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Obama hosts 'beer summit' to cool race row

Video by Sonia DRIDI , Louis MASSIE


Latest update : 2009-07-31

President Barack Obama held a conciliatory beer gathering with a white police officer and an eminent black scholar at the White House on Thursday in an attempt to quell a row about policing and racial profiling.

AFP - President Barack Obama sat down for beers and snacks with a white police officer and an eminent black scholar at the White House Thursday in a bid to quell a national furor over racial profiling.

Obama welcomed Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates and police sergeant James Crowley for 6:00 pm (2200 GMT) beers around a white patio table in the White House Rose Garden, hoping to turn the page on a race row that erupted during a July 16 incident at the scholar's home.

Shortly after one of the most highly anticipated White House happy hours in recent memory, the president described it as a "friendly, thoughtful conversation" and said in a statement that he hoped "that all of us are able to draw (a) positive lesson from this episode."

Earlier Obama had downplayed the significance of the meeting, which has been dubbed a "beer summit" by the press, saying he was "fascinated with the fascination about this evening."

"I noticed this has been called the beer summit. It's a clever term, but this is not a summit, guys. This is three folks having a drink at the end of the day and hopefully giving people an opportunity to listen to each other. And that's really all it is," Obama told reporters in the Oval Office.

The comments did little, however, to quench the thirst about the trio's beer bash, which grew to a foursome with the surprise addition of Vice President Joe Biden.

But the White House media pool was kept at bay, shuttled to the far side of the Rose Garden for a 30-second photo opportunity that yielded no chance to ask questions or listen to the conversation.

Crowley addressed reporters after the meeting at an office building, and when asked if anyone apologized over the incident in which he ended up arresting Gates at the professor's home, the sergeant said "no," but noted "we had a cordial and productive discussion today."

"This was a positive step in moving forward as opposed to reliving the events of the past couple of weeks, and an effort to move not just the city of Cambridge or two individuals past this event, but the whole country, to move beyond this and use this as a basis of maybe some meaningful discussions in the future," he added.

The contretemps two weeks ago occurred when Gates -- arguably the foremost US scholar on African-American affairs -- was arrested after police received a call that two men might be attempting a break-in at a house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to Harvard.

As it turned out, Gates was merely attempting to enter his own home when the door jammed.

Gates and Crowley exchanged heated words, and the professor was ultimately arrested for disorderly conduct.

Obama, the nation's first African-American president, added to the controversy when he said police had "acted stupidly" by arresting his friend after establishing that Gates had been in his own home.

The incident sparked an intense national discussion as to whether police rushed to stereotype a black man as a potential criminal -- even a bookish and middle-aged one such as Gates -- solely based on his race.

But public outrage also swelled over Obama's choice of words, and his hasty characterization of what had happened.

It provided an opening for right-wing commentators to criticize the president as well, including one who accused Obama of being racist against whites.

Some critics say the president maligned Crowley, a well-regarded officer in Cambridge who trained others in his department on the perils of racial profiling.

Last week, Obama called Crowley to express regret over his statement, and to invite the police officer and Gates to the White House for a reconciliatory beer.

Obama later said that blame in the standoff was likely shared, suggesting that Gates "probably overreacted" -- as did police, by booking a professor for being hot-headed.

The controversy ends the first six months of Obama's presidency in which he managed not to be defined by his race, but Obama said he hoped the chat would offer a chance for reconciliation.

In the Rose Garden, Crowley and Gates, dressed in dark suit jackets, sat next to one another, while Obama, in white shirtsleeves, sat next to the sergeant and Biden alongside the professor.

According to the White House, Obama drank Bud Light, Gates was served Boston local brew Sam Adams Light, and Crowley drank Blue Moon. The vice president drank a low-alcohol Buckler.

Crowley said he and Gates agreed to meet again in the near future. He declined to provide a location, but strongly hinted that alcohol would not be involved.

"I think meeting at a bar for a beer on a second occasion will send out the wrong message," he said. "Maybe a Kool-Aid or ice tea or something like that."

Date created : 2009-07-31