BOSTON (AP) - They weren't invited to the Rose Garden to hoist beers with President Barack Obama, yet their lives have been turned upside-down by the encounter between a black Harvard scholar and a white Cambridge, Mass., police officer.
By chance or their own doing, these peripheral players got caught up in the July 16 arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. for disorderly conduct in his home by police Sgt. James Crowley, who was investigating a burglary. They include:
- The 911 caller who said she lived in fear for her safety for days after being labeled a racist because the police said she described the possible burglars as "black men with backpacks" when tapes show she had not.
- The black sergeant who was at the house during the arrest and says he's been assailed as an "Uncle Tom" for standing up for his fellow officer.
- A Boston police officer and National Guardsman who now faces termination and has been suspended from the Guard after referring to Gates with a racial epithet in a letter to a newspaper and fellow Guardsmen.
- The New York City political aide who has resigned after her Facebook posts calling Gates a racist and Obama dumb drew criticism.
The tendency to caricature even peripheral characters in highly polarizing episodes is part of a modern media environment with its 24-hour news cycle and limitless online forums, according to Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
"It's one thing to do that about a politician who willingly throws themselves into the situation," Zelizer added. "It's something else to do that about someone who is just trying to make a report or the police officer who just happened to respond."
Perhaps no one was more jolted by the fallout than Lucia Whalen, 40, the Harvard employee who first called police to alert them about a possible break-in at Gates' home.
"Lucia Whalen goes down in history as the woman who showed the
world that racism is alive in America today," one blogger wrote in a posting on an African Web site.
Yet tapes show Whalen never mentioned race in her 911 call. When
pressed by a dispatcher, Whalen, a Portuguese-American, said one
might be Hispanic. She even raised the possibility they might just be having difficulty opening the door.
Whalen's attorney Wendy Murphy said Whalen's initial, measured response to the situation could be a lesson to those who pointed fingers and dropped insults.
"If what she said and how she said it had been respected and valued, nothing of what followed would have happened," Murphy said. "She was the accidental exemplary citizen."
Also at the arrest scene was Cambridge Sgt. Leon Lashley, a black police officer who was put on the defensive. Lashley said he's been maligned as having "betrayed my heritage" for defending Crowley's actions.
"I have also become known, at least to some, as an 'Uncle Tom,"' Lashley said in a letter he asked Crowley to give to President Barack Obama. CNN also received a copy of the letter.
Lashley said he's been targeted simply for "speaking the truth and coming to the defense of a friend and colleague, who just happens to be white."
Unlike Whalen and Lashley, others dove into the drama on their own and stoked racial tensions.
Officer Justin Barrett, a two-year Boston Police Department veteran, repeatedly used a crude racial slur to describe Gates in an e-mail sent to The Boston Globe and later forwarded to guardsmen and police officers.
Barrett also wrote in the e-mail that if he were the officer sent to Gates' home, he "would have sprayed him in the face with OC (pepper spray) deserving of his belligerent non-compliance."
Barrett has apologized for what he called "a poor choice of words" and denied being a racist.
Police Commissioner Edward Davis said he wouldn't tolerate Barrett's "venomous rhetoric" and placed him on administrative leave, pending a termination hearing. Barrett is a captain in the Massachusetts National Guard, which also suspended him pending an investigation. In New York, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, a Democrat, accepted the resignation of deputy press secretary Lee Landor after she called Gates a racist and referred to President Barack Obama as "O-dumb-a" on the social networking site Facebook.
Landor defended her entries, but added: "It is understandable that a black man encountering police will be suspicious of racial profiling."
President Obama has called the Gates' arrest a "teachable" moment and there have been attempts to calm tensions.
On Friday, Gates sent flowers to Whalen, in what Murphy described as "a gesture of gratitude."
"She was very touched," Murphy said. "She appreciated it."
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