The second phase lasted from March 31 through April 10. Recognizing that a rape might well not have occurred, the potbangers refused to abandon their denunciation of the lacrosse players, and instead began to stress the team’s alleged racism.
The third phase spanned from April 11 onward. After defense attorneys revealed that no DNA match to any lacrosse player existed, the potbangers shifted wholly to claims that they were never seeking punishment for the lacrosse players, but were merely addressing the broader societal issues of racism and sexism. This approach was coupled with defiant refusals to apologize for their rush to judgment and a rationalization of their actions by stressing the drinking habits of the lacrosse players.
While ideologues, the potbangers were among the closest observers of the case. They understood that two events of late March (defense attorneys’ predictions that there wouldn’t be DNA matches, the Herald-Sun’s belated concession that the captains had fully cooperated) made it uncertain that a rape occurred.
But, they were determined, the crusade would continue. It would need a new focus—racism, not rape, would assume center stage. The potbangers took their cue from two people: Mike Nifong and Group of 88 member Mark Anthony Neal.
On March 28, the day after Nifong began his procedurally improper publicity barrage, the potbangers took notice. Rejoiced potbanger leader Rann Bar-on, “I think that these statements from Nifong can create a shift in the tone of those who think we are going after way too wide a target.” Duke graduate Sarah Ogburn agreed, wondering if there was “any way to have some of Nifong’s statements added to [the group’s] materials,” since “his statements are extremely powerful.” Ogburn noted that when she posted Nifong’s remarks “on the TrinityPark listserv, a lot of people either spoke up when they had not before, or seemed to shift their thinking.”
The D.A.’s comments so celebrated by the potbangers emphasized the racial element of the alleged crime. “In this case,” declared the district attorney on March 27, “where you have the act of rape—essentially a gang rape—is bad enough in and of itself, but when it’s made with racial with racial epithets against the victim, I mean, it’s just absolutely unconscionable. The contempt that was shown for the victim, based on her race was totally abhorrent. It adds another layer of reprehensibleness, to a crime that already reprehensible.”
Meanwhile, Mark Anthony (“thugniggaintellectual”) Neal, soon to be a member of the Group of 88, gave an interview to NPR. He suggested that for the African-American community, the allegations of racism were attracting much more attention than the claim of rape. He also wondered whether the “privilege” of some protesters had caused them to downplay the racism angle and instead focus on the alleged sexual assault.
For a group as politically correct as the potbangers, Neal’s assertions aroused enormous concern. Christina Headrick, a former N&O reporter who had opened up what she described as the “unforgettable scrapbook store,” confronted the issue head-on. She fantastically wondered whether the potbangers could “have a ‘Talk-In’ or some kind of discussion about racism in Durham,” perhaps by setting “up six chairs under a tent on the sidewalk at Buchanan and go for as long as we can get participants. Or would that just be a bunch of guilt-ridden middle-class white folks sitting around? I don’t know . . .” (Headrick declined comment for this post.)
Bar-on concluded that Neal was correct: “since we are more non-religious/leftist/liberal/progressive (pick one that applies), we focus equally on the sexual assault and the race issues, whereas much of the community around us focuses on one of the two rather than linking them.” But, he added, “If our position is indeed privileged, is that a positive use of privilege?” In other words, the potbangers would lead the masses to revolution.
In any event, race assumed a much greater role for the potbangers by the end of March. (Reconsidering their initial certainty that the lacrosse players were morally deficient appears not to have been an option.) On March 30, the daily protests shifted in tone, to take note that “women, especially women of color, have repeatedly stated to President Brodhead that they do not feel safe on Duke’s campus or its surroundings.”
Despite this assertion, the protest announcement maintained, “We are not prejudging the outcome of the criminal case, but we demand measures be put in place to ensure that we never see this again.” What, precisely, was “this”? A false allegation?
The group also started shifting its demands. They still wanted the season canceled and Coach Mike Pressler fired. But according to a March 31 memorandum prepared by Headrick, they now also demanded “creation of a huge, multi-million dollar fund to address racial inequities/issues by Duke”; “improved educational programs to combat racism at Duke”; and an “educational scholarship fund to be created at NCCU.”
Headrick* explained the issue to a Duke student who had worried about having rushed to judgment. The real enemy, she declared, was “white people who are incredulous and skeptical that racism exists at all and attribute claims that racism does indeed exist to some sort of enigmatic and massive hallucination on the part of people of color.”
Potbanger Jacob Remes, a Duke graduate student in History, had come to Durham after serving as a coordinator of the “Yale Social Justice Network.” A sharp critic of Yale athletes as an undergraduate, Remes concisely explained the new approach on March 31. Activists, he maintained, should use the allegations “to examine the cultures of white, male, class, and athlete privilege in their own communities.”
No longer should the focus be on getting the season canceled or the coach fired—although Remes and his colleagues would have no problem with these outcomes, either. In a letter to the New York Times, he blasted the Duke administration for allowing the players to continue to practice in the days before the cancellation of the season. “I fear,” he asserted, “that the practices continue in order to build up and maintain team solidarity.” (Privately, Remes claimed that he received this information from a male History professor who taught several lacrosse players: Peter Wood?) “This is exactly,” he continued, “the opposite of what the university should be doing. Instead, it should be trying to isolate the players in the hopes of getting one of them to tell the truth.”
I e-mailed Remes to ask if, in light of recent events, he had reconsidered his springtime actions or his astonishing recommendation that the University act as Nifong's deputy. He replied, “I have had no role in any criminal case against Duke undergraduates, and I have expressed no public opinion on the guilt or innocence of any accused individuals.” (Some might consider having urged the administration to “isolate the players” or belonging to a group that used slogans such as “castrate” and “time to confess” as having adopted a public opinion.) According to Remes, he continues “to believe that all charges of rape and sexual assault deserve full investigation and hearing, especially when the victim is less privileged than the accused attacker . . . and that Duke’s particular combination of athletics, fandom, and alcohol use promotes a culture of violence, misogyny, and abuse of privilege that corrodes the university’s intellectual community and academic mission.”
Mostly, however, Remes wants the potbangers’ critics to butt out, so the group can champion its agenda free from criticism. He told me, “I believe that these important questions about the university’s ‘campus culture’ (although I am deeply suspicious of that term) are primarily relevant to the Duke and Durham communities, and I am frankly perplexed by your ongoing efforts to involve yourself.” As John in Carolina has noted, this sentiment seems quite prevalent these days among the rush-to-judgment constituency.
The racism storyline encountered a major obstacle on April 10—the defense lawyers announced that no DNA matches occurred. Potbangers debated whether they should apologize for having presumed guilt, an option that most rejected.
Serena Sebring, a Duke Sociology grad student who focuses on “the convergence of race, gender, sexuality, identity, and the law,” explained the rationale for refusing to apologize. As of April 11, she saw no reason for anyone to say they were sorry:
Regardless of the end result criminally, I have a problem with the idea that it was wrong to react to the racial violence of March 13 with anything other than immediate urgency. If that reaction included belief in the word of an alleged rape victim who we know was subject to racial assault, I would say this is not a “rush to judgement [sic],” but rather a logical inference.
Bar-on took this approach one step further; on April 11, he urged his fellow protesters to deny that their focus ever was on the lacrosse players themselves.
He predicted (incorrectly, as it turned out) that the “media will turn to a pretty harsh, but pretty short-term, assault on us (the people who ‘jumped to conclusions’...we will see that phrase a lot in the near future).” To avoid the collapse of the movement, he recommended that:
We focus on the notion that this case merely uncovered a far deeper problem, namely the sense of entitlement and privilege so pervasive on Duke’s campus. Duke-Durham relations are tense for a reason: Duke kids are upper-class, rich, entitled, privileged and so on. This case merely highlights their lack of respect for the community in which they live. The players’ guilt or lack thereof has no effect on this. [emphasis added]Bar-on articulated more bluntly the basic thesis that Group of 88 leader Wahneema Lubiano would offer two days later: “Regardless of the ‘truth’ established in whatever period of time about the incident at the house on N. Buchanan Blvd.” The crusade would continue.
The new line of argument was embraced by Bryan Proffitt, a self-described “Hip-Hop generation white man that writes, organizes, teaches, and lives in Durham.” In mid-April, this co-founder of a group called “Men Against Rape Culture” produced an essay that laid out the group’s new agenda. Group of 88 member Mark Anthony Neal posted the essay on his blog, shortly after Neal’s blog also published Lubiano’s attack on the team.
Everyone, Proffitt wrote, knew the facts of the case: upon leaving the party, “a Black student/mother/daughter/woman/human . . . calls the police, and reports that she and a companion have been racially assaulted, and that she has been sexually assaulted by three members of the team. There is a medical exam that reveals sustained physical trauma.” Actually, of course, all of those “facts” were wrong.
False assumptions, however, didn’t stop Proffitt. The basic issue was simple: “We have a commitment to believing those who come forward with stories of survival first . . . Something dehumanizing, frightening, and wrong happened in that house. Regardless of the specifics, there is healing to be done and justice to be fought for.” In other words, don’t let the facts get in the way of a good crusade.
This case, Proffitt explained, “is the ‘Rape CNN.’ It is the sensationalized version of what happens every single day in this world.” What did the case expose? Among other things, that
America, and the world, is sick with white supremacy and racism; heterosexism and homophobia; patriarchy, sexism, and transphobia; and poverty and capitalist excess. These systems all interact to create a culture of violence that must be changed. We teach our children the lessons of these systems, and they grow up to reinforce them. We must dismantle these systems if we hope to end the onslaught of violence . . . Survivors will create the path forward. In resisting violence, homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, and capitalism, survivors of oppression generate the vision for the rest of us to follow.
From firing Mike Pressler and getting the season canceled to overturning “poverty and capitalist excess.” From breaking down the alleged “wall of silence” to resisting “violence, homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, and capitalism.”
The potbangers certainly made a striking intellectual evolution. There was only one problem. The underlying case upon which they built their crusade was a fraud. The Group of 88, of course, has the same problem.
*--This quote actually came from not from Headrick but from another potbanger. I apologize for the error.