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Residents say dispute got out of hand

By June Q. Wu
Globe Correspondent / July 1, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE — For residents here, the arrest last summer of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. boiled down to a misunderstanding between two people that got out of hand.

Regardless of where their initial sympathies lay, members of the community now say that both Gates and Sergeant James Crowley, the arresting officer, were probably at fault, a conclusion an independent panel reviewing the incident also came to in a report released yesterday.

“It seemed to be kind of a battle of egos that surfaced way too quickly,’’ said Lauren Plavisch, 28, who lives a few doors down from Gates’s house on Ware Street. “I can imagine Gates was really crabby, and everything got blown out of proportion.’’

That afternoon, July 16, Gates was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct after a confrontation with Crowley, who arrived at his house after a neighbor alerted police to a possible break-in. Gates had just returned home from a trip to China and was struggling to unlock the jammed door to his home. Crowley was responding to a 911 call.

Both felt they were in the right.

“They did overreact,’’ said Ralph Clover, 59, a landscape designer living in Cambridge. “Things got heated; things escalated.’’

Clover said he was first sympathetic to Gates, who was, he said, “doing nothing wrong.’’

But when the arrest spiraled into a national story of racial profiling, Clover said he felt the situation had gotten out of hand.

“Everybody has to just be a little more relaxed, take time to step back and not let your emotions get the better of you,’’ Clover said.

Jeff Cardoza, the superintendent at a Ware Street building and son of a former police officer, said he often sees Gates “smiling like the nicest person in the world’’ at the nearby Broadway Marketplace.

“I think [Crowley] was just doing his job,’’ Cardoza said. “But they both could have handled the situation better.’’

Victoria Helms, 21, a junior at Smith College, agreed, adding that the ensuing hoopla, which culminated in President Obama stepping in to help settle the dispute over beers, was “really unnecessary.’’

“Sometimes things are black and white; no pun intended,’’ Helms said about the incident, which she said should not have triggered national attention.

Though Gates and some of his colleagues accused the police of racism, two dozen people interviewed in Cambridge yesterday said that race, in their opinion, was not the driving issue of the confrontation.

“My feeling is that because one person overreacted, the other overreacted, and it got out of hand,’’ said Robert Dubow, a Lowell resident who teachers summer classes in the Cambridge area. “I don’t think it’s a race issue.’’

Crowley’s arrest of one of the nation’s preeminent African-American scholars got him on the menu of Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage in Harvard Square, a restaurant a few blocks from Gates’s house that names burgers after political figures and Cambridge notables.

The Professor Skip Gates burger — a “(classy) teriyaki burger with grilled pineapple’’ — has been on the menu for over 10 years, since Gates requested an upgrade from the chicken sandwich originally named after him.

“I think they probably were both at fault,’’ said Joan Bartley, 78, a co-owner of the restaurant who has known Gates for years. Crowley later came in with his family to try out his burger, Bartley said.

“I wish it [the confrontation] didn’t happen,’’ she said. “Gates was a very nice man, and Crowley is a very nice man also.’’

Her husband, co-owner Joe Bartley, 79, agreed.

“It was just a misunderstanding of two macho guys who wouldn’t back down,’’ he said.

June Q. Wu can be reached at jwu@globe.com.

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