Fierce Debate Continues Over Gates' Arrest

July 23, 2009|By Elizabeth Mehren | Elizabeth Mehren,Tribune Newspapers

BOSTON - Blogs exploded Wednesday with people eager to weigh in on issues of race, class and police harassment and talk radio made room for little else as the Boston region buzzed with discussions about Harvard's prominent African-American studies professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who was arrested after attempting to enter his own home.

President Barack Obama unexpectedly injected himself into the national debate during his Wednesday night news conference, saying the Cambridge, Mass., police department acted "stupidly" in the arrest of Gates Jr..

In response to a question, Obama shied away from suggesting that Gates' race was the contributing factor to his arrest but linked the event to disparate treatment of minorities by police. "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," said Obama, who called himself a friend of Gates.

"And No. 3, 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 ... disproportionately," the president said. "That's just a fact."

Although Cambridge police already had dropped the charges, labeling the incident "regrettable and unfortunate," the case continues to reverberate.

"This is not dying down, and it's not going to," said Callie Crossley, a Boston TV and radio commentator.

It started last Thursday when Gates, returning after a 20-hour flight from China, was unable to open the front door to his house a block from Harvard Square. While his limo driver tried to help him, a woman called police to say that "two black males with backpacks" were trying to break in to the house. A confrontation ensued. Gates, 58, was led away in handcuffs. A police mug shot of one of the country's leading black intellectuals soon surfaced on the Internet.

Gates' arrest has resonated "with persons of color, in particular," Crossley said, because "if it could happen to him, it could happen to any of us."

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