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U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates at a White House press briefing on July 24, 2009. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates at a White House press briefing on July 24, 2009. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Obama tries to defuse racism controversy Add to ...

Barack Obama says a beer at the White House might be the way to end the furor over his claim that a Massachusetts policeman acted "stupidly" when he arrested a prominent black scholar near Harvard University.

It wasn't quite an apology, but the U.S. President moved Friday to quell the controversy, acknowledging he could have "calibrated" his words better when he suggested earlier this week that his friend, African American professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., was a victim of racial profiling.

Making a rare and unscheduled appearance at the White House briefing room, Mr. Obama said he called the white officer, Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge, Mass., Police Department, inviting him for "a beer" with Prof. Gates at the White House to settle their differences.

"Because this has been ratcheting up, and I obviously helped to contribute [to]ratcheting it up, I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think, I unfortunately ... gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sgt. Crowley specifically," he told reporters.

"And I could have calibrated those words differently."

After appearing to take sides, Mr. Obama now says both men probably wished they had handled the incident differently. And he said the phone call reinforced his belief that Sgt. Crowley is an "outstanding police officer and a good man."

Friday's surprise statement underscores how the story has become less about the professor and the police officer, and more about the President.

The controversy has overshadowed a critical week. Mr. Obama is scrambling to rally support for his signature initiative - a controversial plan to vastly expand the number of Americans with health-care insurance. The cost of the plan has run into stiff resistance in Congress, and Mr. Obama had hoped a prime-time news conference Wednesday would prod it along.

To his dismay, his comments about Prof. Gates's July 16 arrest have morphed into what he now concedes is a "media frenzy," easily eclipsing talk of health-care reform.

Mr. Obama's awkward come-down follows a forceful show of support yesterday by Sgt. Crowley's fellow Cambridge police officers.

"President Obama said that the actions of the Cambridge Police Department were stupid and linked the event to a history of racial profiling in America," Sgt. Dennis O'Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association told reporters. "The facts of this case suggest that the President used the right adjective, but directed it at the wrong party."

Sgt. Leon Lashley, a black officer who was at Prof Gates's home with Sgt. Crowley at the time of the arrest, said he supported his fellow officer's action "100 per cent."

Sgt. Crowley, 42, is a well-liked and respected officer, who teaches a course at a local police academy on how to avoid unfairly targeting minorities.

Prof. Gates, 58, similarly respected as a scholar, has protested in numerous interviews that police, after showing up to investigate a report of a break-in, singled him out for harsh treatment because he's black. He said they refused to believe his claim to being the home's resident. And he has vowed to turn the incident into a rallying cry against police mistreatment of blacks.

But the police report and subsequent accounts paint a different picture of what happened. The arresting report says a neighbour called 911 to report "two black males with backpacks" trying to pry open the front door of a house. Arriving at the scene, the uniformed Sgt. Crowley said Prof. Gates was initially belligerent and unco-operative.

First, he refused to provide identification, and then showed a Harvard University card, which has no address.

Sgt. Crowley said that when he asked Prof. Gates to step outside, the professor became enraged, hurling insults and accusing the officer of racism as a crowd of neighbours and other police gathered outside. That's when Sgt. Crowley handcuffed the professor and arrested him. The charges were dropped earlier this week.

It turns out that Prof. Gates and a friend had tried to force open the door, which had been damaged.

Follow on Twitter: @barriemckenna

 

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