Obama on Harvard prof arrest - 'Race still haunts us'
Jul 23, 2009, 23:57 GMT
Washington - US President Barack Obama has jumped into the growing storm over police and racism sparked by last week's wrongful arrest of a high-profile Harvard professor who is black.
Answering a question at the end of a news conference Wednesday night, the country's first black president said police 'acted stupidly' and that the arrest showed that 'race remains a factor in this society' and 'still haunts us.'
At issue was the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr, a leading scholar and one of the country's top authorities on African-American history.
Police responded to a call from a neighbour who reported that a black man was trying to break into Gates' home. In fact, it was Gates himself, arriving home late at night from China, where he had been filming a public television documentary.
His front door was stuck shut, and Gates enlisted help from his taxi driver to assist in prying it open. When police arrived, they demanded that Gates identify himself and an altercation ensued.
The white police officer, Sergeant James Crowley, arrested him for disorderly conduct and took him to the police station to book him. The charges were later dropped.
Gates has demanded an apology and launched a protest campaign, calling his arrest an 'educational opportunity for America.' In broadcast remarks Thursday, he called Crowley a 'rogue policeman.'
'If this can happen to me in in Harvard Square, this can happen to anybody in the United States,' Gates said. 'What it made me realize is how vulnerable black men are ... vulnerable to capricious forces like rogue policemen, and this man was a rogue policeman.'
In his remarks Wednesday night, Obama admitted he may be 'a little biased' because Gates is a personal friend. He joked that if he was 'trying to jigger into (his) old house in Chicago' police would likely be called on him too.
'Here I'd get shot,' he said of the White House.
Obama praised police for 'doing what they should' by responding to the report and admitted he had not seen all the facts to know exactly 'what role race played' in the incident.
'But I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge Police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and number three, what I think we know, separate and apart from this incident, is that there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact.'
Obama said that his presidency was 'testimony to the progress that's been made,' but that didn't change the fact that 'race remains a factor in this society.'
One of the most stark examples of police racism occurred in May in New York, when police shot a black off-duty police officer who was chasing someone who had broken into his car.
Obama said that racial profiling 'still haunts us. And even when there are honest misunderstandings, the fact that blacks and Hispanics are picked up more frequently and oftentime for no cause casts suspicion even when there is good cause.'
White police officer Crowley Thursday refused to criticize Obama for the 'acted stupidly' remark, according to a Boston Globe report about a radio interview Crowley gave.
But Crowley said it was 'regrettable' that anyone would speak without knowing the 'whole story.'
'The president has a lot of other daunting tasks ahead of him,' Crowley was quoted as saying. 'I wish for the good of the whole country that he is successful in efforts to do the many things that he has to.'
Last year, the presidential candidates ran campaigns remarkably free of racial invective, despite Obama's historic candidacy.
In a speech in Philadelphia, where the US Constitution was drawn up - a document that originally gave only white property-owning males a voice - Obama appealed to Americans to get beyond divisions and tackle the country's major problems. He addressed black anger as well as white resentment in the March 2008 speech.
Obama proved on election day last November that he was a bridging, unifying force, attracting white voters in predominantly white Midwestern states as well as black voters in the deep South.