U.S. President Barack Obama hosted a meeting over beers on Thursday between a black Harvard scholar and the white police officer who arrested him this month in a sitdown aimed at calming racial tensions and nationwide uproar sparked by the incident.
Television footage showed Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden sitting outdoors just after 6 p.m. ET at a picnic table at the White House with Henry Louis Gates and Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Mass., police.
The four men were seen talking amicably as White House staffers brought them frosty mugs, but their conversation was out of earshot to reporters and photographers struggling to get shots of the meeting from a cordoned-off area. At one point, Gates nodded as Crowley spoke before the media was ushered away from the meeting.
In a statement following the meeting, Obama hailed it as a "friendly, thoughtful conversation" and said he learned that Gates and Crowley had already spent some time talking with each other. He called that "a testament to them."
"I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart," Obama said. "I am confident that has happened here tonight, and I am hopeful that all of us are able to draw this positive lesson from this episode."
Later in the evening, Crowley told reporters there was "no tension" during the meeting, which he described as a "cordial and productive" discussion between "two gentlemen who agree to disagree on a particular issue."
"We have all agreed that it is important to look forward rather than backward," Crowley said without disclosing what was said during the sitdown.
The police officer added that Gates approached him earlier in the day when their paths crossed on separate private tours of the White House with their families. He said he and Gates planned to talk again in the coming weeks.
Gates did not speak to reporters, but struck a conciliatory tone in an online blog post Thursday night in which he applauded Obama for bringing them together.
"Sergeant Crowley and I, through an accident of time and place, have been cast together, inextricably, as characters — as metaphors, really — in a thousand narratives about race over which he and I have absolutely no control," Gates wrote.
"It is incumbent upon Sergeant Crowley and me to utilize the great opportunity that fate has given us to foster greater sympathy among the American public for the daily perils of policing on the one hand, and for the genuine fears of racial profiling on the other hand."
Gates also wrote that he hoped he and Crowley "can get to know each other better."
Neighbour's 911 call led to confrontation, arrest
"I thank God that I live in a country in which police officers put their lives at risk to protect us every day, and, more than ever, I’ve come to understand and appreciate their daily sacrifices on our behalf," he wrote.
The controversy surrounding the two men started July 16 when officers responded to Gates's home after neighbour Lucia Whalen called 911 reporting two men with backpacks trying to force open the front door.
Gates was returning from an overseas trip and found his door jammed, so he and the taxi driver attempted to force it open. Gates went through the back door and was inside the house on the phone with the property's management company when police arrived.
Police said Gates flew into a verbal rage after Crowley asked him to show identification to prove he should be in the home. Police said Gates accused Crowley of racial bias, refused to calm down and was arrested. The charge was dropped but Gates demanded an apology, calling his arrest a case of racial profiling.
The president later waded into the debate by saying police "acted stupidly" in the arrest. At a news conference following his comments, he said he should have chosen his words more carefully and did not mean to malign the police.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, Obama chastised reporters for dubbing the event a "beer summit."
"It’s a clever term but this is not a summit, guys," he said following a meeting with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines.
"This is three folks having a drink at the end of the day, and hopefully giving people the opportunity to listen to each other. And that’s really all it is."
Brouhaha over choice of brew
But Obama said he was also "fascinated with the fascination" over Thursday's meeting, in which even the president's choice of beer brought controversy.
In a letter to Obama dated Wednesday, Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal strongly urged the president to pick Boston-made Sam Adams or a number of locally owned and brewed beers from his state.
Obama opted for a Bud Lite, made by Anheuser-Busch, now owned by Belgium-based brewer InBev.
Gates, who is said to be partial to Red Stripe from Jamaica, instead ordered a Sam Adams Light, while Crowley had a Blue Moon, a Belgian-style beer, made by Coors. Biden opted for a nonalcoholic Buckler.
911 caller not invited
But the person who may have paid a higher price in the controversy, Whalen, wasn't invited to the beer summit.
"People called me racist and said I caused all the turmoil that followed and some even said threatening things that made me fear for my safety," said Whalen.
She was vilified in the media after Gates' arrest when it was reported she had called 911 about two black men breaking into the professor's house. But a tape of the call released this week revealed Whalen never said the men were black. She said one of the men might be Hispanic only after being pressed by the dispatcher.
Whalen's lawyer, Wendy Murphy, noted that the three people who escalated the situation will be enjoying a beer, while Whalen, whose actions were exemplary, will be at work.
"I don't know, maybe it's a guy thing — she doesn't like beer anyway," said Murphy.
Whalen said she is more concerned with reclaiming her reputation and hasn't even thought about not being invited.