Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Trial by Fire

I enrolled at Morehouse College in August of 1996. The whiff of Olympic magic still in the air, Atlanta was definitely a city in transition when my class started our New Student Orientation at Morehouse.

The first weeks went along swimmingly, and Morehouse won it's first two football games. OutKast dropped its sophomore effort, "ATLiens" to rave reviews, and I finally started to understand the locales that they were speaking of in there music, since several of the places were minutes from campus.

I went to the Miss Maroon & White pageant on my birthday, September 22nd. It was a balmy night, and I remember wearing a red Hilfiger button down (because TH was still VERY much in), khaki shorts and docksiders. I remember sitting in the balcony and watching with anticipation as my boys and I leered and hissed from our elevated perch in the stately but sterile Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel. Stormee Windom won.

A few days later, after the Mike Tyson fight, Tupac Shakur was shot in Vegas. It was the common perception that since he had outlasted bullet wounds before, he would more than likely live through this situation as well. Unfortunately for him and his fans, that was not the case, and he died at 25. There were several Tupac fans on the 4th floor of Benjamin Elijah Mays Hall, and seemingly all of them decided to play his music as loudly as possible the night he died.

A few days later, word started to spread on campus that four students from Forbes Hall (now Brazeal) had been arrested for sexual assault. (Six years later, in that same Brazeal Hall, an incident occured that incited more unrest on campus that left a permanent physical scar on one student, and a ten year jail sentence for the other.) I dismissed it and went on my way studying about Lapis Lazuli and Mesopotamia, or worrying more about the 1996 Dallas Cowboys. It wasn't until I was eating lunch in Chivers Dining Hall, and I watched President Massey briskly walk in, dressed neatly in a baseball cap, maroon sweater folded over his shoulders and over his polo shirt, that I realized that maybe the rumors were true.

All of a sudden, the music in the cafe that had been blaring, stopped, and from some unknown place in the back, Dr. Massey was speaking from a P.A. system. He gave us instructions about the media, and left as hurriedly as he had arrived.

After dinner, I went back to my room and turned on the t.v. to watch 'A Different World' on Channel 36 like I did every afternoon. While flipping the channels, I saw something on the news about four Morehouse students who had been arrested and charged with sexual assualt.

Having been at Morehouse a little over 7 weeks, I didn't know any of them, but immediately felt sorry for them. The next day, stories were spreading around campus with great speed. Some true, some false, but all about the same thing...the Forbes Four.

Who was she? What was she doing over here that late? She's lying!

I heard a number of things. And it didn't take long before facts about the story were on the front page of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution. My friends from Howard were calling asking me about it, and my parents were interested in what was going on too. This thing had spread fast, and before the widespread use of email.

The woman in question was a freshwoman at Spelman who lived in Abby Hall. We found that out from the newspaper. Spelman circled the wagons, and shut down visitation. Morehouse shut down visitation, but no wagons were circled.

A town hall meeting was held and run by the venerable Dr. John Hopps, our provost at the time, and he mentioned that the four students in question had been suspended from school. This raised great concern among the student body, and the packed King Chapel crowd screamed and hurled epithets and threats toward the stage to show their displeasure with the ruling. The mood on the campus was tense.

The SGA was definitely on the side of the students, and seemingly did what it could to find out answers to the difficult questions. I remember one night, members of the SGA, clad in their uniform du jour of suit, shirt and bow-tie walked the halls of the dorms and collected money for the incarcerated students. I remember one of my friends on the hall saying, "I hope y'all will do the same for me, man."

Stories were circling like crazy, and all of a sudden a new invention not yet instituted in my dorm before, was installed. It was called a 'control desk.' In other words, female guests had to be signed in at the desk, and each person living in the dorm had to work the desk at a given time throughout the semester. This 'control desk' seemed to only last about a week before it was found burning outside of our dorm on Brown St.

And while interest in the plight of the incarcerated students started to wane, Homecoming came a knocking. With a star-studded lineup that rivaled any homecoming anywhere in the world, Morehouse rolled out the 1996 homecoming, "Magnifying the Mystique."

The comedy show was Jamie Foxx in the new Olympic Arena on Monday night. The fashion show was in King Chapel on Tuesday night. Thursday and Friday night were Coronation. The concert, Westside Connection (WC, Mack 10 and Ice Cube) and A Tribe Called Quest was held Friday night in the Olympic Arena. The parade was Saturday, followed by tailgate and the game against none other than HOWARD UNIVERSITY and their mighty Bison. After the game was the stepshow in Archer Hall, and after that was the huge Omega-Delta party at the Omni in downtown Atlanta. On Sunday, Kirk Franklin, Donnie McClurkin and an array of other gospel stars graced the stage at the Olympic Arena while I stood in line to hear a little known rapper getting serious buzz named...Jay-Z. Jay-Z was performing at King Chapel for $5. My best friends from Howard, Dorian, Benji, Braedan, Tim, Ray and Ace, came down to join in the festivities, and we had a truly memorable time.

A quick side note...we were stuck waiting to get into the Omega-Delta party for two hours in a lobby of the Omni. When I say stuck, I mean pressed up against each other for two hours, in a very small space. One Spelmanite was pressed up against a locked glass door, and almost suffocated from lack of air and exhaustion. Eventually, Miss Howard, LaChanda Jenkins, who was stuck near us, and who I knew from Jack & Jill, saw us and told us to lock hands. We did, and she guided us through the crowd as we got to the front of the quagmire and handed our money to the people in charge. When I finally got up to the smoky room, the pungent smell of variations of smoke and alcohol seemed to consume me. After an hour in the greatest party I'd ever been to in my life, the Fire Marshall (who seems to never sleep), came in and shut the party down. As we exited the Omni, several paying customers were very upset and voice their concerns. While sitting out in front of the Omni with several thousand other people, someone said 'they' were shooting. Before I knew it, I was gone flying up Marietta St. I looked to my left and right and saw my boys right there with me. Crazy times indeed.

Back to the story...

However, in the wake of all of this, the esteemed and eloquent Dean of King Chapel, Dr. Lawerence Carter, mentioned during a Sunday sermon that perhaps young women bring these actions upon themselves due to the way that they dress. Oh the furor it caused! The response to his comments were sharp, condemning and quick. He received open criticism from women and men alike for his statements, and never seemed to utter a word again about the situation. In the years to follow, he has been seen, and is still seen today as a great theologian and an important and vital member of the Morehouse community, but one slip of the tongue perhaps at a later time, when information was more readily accessible to greater masses of people, and Carter would have been out on his pants. How he dodged that one is beyond me, and it's NEVER brought up...ever.

After homecoming, word spread that the young woman in question had been caught on campus at a dorm in a very compromising position. A short time after that revelation, the students were released pending trial and eventual dismissal.

Seeing the dismissal of the case as a final end to the story (not to mention a dropping of the charges), one would naturally assume that things were over. Not by a long shot.

The day I came home from Christmas break, I was picked up by my friends Marc Germain and Keith Donaldson. They mentioned that they were going to pick up their friend Tony, who like them, was from Boston. I didn't know Tony, but he jumped into the backseat of Keith's Mercedes and extended his hand and shook my hand hard. He mentioned that he was hungry, and that we should go to Lenox to get something to eat. Before I knew it, we were on I-85 North headed to Mick's at Lenox. During our hours together, I got to know him a little bit, and he mentioned jail more than once. At first I found it odd, but didn't really pay it any attention.

Later that night, as we were driving back to the dorm, Marc and Keith told me that Tony, was one of the four students, one of the Forbes Four, who had been wrongly arrested and incarcerated for sexual assault. I was blown away. Before hand, I was merely an observer, and a cynical one at that, of the situation, but now, after spending the better part of the day with one of the guys, all of the emotions that I had felt before flooded my mind. I started to see Tony more and more on campus, and in my dorm because his first cousin lived across the hall from me, and because Marc and Keith were two of his best friends and they also lived on my floor. Tony Clark...my main man.

Tony knew all about Morehouse from the inside out, and was not afraid to tell it, show it, or impart wisdom about it. Tony would school me, lecture me, teach me and mold me into a person who questions things, and doesn't necessarily accept them at face value. He was fast becoming my best friend at Morehouse, and things seemed going well for him, as he was adjusting to life back on campus, and then word came that the story was not over.

Emerge Magazine, a publication that I loved and respected, chose for it's March or April 1997 cover story, 'The Rape of A Spelman CoEd.' The story, written by a victim of sexual assault, was part autobiographical, and part factual. The very fact that a person who had gone through such a horrible crime, would turn around and write a story about an alleged sexual assault seemed to me to be in poor taste as well as have a total lack of journalistic ethics. The article wasn't as scathing as it was decidedly one-sided, and it painted pictures of people that I could see and touch on a daily basis in a very negative light. But, as things do, the situation passed and the storm blew over.

And that summer, there were Tony and I burning the midnight oil, pushing each other to study, to make up for things that we didn't do in the previous school year; me because of lethargy and him because of an unjust situation.

So, as I look at the situation today at Duke, I wasn't surpised that the lacrosse players were suspended, that's what they did at Morehouse ten years earlier. I wasn't surprised that the accusations have been hurled before anyone outside of the D.A.'s office and the defendants have any of the real evidence. What surprises me is how little, tiny Morehouse braved a similar storm ten years ago this September, and dodged a bullet that would have been and could have been a major PR fiasco, and would've tainted the school's image for years to come. Now, it's never even mentioned. But if you ask anybody who was at Morehouse or Spelman during that time, they'll tell you their version of the story, and they just might tell you how they really felt too.

I'm Joe, and that's how I see it.


At Wednesday, May 10, 2006 2:53:00 AM , Anonymous Mar-Mar said...

As your insomniac of a sister sits up here and reads this amazing piece of history, I am somewhat appalled, though certainly not surprised about the reaction Morehouse and Spelman students alike had to this incident. To be perfectly frank, sexual assault is the only crime in which the victim is on trial--and with the addition of race to the equation, the discourse is never a simple one. I will say this, though, one of the fundamental ideas/points of dissent of race theory is that if Black people ever wish to advance, we must have the ability and license to critique ourselves. The racial violence that has been inflicted upon people of color for centuries is enough to make even bewildered twenty-somethings question themselves and their loyalties. If a woman of color was sexually assaulted, get enraged; get insulted! As much as our po-mo generation wants to believe, we are not past histories of violence or gender inequities. And as a nation, we are certainly not over the knee-jerk reaction of incarcerating Black men, which just re-earths narratives of slavery, which we've never, ever spoken honestly and openly about. So, what I've learned over time is that another Black person loving another Black person is like the most revolutionary act there is. And if we want to see an official end to this violence that is brought upon women's bodies and the bodies of men, we should take that revolutionary act upon ourselves. I know I've gotten myself off on tangent, but this post hit me hard....

At Friday, May 12, 2006 2:20:00 PM , Anonymous Gen said...

On the Morehouse story: wow

On the Duke story: What's "interesting" to me is how DNA of one of the alleged victims (a third one not charged yet) was found underneath the stripper's fingernails, (this as of the news I heard this morning). Isn't it "interesting" how the "NO DNA" headlines were in full force, yet we only hear of this new revelation at obscure times in the morning (bout 5 am)....hmmm... What can I say, this is still AmeriKKKa. Digress...

At Friday, May 12, 2006 2:21:00 PM , Anonymous Gen said...

I meant say "rapists" not "victims"...need to be more careful, lol, my bad

At Saturday, May 13, 2006 1:29:00 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Commencement 06' u coming?

At Tuesday, May 16, 2006 11:17:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great story Joe, I have always held your opinion at high regard.


At Thursday, May 18, 2006 10:41:00 AM , Anonymous jali said...

I have to second anonymous' comment and look forward to reading more.


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