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Henry Louis Gates Jr. panel discussion

When a police officer arrested Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. at the Harvard professor’s home, a national debate erupted that caught the attention of President Obama as well as everyday citizens.

Certainly one factor in the case — that the professor is African-American and the police officer is white — contributed to interest in the conversation. But the role of citizens in protecting their neighborhoods, the responsibility of police in carrying out their duties, and the limits, if any, on freedom of speech all became part of the national dialogue.

Western helped to put the incident into perspective with a panel of educators, journalists, police and residents. Dr. George Coleman, deputy commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Education, chaired the event, held in Ives Concert Hall.

Coleman pointed out that when famous people speak insensitively about race, the collective community calls for a national dialogue, “as if race is an overlooked aspect of the national curriculum and the faux pas is the result of the chapter being skipped over or the violator not being in school that day.”

The panel’s general consensus was that for race to be less of an issue, people have to spend more time getting to know each other and understanding the different perspectives that each race has about freedom in America.

Kerri Forrest, a senior producer based in Washington, D.C., for “The Early Show” on CBS, said that what most people want is respect.

“We have worked so hard to be part of the whole and when someone challenges that, it hurts,” Forrest said. “We need to consider what it’s like to be a black man arrested in his own home. We need to consider what it’s like to be a white police officer who is doing his job and called a racist. A lot of discussion is needed in our own community. There’s a lot of hurt passed on from generation to generation.”

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Danbury Chief of Police Al Baker looks on as Dr. George Coleman, deputy commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Education, speaks from the podium.