to time quite tense," said Priscilla McMillian, a civic activist and historian who is white.

Merritt Harrison, a 75-year-old white man who lives around the corner from Gates, said that he understands why the police feel defensive, but that he probably would have had the same reaction as Gates if a police officer had showed up at his home and suspected him of being a burglar.

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