Monday, September 24, 2007

The Hypocrisy of Durham "Activists"

In yesterday's N&O, Group of 88 stalwart William Chafe clucked that the American people are excessively obsessed with hypocrisy.

"Generally speaking, Europeans and people in other parts of the world are less intent on having people be completely consistent," he said. "They don't see anything wrong with a French foreign minister or a French president defending family values and having an affair."

Americans, Chafe said, are more influenced by a cocktail of Puritanism and anti-intellectualism that leads us to embrace the moral argument while "detesting" what seems like "hair-splitting and seeming contradictions. We tend to favor the simple truth over arguments full of nuance."

Over the past 18 months, observers of events in Durham would have been hard pressed to discern "arguments full of nuance" from either the Group of 88 or like-minded local figures. Both have displayed, on the other hand, a potent "cocktail of Puritanism and anti-intellectualism," none more so than Chafe himself, who alternated between suggesting the whites who beat, kidnapped, and murdered Emmett Till provided the appropriate historical context through which to interpret the lacrosse players' behavior and positioning himself as a neo-Prohibitionist crusader, eager to rid the world (or at least Duke students of the wrong race, class, or gender) of Demon Rum.

In one way, however, Chafe's analysis rings true: both the Group of 88 and its ideological comrades in Durham certainly have appeared hypocritical, provided that doing so will advance their ideological agenda.

Last week, for instance, the city was abuzz with protests about the “Jena 6.” (For a relatively neutral summary of the Jena case, see this AP column.) Group of 88 stalwart Karla Holloway issued a statement on the case, asserting that the two nooses hung from a tree at the school were “unambiguous symbols of a vicious racial threat, linked inextricably to the ways in which white violence has historically followed blacks who sought their constitutional rights . . . The students who hung the nooses worked from their presumptions of how to maintain separate and racially distinct access. They worked from their knowledge of how to signal that authority. The nooses are absolute indicators of the racial place of this story.”

Holloway certainly is expert in understanding “indicators of the racial place of [a] story.” This is, after all, the same Karla Holloway who:

  • In apparent violation of the Faculty Handbook, sent a January 2007 mass e-mail containing uncorroborated (false) rumors that a witness existed who would testify that racial slurs were used during the lacrosse party;

  • Declared that in analyzing the lacrosse case, “white innocence means black guilt. Men’s innocence means women’s guilt”;

  • Publicly criticized the women’s lacrosse players for having the audacity to wear armbands sympathizing with the targets of Mike Nifong’s crusade;

  • Proclaimed that she would sign the Group of 88 statement again in a “heartbeat.”

Indeed, given her reaction to the women’s lacrosse players, it appears as if Holloway has undergone a 180 degree reversal on the appropriateness of publicly standing up for victims of injustice.

All this came after six busloads of people departed Durham to attend protests in Jena. The protest’s organizers? The Durham NAACP and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. The Durham NAACP, according to the N&O, also “has set out to raise a $1 million legal-defense fund for the black youths facing trial for aggravated battery.”

This is the same Committee on the Affairs of Black People that formally endorsed Victoria Peterson—a vicious homophobe who urged burning down the lacrosse house, appeared on the platform with the leader of a hate group, and suggested that Duke Hospital had tampered with DNA evidence. Peterson’s last public act before the endorsement? Accompanying the public face of prosecutorial misconduct, Mike Nifong, to and from jail, carrying a sign testifying to Nifong’s “goodness” and “integrity.”

And this is the same Durham NAACP whose state organization sided repeatedly, over a months-long process, with the prosecution in the lacrosse case. There were no efforts to raise funds for the victims of prosecutorial misconduct in a case in their own community. No one associated with the state NAACP has ever explained this wildly disparate reaction.

Perhaps, it could be argued, the lacrosse case made activist Durham residents unusually sensitive to the issue of prosecutorial misconduct. Perhaps we’ll see press releases from Group of 88 members every week on the topic; and busloads of Durhamites to engage in a kind of national traveling show to protest the concept.

Not exactly, if the reaction to the proposed settlement between the city and the three falsely accused players is any reaction. Indeed, a good portion of the Durham community seems willing—even eager—to continue to defend the prosecutorial and police misconduct of their hometown. (Since Holloway doesn’t live in Durham, she doesn’t have to worry about the costs of any settlement.) Perhaps their new slogan can be, “Justice for Jena; Injustice for Our Fellow Durham Residents.”

Take, for instance, Sandy Ogburn, a former member of the City Council, unsuccessful candidate for Durham’s state House seat, and favorite of the Durham “progressive” community. An Ogburn e-mail quoted in the Herald-Sun declared, “While a court case would be costly, it would be worth the money to me as a taxpayer. At least then we will be able to hear the entire case — and have the evidence in the public view. All we know right now is what the defense attorneys have parsed out — oh, as well as their million-dollar PR campaign.” Then, with a Nifongesque “something happened” touch, she added that “the last thing” the families want “is for the evidence to be heard.”

Ogburn appears to have confused the North Carolina State Bar and the Attorney General of North Carolina (both of which released copious amounts on the case) with “defense attorneys.” She also has uncovered a previously unrevealed “million-dollar PR campaign” that worked on behalf of the falsely accused players.

Ogburn also appears unaware that remarks such as hers—with their continued, public insinuation that a crime occurred, in this case coming from a former city officeholder—only increase Durham’s legal liability. Ogburn’s e-mail provides concrete proof that some people continue to believe the false charges that resulted from the misconduct of Nifong and the DPD.

(When the H-S asked her for clarification about her sentiments, Ogburn dismissed the possibility of a suit as “harassment” against Durham, suggesting that she belongs to what Jon Ham has termed the “not-reality-based crowd.”)

Former Duke professor Bob Healy, meanwhile, offered a Group of 88-ish reason for opposing the settlement: “I think that this extravagant financial claim is consistent with the general Duke student belief that ‘we’re special’ and ‘don’t mess with us.’ I don’t think this should be encouraged, and certainly not at the expense of the population of Durham.”

Unfortunately for Healy, while the Group of 88 might exercise vise-like control over campus, their standing in a court of law is minimal. Like Ogburn, the former professor appears to be living in some sort of fantasy world, believing that Durham’s political leadership would fork over millions of dollars to the falsely accused players out of the goodness of their own hearts. He appears unaware of the massive police and prosecutorial misconduct—the violation of procedures to frame innocent people, and the approval of those actions both as they were occurring and thereafter by the DPD leadership—that took place in Durham over the past 18 months. There is no record of Healy speaking out against that misconduct as it was occurring, as he chose to speak out against the possible civil suit settlement.

Then there’s Herald-Sun columnist John McCann, who lauded a protest movement to block all civil suit payments led by Donna Tanzi—“who’s no Nifong apologist, but believes those Duke lacrosse boys brought it all on themselves by hosting what she says amounted to a drunken orgy that fateful March 2006 night at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd.”

Added McCann, “Which I’ve said in the past. And City Councilman Howard Clement acknowledged as much at a recent City Council meeting—that liquor led to the licentiousness.”

(McCann cleverly didn’t reveal for whom Tanzi voted in November 2006; nor how he defines the term “Nifong apologist.”)

So, as Durham becomes the hotbed of the new national Prohibitionist movement, McCann and Tanzi suggest that any college student who drinks (according to most studies, around 75%) or attends a tasteless spring break party (hardly an unknown occurrence) bring upon themselves massive police and prosecutorial misconduct.

Unfortunately, as much as McCann or Tanzi or Healy or Ogburn might wish it were so, federal civil rights law does not say that its provisions apply to all Americans except college students who drink and attend tasteless spring break parties.

Rather than engaging in these after-the-fact character assaults, there was an easy way for the likes of McCann or Ogburn or Healy or Tanzi—or even figures such as Holloway or Herald-Sun editor Bob Ashley—to avoid the prospect of massive civil suit damages against their city: to do what they could, as citizens, to protest the police and prosecutorial misconduct as it was occurring.

They might not have succeeded in holding the city’s political leadership accountable. But, of course, the fact is that they didn’t even try. Indeed, they indicated no sign of any problem with the way either Nifong or the DPD were behaving in the case.

And now, after the fact, they complain, and act as if federal law need not apply to Durham. Some might call such behavior hypocritical.

[The comment thread for this post is closed.]