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Symbol of racism stirs angry response

By Jules Csillag and Nicole Colson | October 19, 2007 | Page 1

A NOOSE hung on the door of an African American professor's office at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York City is the latest in a series of similar racist incidents across the U.S.

But like elsewhere, it provoked an angry response from opponents of racism who refuse to be intimidated.

The noose has taken on a renewed significance nationwide because of the case of the Jena 6--six African American high school students who face years in prison for their alleged part in a school fight that followed several racist incidents, including nooses being hung from a tree in the courtyard of their high school.

Since the case came to public attention, more nooses have been discovered--at the University of Maryland, high schools in North and South Carolina, the Hempstead Police Department on Long Island, the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., and elsewhere.

They are part of a racist backlash against the growing movement to support the Jena 6--which brought tens of thousands of people to Jena and pressured Louisiana judges and politicians to reduce the charges against them and throw out the one remaining conviction in the case, against Mychal Bell. Bell, who had been behind bars since his arrest, was finally freed on bail.

Last week, however, racist local officials resumed their crusade against the six youths.

At what was meant to be a routine hearing, state District Judge J.P. Mauffrey Jr.--the same man who presided over Bell's original trial in front of an all-white jury that resulted in an inappropriate conviction on adult charges--ruled that Bell had violated his probation in an earlier case and promptly sentenced him to 18 months in jail. As an additional slap in the face, Bell's parents were ordered to pay court and witness costs.

"We feel this was a cruel and unusual punishment," civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton told a reporter, "and is an act of revenge by this judge for the Jena 6 movement."

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AS CIVIL rights groups responded to this latest outrage in Jena, Columbia students and staff were speaking out against a racist threat in liberal New York City.

The hangman's noose was discovered October 9 on the door of Dr. Madonna Constantine, an African American professor at Columbia University's prestigious Teachers College, who specializes in the study of race and racial prejudice.

Students were notified of the discovery of the noose by an e-mail from school officials that promised a Town Hall meeting the next day.

Unwilling to wait for the school's response, however, students began to organize immediately, holding a planning meeting later that same day and a campus protest the next.

About 150 students turned out on October 10 to express their shock, anger, sadness and fear. Many students said that this incident was the "tip of the iceberg" and that there is systematic racism and class discrimination at Teachers College and Columbia.

"I've been here two years, and this [hate] just seems part of the culture," student Desiree Carver-Thomas, told the Columbia Spectator. "I'm wanting to get at the root of the culture and the problem, rather than chasing after every event that happens on campus, because that just runs us ragged."

A press release written by several individuals representing Concerned Students for Change said, "We as a community need to take action and recognize our responsibility in creating an atmosphere where such acts could happen."

That atmosphere was made worse in recent weeks by Columbia administrators themselves--particularly university President Lee Bollinger, now notorious for his introduction to a speaking appearance by Mahmoud Amadinejad that demonized the Iranian president.

At the October 9 organizing meeting, students not only called for a protest the next day, but developed a list of demands to be presented at the school's Town Hall meeting--including a call for more faculty and students of color; greater integration of students from Harlem, and greater socio-economic diversity in general; a mandatory multicultural curriculum (both at Teachers College and Columbia); an increase in human and financial resources for the Office of Diversity and Community; an increase in campus safety and security; greater communication between administrators and students; and more accountability.

At the rally the next day, students, faculty and staff carried signs reading "We all live in Jena." Speakers talked about the lack of representation at Teachers College of people from Harlem--where, in fact, Columbia is continuing its expansion project, pushing up rents and grabbing land from residents.

"I am upset that the Teachers College community has been exposed to such an unbelievably vile incident," Dr. Constantine said in a statement read to the rally, "and I would like us to stay strong in the face of such a blatant act of racism...I want the perpetrator to know that I will not be silenced."

A minute of silence followed, then a march around the Columbia campus to the Town Hall meeting.

More than 600 students and faculty members came to the Town Hall meeting to express their anger. Many said that the university needed to do more to change the climate for minorities at Columbia. The meeting was too short, and administrators promised an ongoing dialogue.

As one African American graduate student who attended the meeting told the New York Times, "I came here from Virginia. I've been here since 2003, and there has been incident after incident. It's not so different from the South."

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