President Obama will sit down for a beer at the White House Thursday night with a top African-American professor and the policeman who arrested him earlier this month.
The arrest, in response to reports of a possible break-in at the home of Harvard academic Henry Louis Gates Jr., sparked a national debate about race, class and police attitudes towards minorities. Obama himself quickly got involved, saying at a news conference that police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, acted “stupidly.” His comment itself drew criticism and later he softened his stance, saying, “I could’ve calibrated those words differently.” But Obama’s spokesman said the sight of Gates and Sgt. James Crowley sitting down with the president would be inherently productive. “I think the picture alone will communicate that despite the incident, despite what happened, despite what was said after that, we can still sit down and discuss issues that are important like this,” Robert Gibbs said aboard Air Force One on Wednesday. “We can, I think, as the president has said many times, disagree without being disagreeable, and I think it will be a poignant moment,” he said. The president will drink Bud Light, Gates will have Red Stripe, and Crowley will drink Blue Moon, Gibbs said. Gates was arrested on July 16 and accused of disorderly conduct after police responded to a report of a possible burglary at his Boston-area home. The charge was later dropped. The incident sparked a debate about racial profiling and police procedures.
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Obama has said he hoped the incident in Cambridge “ends up being what’s called a teachable moment” for the country. The president acknowledged that he had contributed to “ratcheting it up” by declaring that the police department had “acted stupidly” even though he didn’t know all the facts of the case and is a personal friend of Gates. Cambridge police had called on Obama to apologize for the remark. Obama did not apologize, but in a phone call with Crowley last week he said his choice of words was “unfortunate.” A different Boston, Massachusetts, police officer fueled the controversy by referring to Gates in a mass e-mail as a “banana-eating jungle monkey.” Officer Justin Barrett later apologized, saying he’s not a racist. He told a local television station on Wednesday night that he was sorry for the e-mail. “I regret that I used such words,” Barrett told CNN affiliate WCVB. “I have so many friends of every type of culture and race you can name. I am not a racist.” He was placed on administrative leave after the e-mail surfaced, and he might lose his job as a result.