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Duke rape case exposes system’s contradictions

Published Apr 4, 2006 10:27 PM

Since last week, one of the most elite universities in the United States has been under national scrutiny for its grossly incompetent handling of a sexual assault investigation involving one of its top-ranked athletic teams. The firestorm that this case unleashed has galvanized residents in the working-class city of Durham and the entire Triangle, N.C., community. For many people in this region, the incident and its aftermath stand as a hard reminder that systemic oppression remains alive and well in the 21st-century U.S. South.

Demonstrators on Duke’s campus.

University officials had been aware of the allegations of rape and assault against members of the school’s top-ranked lacrosse team since March 14, but for nearly two weeks, no one from either athletics or administration made any public response about the incident. Duke lacrosse head coach Mike Pressler remained in denial right up until a scheduled March 25 match against Georgetown, not even bothering to address the allegations when pressed by a reporter from WRAL-5 TV on March 24. As the scandal began making national headlines, Duke President Richard Brodhead and athletics director Joseph Alleva finally decided to hold a press conference on March 28.

For four days before March 25, local media reported that a woman working as an exotic dancer had accused three players from Duke University’s lacrosse team of beating, raping, robbing, and nearly strangling her at a team party on March 13. At this point, the media reported that all 47 of the team’s members refused to talk to police, and that 46 of the players submitted DNA samples at the request of the Durham County district attorney (the lone African-American member of the team was excluded from testing because the victim said all her assailants were white).

But several key aspects of the attack were conveniently omitted in the early reports, the most critical being the race and class background of the victim and her attackers. This initial obfuscation would later elicit strong anger from the community.

At press time, no one has been formally charged in this case.

On March 13, two African-American women were hired to perform as exotic dancers for a team party at the home of the team’s three captains. The single-story house, at 610 North Buchanan Blvd., is located in Dur ham’s historic Trinity Park neighborhood near Duke’s East Campus. This home was one of 14 houses recently purchased by the university in response to repeated nuisance complaints from homeowners in the neighborhood, who were fed up with constant all-night partying, public inebriation, and disruptive behavior on the part of obnoxious Duke students. The university had plans to sell the homes after their current leases expired.

The women arrived at the home under the impression that they would be performing for a bachelor party of five men, but when they arrived, they encountered a drunken lacrosse team party with over 40 men present, apparently all members of the team. According to later police reports, the women were immediately subjected to racist and misogynistic slurs upon entering the house.

As the victim herself—a mother of two and a full-time student at historically Black North Carolina Central University—told Raleigh’s News and Observer, the women became so terrified by this verbal abuse that they decided to leave. A next-door neighbor told the paper that he personally witnessed white men verbally abusing the women with racist slurs as they tried to leave. As they were approaching their car, one of the men from the house came over to them and apologized for the racist abuse. He pleaded with the women to come back inside and perform at the party, and the accuser returned to the house. Once she was inside, she was allegedly pulled into a bathroom by three men, where they subjected her to a brutally violent rape and beating. The victim says she was vaginally, anally, and orally penetrated, punched, kicked, and nearly strangled by the three men for about 30 minutes. After she was able to escape from the house, she and the other woman drove to a local supermarket, where a security guard called Durham police around 1:30 a.m. on March 14.

When the violently racist nature of the attack was finally revealed to the public on March 24, community outrage was swift and immediate. Durham residents quickly set up listservs and message boards in order to coordinate community response and planning. On March 25, a silent demonstration was held in front of the lacrosse field to protest Duke’s match against Georgetown, holding signs bearing strong messages such as “Don’t be a Fan of Rapists.” As it turned out, Duke forfeited the George town match at the last minute, in anticipation of mounting public anger. Later that night, community members held a candlelight vigil in front of the house at 610 North Buchanan to express support for the victim. The very next morning, activists from across the Triangle gathered in front of the house and staged a “Cacerolazo”wake-up call—a traditional form of protest used by women in Latin America to publicly shame rapists and batterers. The participants banged on pots and pans while powerfully chanting calls for justice and solidarity.

This case has also shone a national spotlight on long-simmering resentments between majority-white Duke and the ethnically diverse working-class city in which the elite school resides. As the New York Times reported on March 31, Duke received a fifth-worst ranking out of 361 colleges in the latest Princeton Review survey of so-called “town-gown” relations—the interaction between a major academic institution and its surrounding community. In the same survey, Duke was also ranked sixth in having little or no interaction between students of different social classes and ethnic groups. Indeed, many African-American students at Duke say that racist treatment from white classmates is fairly common on campus. As graduate student Danielle Terrazas Williams told the Independent Weekly: “This is not a different experience for us 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.”

Unfortunately, both the media and Duke’s administration are desperately trying to obscure the blatant racism and misogyny of this case. Many media outlets make a point of referring to the victim as a “stripper” or “exotic dancer,” while framing the allegations of racist verbal abuse as mere race “issues” or “tensions.” Many outlets dare ask if this case has anything to do with race at all, as if sexual violence can ever be separated from systemic oppression. At the March 28 press conference, athletic director Alleva stated publicly that during his entire 26 years in Duke athletics, he has seen “no racial problems” with the lacrosse team or in the entire sports program. It is unclear if Alleva consulted athletes of color before making this statement.

At N.C. Central University this week, public events have been scheduled to show support for the victim in the case. These include speak-outs and a candlelight vigil in front of the campus Student Union on April 3. As junior Maya Jackson told Black College Wire, “We as a university do not accept this. This is an issue that affects all of us.”

The writer is with FIST-Fight Imperialism-Stand Together-youth group.