Video: Racial politics under scrutiny

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 7/29/2009 4:21:07 PM ET 2009-07-29T20:21:07

The woman whose 911 call led to the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. spoke publicly for the first time about the case Wednesday, contradicting the arresting police officer on a key point and saying she was unfairly labeled a racist.

A police report said the caller described the possible burglars as "two black males with backpacks" — leading some commentators to vilify the caller as racist since it turned out Gates was entering his own home.

But the 911 recording released by police showed that Lucia Whalen never said two black men were involved. She did not describe their race, acknowledged they might just be having a hard time with the door and said she saw two suitcases on the porch.

When pressed by a dispatcher on whether the men were white, black or Hispanic, she said one of them might have been Hispanic.

At a press conference, Whalen, 40, said she hoped "the truth of the tapes" would restore her reputation and heal the community of Cambridge, where Gates lives and she works.

‘Tried to be careful and honest’
With a trembling voice, Whalen 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.

"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 (would) 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.

Whalen contradicted that Wednesday, saying she made no such description and that the only words he uttered were for her to stay where she was.

Crowley, who is white, arrested Gates, who is black, on a disorderly conduct charge. Police later dropped the charge.

'People called me racist'
Whalen, a Harvard alumni magazine employee who is a first-generation Portuguese-American, said she lived in fear during the immediate aftermath of the arrest.

"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 any 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.

Asked if she would still have made the 911 call based on what she knew at the time, Whalen said: "Yes, I would make the call."

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 both 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."

Beer at White House?
Gates is a friend of President Barack Obama, and the president's comment at a nationally televised press conference that the Cambridge police had "acted stupidly" stoked the debate about whether race was a factor in the arrest.

Crowley and police groups took offense at the comment and called on Obama to apologize. Obama later said he regretted his choice of words, and he invited Crowley and Gates to join him at the White House on Thursday for a beer.

At the press conference, Wendy Murphy, Whalen's lawyer, said the three men — Gates, Crowley and Obama — all 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."

Asked if she'd go if invited, Whalen said: "I don't know ... I'm usually very private."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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