By Cheryl W. Thompson, Krissah Thompson and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 31, 2009
Two weeks after a noted black scholar accused a white police sergeant of racial profiling for arresting him at his home near Harvard University, the men hoisted mugs of beer Thursday evening at the White House with President Obama and Vice President Biden.
Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Mass., police sat at a round table in the Rose Garden with Biden and Obama talking, sipping beer and munching peanuts and pretzels out of silver bowls. News cameras and reporters were kept 50 feet away and allowed to view the meeting for less than a minute before being shooed away as the men began their conversation.
It was an extraordinary scene that Obama's aides hoped would convey a hopeful message about race relations and end a controversy that has ballooned into a major distraction for a president pushing an ambitious agenda.
After the meeting, Crowley and a lawyer speaking for Gates said the two men were satisfied with the tone of the discussion. Speaking to reporters at a brief news conference, Crowley said that while there was "no tension" at the meeting, no apologies were offered either. "Two gentlemen agreed to disagree on a particular issue," he said.
Gates left without speaking to reporters, but his lawyer offered an upbeat assessment of the gathering. "Everybody left with the sense that we learned some things and we can make important changes," said Charles Ogletree, Gates's attorney and a professor at Harvard Law School. "It was a chance to make sure we hear the law enforcement and the community, and out of that will come more acceptance and realizing the differences are not that far apart."
Crowley said he and Gates agreed to be in touch by telephone and to meet again in the future.
"I am thankful to Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley for joining me at the White House this evening for a friendly, thoughtful conversation," Obama said in a statement.
Before the meeting, the president said he had invited the men to the White House in an effort to lower the temperature on an incident that has become "so hyped and so symbolic."
Obama characterized the meeting as "having a drink at the end of the day and hopefully giving people an opportunity to listen to each other," Obama said. "That's really all it is."
But, aides acknowledged, the White House also saw it as an opportunity to quell a controversy that was beginning to eclipse coverage of important initiatives, including Obama's proposal to restructure the nation's health-care system.
The incident began to dominate news coverage after Obama accused police in Cambridge of "acting stupidly" when he was asked about the arrest of his friend Gates at a prime-time news conference July 22. Obama's comment catapulted the episode into a national controversy and cast the nation's first African American president in the uncomfortable role of taking sides in a racially tinged incident about which he acknowledged he did not know all the facts.
Obama's remarks prompted police union officials in Cambridge to call for an apology from the president, while civil rights leaders applauded him for addressing a problem that has touched the lives of many African Americans.
After initially dismissing the clamor over his remarks, Obama came before reporters less than 48 hours later to "recalibrate" his statement and make clear that he thought that both Crowley and Gates had "overreacted" during their confrontation.
Apparently, however, the president had already suffered some political damage. A new poll by the Pew Research Center found that 41 percent of Americans disapprove of the president's comments, compared with 29 percent who approve.
Gates, 58, was arrested in his Cambridge home on July 16 after Crowley responded to a 911 call about a possible burglary there. Gates had just returned from a trip to China and had trouble getting in his front door, and he and the Moroccan driver who retrieved him from the airport jimmied the lock and forced open the door. A woman who saw the men called police to report a possible break-in.
When Crowley arrived, he questioned whether Gates lived in the home and demanded identification. Gates became upset and the two got into a verbal altercation that ended with Gates's arrest on disorderly conduct charges. The charges were later dropped.
Thursday evening, the two men were in suit coats enjoying a beer with Obama and Biden, who were both in shirt sleeves as they sat in the Rose Garden. The men were served beer in glass mugs by White House butlers: Sam Adams Light for Gates and Blue Moon for Crowley, Bud Light for the president and Buckler for Biden.
Before the meeting, the men spent time getting to know each other and were accompanied by their families for a joint tour of the White House. As they talked, the two men focused on their families and their histories in Cambridge, Ogletree said. "It was forward-looking, not focused on the past," Ogletree said. "They were just trying to find some common ground. It was a very warm, frank and quite open discussion."
As Gates and Crowley met with Obama, Ogletree met with Alan McDonald, the lawyer for the police unions in Massachusetts, and other law enforcement representatives from Cambridge to talk about how both camps can work together.
The incident not only forced the issue of race and law enforcement into the national spotlight, but it also prompted police departments around the country to take a closer look at their training protocols.
"I will go over our racial profiling orders just to make sure we're doing everything according to the rules and regulations," said Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington. "It doesn't mean that anything's wrong with our rules, but this is a good time to go back and make sure officers are . . . affording people their civil rights."
John Foust, director of academic training for the D.C. police, said the Cambridge incident made the agency reassess its curriculum.
"It made us take a second look to make sure we have the important topics covered," Foust said.
The D.C. police department requires recruits to take courses in diversity and racial profiling, as well as hate and bias crimes.
Maj. Huey Thornton of the Montgomery, Ala., police said the Gates-Crowley incident is being discussed among officers and in staff meetings.
"I don't think any department would like to find themselves in a situation like that," Thornton said. "It shows the scope of what you're subject to get involved in while responding to calls for service. And whatever training you've received, it's what you should always rely on. That's the teachable moment."