President Obama's Intervention Opened Up Flood Gates

05/25/2011 01:45 pm ET

I have followed the Henry Louis Gates story pretty closely this week. It has unquestionably intensified over recent days yet, strikingly, without much new information coming out.

This story is bizarre, if only because it's lasted on the front pages, and on our lips, as long as it has. It's rare to see a story, its discussion and fallout remain constant for a full week after the event took place. As reactions have poured in, from Boston down to Washington D.C., reporters have followed with acute interest, and columnists with judgments of what it all means for America.

You could read the police report about the incident and Prof. Gates' version of the events as early as Tuesday of this week. But only once President Obama made his comments on Wednesday night did it seem that everyone's opinions had finally cemented. That's also around the time when the story became more complicated and headed into new directions.

Even with Prof. Gates' allegations of racism in America at the time of the incident, this all began as a local story. The first interviews Prof. Gates granted this week were to a website he helped found and to, of all people, his daughter. You can argue that this reflects Prof. Gates mistrust for the media or his careful discretion in illustrating his perspective. Moreover, it demonstrates his savviness in maximizing his disciples' potential for exposure and attention. At the very least, Prof. Gates used the vehicles he had access to at that time.

When those interviews took place, though, there was no thought in anyone's mind that by the next evening President Obama would speak publicly about the incident at his national news conference. Nor could Prof. Gates have anticipated that that decision would propel President Obama to the forefront as the first chair in the fight against racial profiling of Cambridge police officers.

But Thursday, the day after President Obama entered the fray, is the day when the reporting went a bit awry. As the Associated Press began to run these sort of stories, Sgt. Crowley tried his hardest to keep the story in perspective, and largely a local one that national eyes were fixated to. Sgt. Crowley didn't speak to the AP, instead talking openly to WBZTV in Boston, his local affiliate. Sgt. Crowley said:

"I think he's way off base wading into a local issue without knowing all the facts, as he himself stated before he made that comment. I don't know what to say about that. I guess a friend of mine would support my position, too."

On that same morning, the Boston Globe ran a positive piece about Sgt. Crowley's contributions to his local community and how those who knew him well believed that the accusations were unwarranted and unjust.

No matter how you view this incident or which side you support, it's clear that some sort of misunderstanding took place between Prof. Gates and the officer. This week, many have framed their arguments and positions around hypothetical situations that could have reversed the course of events: had Sgt. Crowley been black, had Prof. Gates been white, had the witness been more alert. These issues of race are essential components to the story, no doubt. But we've mostly moved on from discussing the facts of the incident and transformed this into an issue of how things could be different. The story in recent days focused on how President Obama faces his first test of race relations. The President's ascent into this already supercharged arena wound up sidetracking the American people from the real divide that had come to light on Ware Street in Cambridge last week.

That is the class divide between the local law enforcement in Cambridge and the Harvard elite who inhabit the area. Buried at the end of an AP story on Thursday was this important tidbit:

Black students and professors at Harvard have complained for years about racial profiling by Cambridge and campus police.

Had this story remained a local one, this bit of information would have been much more valuable in framing our opinions and reactions. It's difficult now to re-imagine where we sat just a few days ago and how we would have digested that news.

By granting interviews to his Web site and to his daughter, Prof. Gates appeared to initially approach this as a smaller, local story, but one that reflected something that represented more to him. Sgt. Crowley, once he spoke up, did pretty much the same thing when he addressed local reporters later on in the week. It was President Obama's intervention, though, that turned all of the frustration and outrage into a national dilemma that would inevitably leave one group of people feeling betrayed, disheartened and unsatisfied. What could have probably been resolved over a beer at a Cambridge pub is now going to be tackled at the White House.

This all reminds me of a time in high school when I got into some trouble and was summoned to the principal's office. I hadn't committed the most heinous of acts, but I'd left another student in tears and looking for justice. While the principal considered my punishment, he said that "This should never have reached me."

Sometimes intervention at the highest level only makes things more heated and divisive. As we look ahead, let's hope that President Obama also takes home his "teaching moment."