US President Barack Obama stepped full throttle into the divisive issue of US race relations on Wednesday when he accused police of acting “stupidly” in arresting a black Harvard academic.
Police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have already apologized to eminent African-American professor Henry Louis Gates, who was arrested after having to break into his own home because of a faulty door last week.
“Now, I don’t know, not having been there, and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in this,” Obama told a prime-time press conference, when asked about his reaction to the highly publicized incident. “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.”
Gates, 58, a leading expert on African-American studies and a friend of Obama, had been seen by a passing woman attempting to get into his Cambridge house along with another black man, the police report from July 16 said.
The woman alerted police and by the time a uniformed officer arrived, Gates was inside his home and reporting the faulty door to the Harvard Real Estate office. The other man at the scene was Gates’ hired driver, who was helping the professor push the door open.
In his first televised interview since the arrest, Gates told CNN late on Wednesday he might bring a lawsuit against Cambridge police because, he said: “This is not about me. This is about the vulnerability of black men in America.”
“This is my house. I’m a Harvard professor. I live here,” Gates said he told the officer, who then asked for proof, which the professor provided by showing his Harvard University identification card and his driver’s license.
When Gates asked the officer for his name and badge, he did not respond.
“He didn’t say anything. I said: ‘Why are you not responding to me?’” Gates said. “Are you not responding to me because you’re a white police officer and I’m a black man?”
However, when Gates stepped outside at the officer’s request, he was handcuffed — first with his hands behind his back despite being handicapped and requiring the use of a cane — arrested and spent four hours in police custody before being released.
Seeing his own police mugshot was “terrifying,” said Gates, who in 1997 was declared to be one of the 25 most influential people in the US by Time magazine.
“What it made me realize was how vulnerable all black men are, how vulnerable all people of color are and all poor people to capricious forces like a rogue policeman,” Gates said.
Despite his historic election as the country’s first black president, Obama has sought to steer clear of directly addressing issues of race and he joked initially that even he would be shot at if he tried to break into the White House.
Turning serious, the president told reporters: “What I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That is a sign, an example of how race remains a factor in the society. That doesn’t lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that’s been made and yet, the fact of the matter is that, you know, this still haunts us and even when there are honest misunderstandings, the fact that blacks and Hispanics are picked up more frequently, and often time for no cause, casts suspicion even when there is good cause.”