Trying to tamp down an uproar over race, President Barack Obama said Friday he used an unfortunate choice of words in commenting on the arrest of black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and could have “calibrated those words differently.”
The president said he had telephoned the white policeman who arrested Gates, and he said the conversation confirmed his belief that the officer was a good man and an outstanding officer.
Obama said later that he had spoken to Gates as well, but he didn’t say any more about that conversation.
The president caused a stir when he said at a prime-time news conference earlier this week that Cambridge, Mass., police had “acted stupidly” by arresting Gates, a Harvard scholar and friend of the president’s, for disorderly conduct.
On Friday, Obama made an impromptu appearance at the daily White House briefing in an effort to contain the controversy. He said he continued to believe that both the officer, Sgt. James Crowley, and Gates had overreacted during the incident, but the president also faulted his own comments.
“This has been ratcheting up, and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up,” he said. “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 and Sgt. Crowley specifically. And I could’ve calibrated those words differently.”
The incident began when police went to Gates’ home last week after a passer-by reported a potential break-in. It turned out that Gates had tried to jimmy open his own door, which was stuck, and there was no intruder. Gates protested the police actions and was arrested, although the charges have since been dropped.
Before Obama’s appearance Friday, a multiracial group of police officers stood with Crowley in Massachusetts and asked Obama and the state’s governor, Deval Patrick, to apologize for comments they called insulting. Patrick has said Gates’ arrest was “every black man’s nightmare.”
Dennis O’Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, said Obama’s remarks were “misdirected” and the Cambridge police “deeply resent the implication” that race was a factor in the arrest.
Sgt. Leon Lashley, a black officer who was at Gates’ home with Crowley at the time of the arrest, said he supported his fellow officer’s action “100 percent.”
Gates has said he returned from an overseas trip, found the door jammed and he and his driver attempted to force it open. Gates went through the back door and was inside the house when police arrived. Police say he flew into a verbal rage when Crowley asked him to show identification to prove he should be in the home. Police say Gates accused Crowley of racial bias, refused to calm down and was arrested.
Gates, 58, maintains he turned over identification when asked to do so. He says Crowley arrested him after the professor followed him to the porch, repeatedly demanding the sergeant’s name and badge number because he was unhappy over his treatment.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.