CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The woman who dialed 911 to report a possible break-in at the home of black Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. said Wednesday she was wrongly labeled a racist based on assumptions about her and words she never said and hoped the recently released recording of the call would put the controversy to rest.
With a trembling voice, Lucia Whalen, 40, said she was out walking to lunch in Gates' Cambridge neighborhood near Harvard University when an elderly woman without a cell phone stopped her because she was concerned there was a possible burglary in progress.
Whalen says she was vilified on blogs as a racist after a police report said she described the possible burglars as "two black males with backpacks." Her lawyer has said mainstream media outlets and bloggers had concluded she was a privileged white neighbor.
Tapes of the call released earlier this week revealed that Whalen, a first-generation Portuguese-American who doesn't live in the area, did not mention race. When pressed by a dispatcher on whether the men were white, black or Hispanic, she said one of them might have been Hispanic.
"Now that the tapes are out, I hope people can see that I tried to be careful and honest with my words," Whalen said. "It never occurred to me that the way I reported what I saw be analyzed by an entire nation."
Cambridge police Commissioner Robert Haas acknowledged that the police report contains a reference to race, but said the report is merely a summary of events. The arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, has said his information on the race of the suspects came during a brief encounter with Whalen outside Gates' house; she contradicted that Wednesday, saying she made no such description.
Gates' arrest for disorderly conduct in his own home by a white police officer sparked a national debate over racial profiling and police conduct. The controversy intensified when President Barack Obama said police "acted stupidly" when they arrested his friend.
Gates, whose disorderly conduct charge was dropped, has said he was outraged and has demanded an apology from Crowley; Crowley said he followed protocol and responded to Gates' "tumultuous behavior" appropriately.
Whalen, a Harvard alumni magazine employee, said she lived in fear during the immediate aftermath of the arrest when she was dogged for comment and maligned based on the information attributed to her in the police report.
"The criticism at first was so painful I was frankly afraid to say anything. People called me racist. Some even said threatening things that made me fear for my safety," said Whalen, whose husband, Paul, put his hand on her shoulder in comfort her as she spoke. "I knew the truth, but I didn't speak up right away because I did not want to add to the controversy."
She said she felt more comfortable speaking publicly after the tapes were released. She refused to answer questions about the police report or what she saw that day.
"I am proud to have been raised by two loving parents who instilled in me values including love one another, be kind to strangers and do not judge people based on race, ethnicity or any other feature than their character," she said.
Obama, the nation's first black president, has said he chose his words badly when he reacted to his friend's arrest, and he has invited Crowley and Gates to meet with him at the White House for a beer on Thursday evening.
Whalen's attorney, Wendy Murphy, said Gates, Crowley and Obama overreacted, while Whalen kept her cool.
"The three highly trained guys who reacted badly are getting together for a beer," Murphy said. "The one person whose actions have been exemplary will be at work tomorrow in Cambridge. I don't know – maybe it's a guy thing. She doesn't like beer anyway."
Murphy had said Monday her client is "by no means the entitled white neighbor," which was "the theme in the blogs and the implication in some of the mainstream news media."
Whalen said she has worked in Cambridge for 15 years and hopes that the community's reputation would be restored. She also said she respected Gates and the Cambridge police department and hoped her decision to finally speak out would not add to the controversy.
"I was called racist and I was a target of scorn and ridicule because of the things I never said," she said. "The criticism hurt me as a person, but it also hurt the community of Cambridge."
Despite the trouble it caused her, Whalen said she would make the call again.
"I've had much reflection on that, and, yes, I would make the call," she said. "If you're a concerned citizen, you should do the right thing."