Gates, Police Officer Share Beers and Histories With President
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.