President Obama's prime time Press Conference was supposed to be about Health Care. While the President made his case for the health care plan making its way through the House, he also created and then exacerbated a controversy over race, Harvard, and the Cambridge Police Department.
Just in case you were on the space station and out of range of the wall-to-wall news coverage, Sgt. Crowley of the Cambridge police department responded to a call of a suspected break in at the home of Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. The call came from a neighbor who, according to initial press reports, said she saw two black males forcing their way into her neighbor's home. We now know, since the 911 call has been released that the witness, Lucia Whalen, never identified either of the men she saw as black. To be fair to the press, the initial reports were based on the Cambridge Police report which summarized the call by saying the witness had identified two black men when in fact, she said, “They were two larger men…one looked kind of Hispanic but I’m not really sure, and the other one entered and I didn’t see what he looked like at all.” Ms. Whalen went on to say, “I don’t know if they live there and they just had a hard time with their key, but I did noticed that they kind of used their shoulder to try to barge in and they got in.”
In spite of all the comments and news stories to the contrary this story is not about racial profiling. When you read the entire police report filed by Sgt. Crowley, it becomes clear it is a story about a Harvard professor who lost his cool because he believed he was the victim of racial profiling when actually, he was simply the benefactor of a neighbor’s concern.
The police report also reveals that when Sgt. Crowley arrived, he spoke to the 911 caller (Lucia Whalen) and then walked up to the door of Gates home. He was confronted by an angry Gates who initially refused to display any identification. After insulting the officer, saying unkind things about the officer’s mother, and accusing the officer of racism, Gates finally produced his Harvard I.D. card. The officer was preparing to leave but Gates continued to shout at him. Crowley wrote, “I told Gates I was leaving his residence and that if he had any other questions regarding the matter, I would speak with him outside the residence.” Officer Crowley walked outside the house only to have Gates follow him into the yard and make a public scene by hurling insults and continuing, now in the presence of witnesses, to accuse the officer of racism. Sgt. Crowley warned Gates twice to calm down. Gates refused and the officer arrested him for disorderly conduct.
At the end of President Obama's press conference on Healthcare, he was asked about the incident. He said even though he didn't have all the facts, he believed the Cambridge Police acted "stupidly" in arresting Gates. Later, when press secretary Robert Gates was asked if the President knew the question in advance and if he had delivered a prepared answer, he refused to comment.
The President’s comments created a firestorm as activists groups accused the police of brutality and Lucia Whalen, the 911 caller, of racial profiling. Sgt. Crowley has steadfastly refused to apologize saying he acted according to his training and in the best tradition of the Cambridge Police Department. The cacophony of criticism raised in response to President Obama’s use of the word “stupidly” to describe Crowley’s actions eventually forced the President to offer a quasi-apology and invite both Crowley and Gates to the White House to share a beer and talk about the state of race relations in America. Both men have accepted the invitation and the meeting is supposed to take place sometime this week.
The Rev. Al Sharpton said he was glad all three parties were going to get together so they could talk about “police brutality and racial profiling.” Now that we know from the released 911 call there was no racial profiling and from the police report there was no police brutality, I wonder if the President, Crowley, and Professor Gates will talk about the real issue…why an educated and renowned Harvard professor would explode into a fit of racially motivated rage just because a white police officer responded a call to his home to see if a crime was being committed. Instead of Gates admitting he acted like a child and President Obama admitting he jumped the gun, the solution is to get everyone together for a “kumbayah” photo-op moment and talk about issues that have nothing to do with the incident.
The fact is Gates behaved badly (behavior he should apologize for), Officer Crowley followed correct police procedure to the letter, and the President should have stayed out of it. Even if the three share a keg of beer it won’t change these simple facts and it certainly won’t do anything to improve race relations.
Dr. Tony Beam is Vice-President for Student Services and Director of the Christian Worldview Center at North Greenville University in Tigerville, South Carolina.