Domestic Diplomacy at a Picnic Table
Obama Hopes Chat With Gates and Policeman Will Defuse Controversy Over Arrest
Thursday, July 30, 2009
President Obama will welcome a well-known scholar and the police officer who arrested him to the White House on Thursday, in an effort to put to an end the racially charged controversy caused by the arrest near Harvard University earlier this month.
Obama, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Mass., police are scheduled to gather over beers at a picnic table outside the Oval Office, joined by their families. The White House hopes the meeting will transform a public relations misstep for the nation's first African American president into a "teachable moment" for improving the nation's race relations.
Obama invited the two men to the White House on Friday, the same day he publicly expressed regret for saying July 22 at a nationally televised news conference that Cambridge police had "acted stupidly" by arresting Gates at his home. The remark ignited a backlash from conservative commentators and law enforcement officials, who accused Obama of speaking rashly and being anti-police.
That controversy caught the White House by surprise, and initially the president, a friend of Gates's, stuck by his words. But as objections continued to build, Obama discussed it briefly with friends while at his Chicago home on Thursday, a White House official said. Later, he also discussed the issue with his wife -- who was said to be as outraged by the arrest as he was -- before deciding to step back from his original stand. Obama told reporters that both Crowley and Gates, who reportedly berated the officer, overreacted.
"He has been as clear as he can be as to why he thought it was important to talk about it again," White House spokesman Bill Burton said Wednesday. "He's glad there'll be some closure when folks come over."
On the eve of the meeting, one Obama administration official said he had experienced racial profiling. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told ABC News on Wednesday that as a college student, he was pulled over by a police officer and his car's trunk searched for weapons. He said that he felt "angry" and "humiliated," and that the incident pushed him to work to counter profiling at the Justice Department.
While Obama has recalibrated his original statement, several civil rights activists say his instincts were nonetheless correct. "Unfortunately his comments were misunderstood or less than clear," said John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "But I have not heard anyone who disagrees with the following statement: What happened in Skip Gates's house should not have happened. It's his home."
The informal meeting, where White House officials said Obama will drink a Bud Light, Crowley a Blue Moon and Gates a Red Stripe, will not attempt to address larger racial issues in more than a symbolic way.
"I hope what is essentially a photo op will trigger a broader policy response," said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights. "And it's Congress's role to take that on."
As the White House put finishing touches on the meeting, the woman whose 911 call brought Crowley to Gates's home said the past two weeks have been an emotional ordeal in which she feared for her safety after being vilified as a racist. In her first public statement since the incident, Lucia Whalen said she was hurt by such comments.
Media reports, based on the police report filed after the incident, quoted Whalen as saying that she saw "two black men with backpacks" trying to enter a home on the block where she works. In fact, Whalen said that she never mentioned race -- an assertion backed up by a recording of her 911 call -- and that her only face-to-face interaction with Crowley, the responding officer, was brief.
"The exchange was: I said I was the 911 caller. He pointed to me and said, 'Stay right there,' " Whalen told reporters, her voice breaking. "Nothing more than that."
Police in Cambridge called Crowley's report a summary of the day's events and said they stand behind it. A panel of law enforcement experts is now studying the incident.
Even as the two men agreed to meet again at the White House, Gates has remained consistent in his position that, when he was arrested July 16 for disorderly conduct (a charge that was later dropped), racial profiling occurred. And Crowley has remained consistent in his position that it did not.
Staff writer Cheryl W. Thompson contributed to this report.