WHITE HOUSE (RPRN) 7/31/2009–U.S. President Barack Obama hosted a get-together at the White House Thursday with an esteemed African-American professor and a white police officer.Â But this was more than a social occasion: it was a chance to talk about a controversial arrest that sparked a national debate on race relations.
They met over a few cold beers at a picnic table outside the Oval Office, the president and Vice President Joe Biden dressed in shirt-sleeves in the Washington heat.Â Their conversation was casual and private – a stark contrast to the dramatic events that brought them together.
President Obama said he wanted it that way.
“This is not a summit, guys,” said President Obama. “This is three folks having a drink at the end of the day, and hopefully giving people an opportunity to listen to each other.”
It all began on July 16, when Henry Louis Gates, an African-American scholar at Harvard University in Massachusetts was trying to force open the jammed door to his home.Â An elderly neighbor became suspicious, and asked another woman, Lucia Whalen, to call the police.
“I don’t know if they live there and they just had a hard time with their key, but I did notice that they kind of used their shoulder to kind of barge in and they got in,” said Lucia Whalen.
Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge, Massachusetts police arrived on the scene.Â He says Gates became unruly and accused the white police officer of racial bias when he was asked for identification.Â Gates was then arrested for disorderly conduct – a charge that was later dropped.
The arrest made news, raising the question of whether the police treated Gates unfairly because he was African-American, or whether the Harvard professor overreacted.
But the fascination with the story exploded after President Obama told reporters he thought the Cambridge police “acted stupidly” by arresting Gates.
The president later said he should have chosen his words more carefully.
And now, he hopes his informal meeting with Gates and Crowley will remind Americans that this is just an everyday dispute between ordinary people.
“It’s an attempt to have some personal interaction when an issue has become so hyped and so symbolic that you lose sight of just the fact that these are people involved, including myself, all of whom are imperfect,” said Mr. Obama.
Later, Sergeant Crowley told reporters that the meeting was a positive step forward.
“What you had today was two gentlemen agreeing to disagree on a particular issue,” said Sergeant Crowley. “I don’t think that we spent too much time dwelling on the past, we spent a lot of time discussing the future.”
Crowley added that he and Gates plan to meet again. He said they still have a lot to talk about.
Photo credit: President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sergeant James Crowley meet in the Rose Garden of the White House, July 30, 2009. Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson.