"I don't know all the facts," that is where President Obama should have begun and ended his statement about the skirmish between Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates and a local Cambridge, Massachusetts police sergeant. But, he couldn't stop himself from saying the police "acted stupidly" and "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, number one, any of us would be pretty angry." Or the next day still defending his statement, saying "I am surprised by the controversy surrounding my statement, because I think it was a pretty straightforward commentary that you probably don't need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who's in his own home."
However, by Friday, no matter how "straightforward" his comments were on Thursday, President Obama said that he had been misunderstood: "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."
Obama has offered no apology for his comments on Wednesday and Thursday. In fact, the president still insisted on Friday "that there was an overreaction in pulling Prof. Gates out of his home to the station." He did not back away from any of his inflammatory statements about race being involved in Gates' arrest. Obama's only mention of race put the blame on society: "The fact that this has become such a big issue I think is indicative of the fact that, you know, race is still a troubling aspect of our society."
The police report is an amazing read. Gates apparently yelled repeated accusations of racism while asserting that the officer "had no idea who (he) was 'messing' with" and that the officer "had not heard the last of it." Gates was the first and only one to raise the race issue and he did so many times from the very beginning. He supposedly initially refused to provide identification and when he eventually did give a university ID, the ID didn't show the address, thus failing to verify that the home was his. Gates was twice warned in front of multiple witnesses to calm down and that he was becoming disorderly. Cambridge police are still considering releasing the 911 tapes and other information.
The president inflamed the situation by misrepresenting the facts about the ID proving residence and implied that Gates couldn't get around without a cane. In fact, Gates, in front of witnesses, followed the police officer, Sgt. James Crowley, all the way out to the sidewalk without any need of assistance, yelling at the officer much of the way. Each time the president discussed the case on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday there were serious mistakes in his description of events.
What has upset the police in Massachusetts, and across the country, is President Obama's rush to make public pronouncements as president about something that he didn't have all the facts about. His discussion of racial profiling effectively accused the police officer of racism. Dennis O'Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, said he "deeply resent[ed] the implication" that race was a factor in Gate's arrest. The president's rush to make a statement may tell us more about the president and his biases than it does about anything else.
The president was right on Friday: "where all of us, instead of pumping up the volume, spend a little more time listening to each other." But who is it that interjected the inflammatory question of race into the discussion?
Police have a difficult enough job. They put their lives on the line every day. In a neighborhood where there are many reported burglaries, we would be happy to have police arrive to make sure that everything was fine. Gates himself said: "the door [to his home] was unsecurable due to a previous break [in] attempt at the residence." When a police officer tells a homeowner that he is investigating a report of a break-in, how many people would start yelling "why, because I'm a black man in America?" Being a famous Harvard professor or being black is no excuse for being abusive to a police officer just trying to do his job.
"If I'm the president of the United States, I don't care how much pressure people want to put on me about race, I'm keeping my mouth shut," Bill Cosby told Boston's WZLX on Thursday. "I was shocked to hear the president making this kind of statement."
So why can't the president apologize? His statements on Friday only draw out a controversy that should never have gotten started.