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Privilege meets protest at Duke

April 28, 2006 | Page 13

DAVE ZIRIN is the author of What's My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States and a regular writer for the Nation magazine. His columns can be read at KEVIN PROSEN is a freelance writer living in Durham, N.C. Here, they report on the rape of an African American woman by members of the Duke lacrosse team.

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IN DURHAM, N.C., a scant three miles separate Duke from historically Black North Carolina Central University (NCCU), but the divide more resembles a canyon. The seismic shock of the recent and now notorious rape charges levied against the Duke lacrosse team has upturned this complex cultural cocktail of a city of 185,000 residents.

The charges have tweaked Durham's most sensitive unspoken grievance: that this impoverished city is occupied by an aloof and narcissistic private school catering mainly to wealthy students rarely seen outside the gothic cloister of their campus. Tuition at Duke is $43,000 per year, more than four times the cost of NCCU and about $3,000 more than the median joint family income in Durham.

The case in question is by now widely known; lacrosse players hired two young African American women as exotic dancers, one a student at NCCU. While details aren't yet clear, the woman has injuries consistent with rape, and two players have already been indicted.

The lacrosse lawyers have gone on a remorseless counter-offensive. A new well-heeled booster club called the Committee for Fairness to Duke Families hired the ultimate authority in smearing women who "cry rape": Bill Clinton's former attorney Bob Bennett.

Bennett and his team have embarked on a gutter legal strategy by releasing personal details about the assault victim. This gets the spotlight off the confirmed squalidness of the case. 911 calls report racist epithets being screamed by men in the party house, and one player sent out an email describing in morbid detail his fantasy of torturing the women.

The racial climate on campus is utterly appalling, and this isn't isolated to the world of lacrosse. Others on campus have noted parties with vile themes, like the "Viva Mexico" bash where students handed out "green cards" for invitations.

Danielle Terrazas Williams, a grad student at Duke, told the Independent, a local weekly, "This [the rape] is not a different experience for us [African Americans] here at Duke University. We go to class with racist classmates, we go to gym with people who are racists. That's not special for us."

Many students, at least the ones that speak from the conservative Chronicle's pulpit, don't seem to grasp what the fuss is about. A screed by one columnist is typical: "[W]e are Durham's main attraction. Every time we set foot off-campus, we're actually leaving the best thing the city has to offer--Durham isn't a petting zoo. The residents won't get lonely or irritable if we don't play with them."

Some have used the term "lynch mob" to describe the reaction from the Durham community to the alleged rape, a response that has included vigils, noisy early-morning protests, and sit-ins on campus by outraged students of both Duke and NCCU. These hardly resemble the actual lynch mobs that lurked in the Carolina landscape not so long ago.

Clearly a little historical perspective is in order. Durham was a hub of civil rights activism in the South, led by poor Blacks in the city as well as students at North Carolina College (renamed North Carolina Central University in 1969).

When the sit-ins of 1960 were sparked in nearby Greensboro, Durham was one of the first cities in the country to join the movement. Duke did not admit its first Black student until 1961, two years after the first desegregated school in Durham and seven years after Brown v. Board of Education.

In 1967, the Afro-American Society at Duke occupied the Allen Administration Building after failed negotiations with the school administration to improve the school's racial climate. Their statement explained: "We seized the building because we have been negotiating with Duke administration and faculty concerning different issues that affect Black students for two and a half years and we have no meaningful results. We have exhausted the so-called 'proper' channels."

Progressive white students played a positive role, holding off the police in defense of the Black students inside.

The student press was a tad different than today's product. An editorial on the '69 Allen Building occupation read: "The police were nothing more than robots; they performed an inhuman act at the bidding of the administration. The administration took this action against students who are trying to create a more human place for themselves amidst the great machinery of this university...The administration failed Duke's Black students, and these students then took a justified action to correct this failure and handled themselves with dignity."

The campus press may have changed, but the fights of the sixties clearly must continue. Activists on both campuses have begun to unite against the town's class divide and racist bigotry. African American students at Duke occupied the Allen building again a few weeks ago, and a large and inspiring vigil was held at the NCCU campus, while activists have continued to put pressure on.

The solidarity built between activists on both campuses and in the city is breaking down the walls meant to keep them apart.

The lacrosse legal team has called on the woman to drop all charges "so the community can heal." Durham will only heal if its proud tradition can be recalled in the name of justice.

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