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Was Barack Obama stupid to call Cambridge police stupid?

July 23, 2009 |  2:56 pm
Henry Gates

(UPDATE: An updated paragraph appears below.)

Known privacy advocate and property rights conservative Barack Obama has walked into a simmering Boston-area racial incident with his surprising news conference comments about local police stupidity. And the waves washed outward further today, causing a distraction to his more important agenda, healthcare reform.

Lynn Sweet, a very savvy Chicago political reporter who knows Obama's sensitivities from his Illinois state Senate days when he worked on racial profiling issues, asked the president, seemingly strangely, about a recent disorderly conduct arrest in Cambridge, Mass. On the surface that issue would not seem to merit attention, as one of only 11 questions at a nationally televised White House news conference with the president of the United States.

However, as Sweet well knew, the arrestee was black. A respected academic. Also -- here's the key -- a friend of Obama's. The officer was white. It was July 16. Apparently a neighbor saw someone in a T-shirt breaking into a nearby home. It happened to be the owner himself, but who knew then?

The police arrive, wearing bulletproof vests, not without reason in modern America, especially on a  "crime in progress" call. They demand ID. It's produced. But then something got said.

Unlike roadside stops, we don't have dashboard video of the altercation. And the Fox "Cops" crew wasn't present either. Safe to say, however, it involved a perturbed, probably embarrassed, likely tired homeowner, who happened to be black, being confronted and handcuffed in his own house by a wary, probably suspicious, certainly stressed police officer, who happened to be white.

As even the most ignorant teenage driver has been instructed by non-Harvard-trained parents, when confronted by authorities packing badges and large guns, assume the obedient fetal position, oozing respect until things get straightened out calmly.

But this is America 2009, which may have elected a black president last November, but still harbors racial resentments and fears on both sides. As the president described -- and perhaps revealed.

As usual, The Ticket published a transcript of the entire presidential news conference. Here's the actual question, the last of the evening, from Sweet of the Sun-Times in Chicago, a city that knows a little about tough policing and racial problems:

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. Recently, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested at his home in Cambridge. What does that incident say to you and what does it say about race relations in America?

OBAMA: Well, I should say at the outset that Skip Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here. I don't know all the facts. What's been reported though is that the guy forgot his keys, jimmied his....

...way to get into the house. There was a report called in to the police station that there might be a burglary taking place. So far, so good, right? I mean, if I was trying to jigger into -- well, I guess this is my house now, so...(LAUGHTER)... it probably wouldn't happen. But let's say my old house in Chicago. (LAUGHTER)

Here, I'd get shot. (LAUGHTER)

But so far, so good. They're -- they're reporting. The police are doing what they should. There's a call. They go investigate what happens.

My understanding is, at that point, Professor Gates is already in his house. The police officer comes in. I'm sure there's some exchange of words. But my understanding is, is that Professor Gates then shows his I.D. to show that this is his house and, at that point, he gets arrested for disorderly conduct, charges which are later dropped.

Now, I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that.

But I think it's fair to say, No. 1, any of us would be pretty angry; No. 2, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, No. 3, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there's a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.

That's just a fact.

As you know, Lynn, when I was in the state Legislature in Illinois, we worked on a racial profiling bill because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately. And that is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in the society.

That doesn't lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that's been made. And yet the fact of the matter is, is that, you know, this still haunts us.

And even when there are honest misunderstandings, the fact....

 
...that blacks and Hispanics are picked up more frequently and often time for no cause casts suspicion even when there is good cause.

And that's why I think the more that we're working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we're eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody is going to be. All right? Thank you, everybody.

Now, Obama could have avoided any controversy by acknowledging his friendship with Gates from his own Harvard days and simply saying he didn't know all the facts. In fact, the president did say just that.

But, uncharacteristically, as Sweet may have suspected by her leading question, Obama went on to wade into the as yet unproven racial aspect of the incident and, not only that, but to presidentially prejudge the case by saying Cambridge police acted stupidly while admitting he did not know all the facts.

The police officer, Sgt. James Crowley, said today he was disappointed by the president's comment.

"I support the president to a point, yes," Crowley said. "I think it's disappointing that he waded into what should be a local issue and something that plays out here. As he himself said ... he doesn't know all the facts."

Crowley's chief stood behind the sergeant as following proper procedures, noted that he's experienced and, in fact, an instructor for other officers and organized a community commission to examine the incident for possible lessons.

The White House today tried to somewhat soften the president's remarks by saying he was not calling the officer stupid. Just the entire department. And Obama further questioned handcuffing a middle-aged man in his own home, while also expressing disingenuous surprise that his objective comments describing racism caused such a stir.

Now, about the law enforcement vote next time.

(UPDATE: 8 p.m. In an interview with Gayle King today on Sirius XM Radio, Gates said he was dining last evening in Manhattan when his BlackBerry began buzzing with the first of some 500 overnight e-mails informing him of the president's statement. "There's nothing I could have done to justify Sgt. Crowley's actions.")

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: Associated Press (Gates). Video courtesy of C-SPAN.

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