Obama’s Beer Party

Last week if you have listened to the American media, you could not have missed this single most important event of the week – President Barack Obama’s beer party in the White House! Every other news item seemed to get relegated to not-so-important status while the nation was abuzz with this one. So, what did really happen, leading to the White House beer party?

Well, the story goes like this. According to a Cambridge, Massachusetts police report, on Thursday afternoon, July 16, 2009, a white woman reported seeing a man "wedging his shoulder into the front door as to pry the door open." [Apparently, the white neighbor did not know the owner – Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., historian and director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, who is black.] Campus police arrived at the scene of probable burglary attempt and found Gates there. A campus police officer Sgt. Crowley ordered Gates to identify himself, and Gates refused, according to the police report. Gates began calling the officer a racist and said repeatedly, "This is what happens to black men in America." Officers said they tried to calm down the 58-year-old academic, who responded, "You don’t know who you’re messing with," according to the police report. Gates was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge after police said he "exhibited loud and tumultuous behavior." He was released later that day on his own recognizance and arraignment was scheduled for Aug. 26.

The other version from Gates’s side is: Gates had just returned home from a trip to China. (He was in China filming for a documentary tracing the ancestry of cellist Yo-Yo Ma.) When he got to his house, he tried to open his front door, but it was jammed. He tried to force his way in. That is when he saw campus police come in. Gates accused the Cambridge police of racism after being arrested trying to get into his own locked home near Harvard University on Thursday, July 16, 2009. According to Gates’s lawyer, fellow Harvard scholar Charles Ogletree, Gates showed Crowley his Massachusetts state ID and Harvard University ID. According to the police report, however, Gates refused to submit identification, demanded Crowley’s badge number and yelled at Crowley while following him outside. Gates was arrested for "disorderly conduct." Charges were later dropped on July 21.

The July 16 arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. for disorderly conduct in his own home sparked a national debate over racial profiling and police conduct. Many of Gates’s African-American colleagues believe his arrest is part of a pattern of racial profiling in Cambridge. The controversy intensified days later after President Obama weighed in on the arrest of Professor Gates, saying on July 22 that the Cambridge police officer had "acted stupidly" when he arrested Gates for disorderly conduct. In a much publicized media appearance, Sgt. Crowley disagreed with the President.

Soon after Obama’s remarks a poll was conducted Wednesday to Sunday, July 22-26 by the non-partisan Pew Research Center to find his approval rating among Americans as they watched him wade into the racially tinged dispute between a white Cambridge, Mass., police officer and a well-known black Harvard scholar. The poll found that 41 percent of respondents disapproved of Obama’s handling of the Gates arrest, compared with 29 percent who approved. The poll also found the incident and Obama’s reaction saturated the public consciousness. As many as 80 percent of Americans said they are now aware of Obama’s comments on the matter. The president’s approval ratings fell, especially among working-class whites, as the focus of the Gates story shifted from details about the incident to Obama’s remarks, the poll said. Among whites in general, more disapprove than approve of his comments by a two-to-one margin. Interestingly, in polling of racial minorities and Hispanics, Obama’s approval with that group of respondents rose from 63 percent among those interviewed Wednesday and Thursday to 74 percent among those interviewed Friday through Sunday.

On July 24, trying to stop a national uproar over race, President Barack Obama acknowledged that he had used unfortunate words in declaring that Cambridge, Mass., police "acted stupidly" in arresting black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. "I could’ve calibrated those words differently," he said. He stopped short of a public apology. But the president telephoned both Gates and the white officer who had arrested him, hoping to end the rancorous back-and-forth over what had transpired and what Obama had said about it. Trying to lighten the situation, he said he had invited the Harvard professor and police Sgt. James Crowley for "a beer here in the White House."

The rest is history. Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates accepted the offer. On July 30, Thursday evening they sat around a patio table with President Obama and Vice President Biden, drank beer, munched on snacks and talked about the arrest that has sparked debate about racial profiling and police procedures. "It was a private discussion. It was a frank discussion," Crowley said of the meeting. In his website, The Root, Gates said, "It is incumbent upon Sergeant Crowley and me to utilize the great opportunity that fate has given us to foster greater sympathy among the American public for the daily perils of policing on the one hand, and for the genuine fears of racial profiling on the other hand." No one apologized.

So what is your take on the biggest story of the past week? Who acted stupidly? Gates, Crowley or Obama?

If you think like UCLA law Professor Adam Winkler, here is his valued opinion (as posted in the Huffington Post): "The Cambridge Police should be training their officers to know the difference between legal and illegal conduct. What Gates did was probably not so smart — in general, be nice to people carrying guns — but it wasn’t disorderly conduct. At least not in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That explains why the charges against Gates were dropped. It wasn’t because the police were trying to defuse the situation. It was because Gates had done nothing illegal. Arresting someone for doing something that isn’t illegal is pretty stupid. Then again, perhaps Obama was wrong. Maybe the police officer wasn’t acting stupidly. He was just acting abusively. That is even worse."

One thing is for sure: race still matters in America.