In an April 3rd appearance on the left-wing Democracy Now TV show, Van Jones has offered his own behind-the-scenes take on an incident that made race a political issue three yearsbefore the Trayvon Martin case. As Jones describes it, the infamous “beersummit” on the White House lawn was a case where President Obama was
In July 2009, while Jones was working at the White House, Sgt. JamesCrowley responded to a call of a possible break-in at a Cambridge, MA home.In reality, the person a neighbor thought might be a burglar was the homeowner, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, with another man helping him enter the house.
When Sgt. Crowleyarrived at the home, he asked Professor Gates for ID. Gates reportedly responded “Why? Because I’m ablack man in America.” Gates initially refused to produce an ID. Once hedid, the police report indicates Crowley left the home. However, Professor Gatesfollowed him outside and continued to “yell” at Sgt. Crowley. Crowley claimsto have warned Gates in front of several neighborhood witnesses beforearresting Gates for disorderly conduct.
After word of the arrest broke, the President weighed in during a pressconference saying that while he didn’t have all the facts, “the Cambridgepolice acted stupidly.” The White House quickly tried to walk back theremark and eventually proposed a meeting on the White House grounds whichcame to be known as the “beer summit.” No reporters were present, but photosof the President, Vice President Biden, Prof. Gates, and Sgt. Crowleysharing a beer were widely circulated.
While neither side agreed to apologize to the other at the time of thebeer summit, several months later Professor Gates appeared on the Oprahtelevision show and told the host that he and Sgt. Crowley had developed aarrest and Gates said he planned to donate them to the Smithsonian. A reportissued one year after the arrest placed blame on both Gates and Crowley for failing tode-escalate the situation.
But according to Van Jones, the beer summit was not a chance for bothsides of the disagreement to take stock, but a media event which forced thePresident to “sit humbly” across from a “racist” police officer:
Van Jones: The right wing and the lawenforcement establishment brought the wrath of God down on the White House,I was there, and suddenly he’s forced to do a beer summit to sit eye to eyewith a racist police officer… as a black man, even the most powerful man inthe world, can not speak about race and if he does he’s then forced to sithumbly across the table from a racist police officer.
Jones goes on to describe the beer summit as a “terrifying, shocking”revelation about the state of race relations in America. At this point, theDemocracy Now host attempts to draw Jones out further about what advice hegave the President. Jones declines, saying he doesn’t want to talk “out ofschool.”
This is quite a different perspective on the story than the one the WhiteHouse presented to the media at the time. In 2009, the President called thebeer summit a “teachable moment” and clearlywanted to be seen as someone who could bring the two sides together afterthe firestorm caused by his initial remarks. But apparently, that view wasnot shared by everyone in the White House.
Did the President himself agreewith his employee Jones’ private assessment of Sgt. Crowley? Was the beer summitsomething the President felt forced into by “the right wing and the lawenforcement establishment”? These questions might be worth asking now thatthe White House is once again taking sides in a case with obvious racialovertones.