BOSTON - President Barack Obama plunged his presidency into a charged racial debate and set off a firestorm in one of America's most liberal bastions by siding with a black Harvard scholar who accuses police of racism.
Saying he was unaware of all the facts but that police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, acted stupidly in their arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Obama whipped up emotions on both sides of an issue that threatens to open old wounds in Massachusetts.
His comments marked his biggest foray into the hot-button issue of race since taking office in January, and underline how racial issues remain very much alive even despite advances embodied by his election as the first black U.S. president.
Unfortunately the racial divide is still there. It's still very raw. I think he was trying to let the majority of non-minority Americans have a sense of what it is like to a black or Latino, said Boston University professor of politics Thomas Whalen.
But many in Massachusetts said he crossed a line by passing judgment on police while acknowledging he did not have all the facts. Online polls in Massachusetts show strong support for the white arresting officer. A police union also has come to his defense.
He should steer clear of it if he doesn't know all the facts, said Patricia Lynch, 49, a consultant and graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, as she emerged from a Boston cafe. For any specific case, you have to go only by the facts of that particular case.
Gates, 58, director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African & African American Research, is a potent cultural force, listed as one of Time magazine's 25 Most Influential Americans in 1997. He is a friend of Obama and other black celebrities such as television talk-show star Oprah Winfrey.
I don't know -- not having been there and not seeing all the facts -- what role race played in that, but I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry, Obama said when asked about the case. Number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.
The arrest prompted a moment of national soul-searching, but the facts of the case are far from clear. Gates says the incident underlines the persistence of stereotyping, or racial profiling, even in one of the most liberal U.S. cities.
Police say Gates was arrested last Thursday for disorderly conduct, accusing him of being uncooperative, refusing to initially provide identification and exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior by repeatedly shouting at a policeman in front of people gathered on the street in front of his house.
The incident began when a woman caller reported a man trying to force open the door of a home. Gates said he was unable to enter his damaged front door after returning from a week in China. Sgt. James Crowley arrived to investigate.
The charge was dropped Tuesday but Gates is demanding an apology from Crowley and has threatened to sue the police. Crowley has refused to apologize, saying he did nothing wrong.
He is the president of the United States. I support the president to a point. I think it's disappointing that he waded into what should be a local issue, Crowley told WEEI radio.
A lawyer for the Cambridge Superior Officers Association, a union, told ABC News that Obama was dead wrong to malign this police officer specifically and the department in general.
Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said the president was not calling the police officer stupid. He was denoting that at a certain point the situation got out of hand and I think all sides understand that, he told reporters.
Still, the comments infuriated some local Obama supporters. A story on Obama's speech on The Boston Globe's website sparked nearly 670 comments by midday, many critical of Obama.
I may have voted for him, but I'm really disappointed he's decided to inject himself into the middle of this BEFORE getting both sides of the story. And to do so by making such an outrageous accusation against the police, wrote one reader in a comment ranked most recommended by fellow Globe readers.
Some questioned whether the issue will mark a setback for a state where only 35 years ago black school children were pelted with rocks and bottles as they were bused into Boston's white neighborhoods in court-ordered school desegregation.
Many felt such issues were finally put to rest when Democrat Deval Patrick made history in a 2006 election by becoming Massachusetts' first black governor and the second black ever elected to the job in the United States.
Patrick has said he was very upset about the arrest.
(Additional reporting by Ross Colvin and Erin Kutz)