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Project 20/10: Lacrosse case draws national attention (#9)

Not surprisingly, local media outlets have picked the Duke Lacrosse case as one of the very top stories of the decade in Durham and Triangle news -- often pegging it as the number one story of the past ten years.

No_ifs Certainly there's a lot that makes the story newsworthy. It's a story that touches on so many of the things that makes for good copy: conflict over class, over education, over race. 

It was a conflict that highlighted what would eventually be tarred political corruption, in what emerged as the story of an overreaching district attorney who, as the consensus story has seemed to run, was obsessed with re-election and let his initial assurance of guilt get in the way of truth.

I'd argue that the lacrosse case was a key symbol of the polarization of America this decade. It divided left from right, with progressives accused of being quick to side with the accuser and against the players, while conservatives were quick to jump to the players' defense, particularly as more facts and questions appeared about the accuser and district attorney Mike Nifong.

I've said and written little about the lacrosse case here at BCR, leaving that to those who, frankly, followed the case much closer than I, given that a cottage industry popped up around the case.

For me, lacrosse has been less-relevant to follow as a story simply because I think it could have happened anywhere, and because the flashpoints picked up by the media reflected broad divisions in American life more so than they did some Durham uniqueness. 

Contrary to national media assumptions, there was not some peculiar singularity about the Bull City that allowed this case to happen here. 

Of course, it's still a significant story, largely because of the local impact it had, and the unflattering exposure it gave to Durham. 

But I'd argue one key element in looking upon this as a national, not a local story: the lack of real, persistent local conflict created by the case in its time -- or any deep lingering effect here in Durham four years later.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Ultimately, people's perspectives on the case during its heyday seemed to vary widely based on their worldview.

For some, the case offered a lens into what they have dislike about college athletics, or the perceived elite suburbs and private school athletic programs that produce so many of the athletes in sports like lacrosse. 

To others, it was that skepticism and disdain -- for athletes, or the well-off, or for top universities -- that itself was the problem, the seed of the term "rush to judgement."

In the days just a few short years ago before today's partisans like Alan Grayson or Michele Bachmann were household names, "Duke Lacrosse" became a code-word battleground, a battle of imagery and accusations and memes and beliefs about what 'the other side' in America believe.

To many on the left, the case was about wealthy white men abusing their privilege in life and taking advantage of less-powerful, less-resourced black women. And after the accusations of rape were dismissed, first in the court of public opinion and the media, and later by the state attorney general, it was still about privilege, in the form of what some argued were overwrought claims of the impact and harm the case did to the accused men -- and by those who still saw the whole thing as a sign of bad judgement in holding the infamous party in the first place.

To many on the right, the case was about the backlash they saw from what they perceived to be a community ready to turn on their boys; about university professors who they felt had rushed to take sides through what became the most notorious college newspaper advertisement of all time; about what they perceived as the sullying forever of the reputations and character of the boys accused in the case; about a bias that they felt the other side had against wealthy white males.

The very fact that the two sides disagreed on what they called the main characters in the matter -- "men" to those disinclined to their case, "boys" to those favorable to the case of the lacrosse players -- highlighted a significant chasm in the partisan emotional reactions to the case.

All of these factors, so powerful to each side in the argument, have much more to do with America in the twenty-first century than it does some Durham singularity.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

While much was made by the national media of the fact that this case occurred in Durham, a city immediately caricatured by the out-of-town press as a rich versus poor, black versus white, divided metropolis where Duke's student body stuck out like a sore thumb... frankly, it's hard to see the reverberations of the case on Durham nearly four years later.

Or at the time. Despite fears -- again, overblown in the national media -- of some sort of racial tension or riots at the verge over an NC Central student claiming sexual assault by Duke athletes, the long and the short of it was, nothing happened. 

No riots, no population massing in the street. 

Save for, of course, the infamous "pot-banger" rally in front of the players' house, in the early days when little was known, and when too many were prepared to take sides based on their presumptions and on media reports.

Of course, that rally would later take on epic proportions in the minds of those partial to the players' side. But it wasn't followed up with any significant local rallies, as the public generally settled down and watched the case through the lens of the media.

(Yes, Victoria Peterson paraded herself into a WRAL live shot outside the courthouse one day. But if that doesn't prove the case's existence outside Durham's political mainstream, I don't know what would.)

Sure, outsider marginals like the "New Black Panther Party" showed up and caused a fuss. But c'mon: who'd really ever heard of the New Black Panther Party before that?

It's an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center has deemed a hate group, and one whose seminal impact appears to be performing stunts to get themselves on the news, be it the lacrosse case, or an overblown "voter intimidation" claim at a single Philadelphia polling site in the 2008 election.

It was, in many ways, a classic lacrosse case moment, with a frightening-sounding but ultimately powerless fringe group parading into town to try to get some publicity for their cause, and conservatives making their arrival a totem of history, a talking point of outrage for years to follow.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

From a Durham perspective, the case did occur amidst Mike Nifong's work to get himself re-elected as D.A. amidst all the hubbub.

Though, of course, Nifong actually got just barely less than 50% of the vote, and would have been booted out of office had the wanly-supported Lewis Cheek and longshot candidate Steve Monks not both run for the seat, splitting the anti-Nifong vote. 

Was his prosecution of the lacrosse players even in light of exculpatory evidence designed to win black votes, something insinuated by case-watchers at the time?

Perhaps. And Nifong certainly drew big margins in majority-black districts -- along with strong performances in largely-white progressive districts surrounding Duke in west Durham.

Still, I may be na├»ve in thinking this, but I'd wager that, if Nifong had retracted his flimsy case against the lacrosse players before rather than after the election, he'd have lost that vote big time. Not because of a sense that he'd "abandoned" a purported victim, but because I suspect Durham voters wouldn't have liked to have realized they'd been taken for a ride by a politically-minded D.A. 

Yes, critics of the case turned out to be correct in saying from the springtime forward that there were glaring holes in the case. But I'd be hardpressed to imagine a city that would have turned out an experienced D.A. who, like Nifong, was standing up proclaiming loudly the guilt of the three accused players.

Even when the discredited accuser in the case eventually released a book telling 'her side' of the story at a so-called press conference at The Know bookstore on Fayetteville St., the reaction from the community was, largely, well.... Nothing.

No groundswell of public opinion, no skepticism remaining over the attorney general's decision. As far as the overwhelming mass of the Durham community was concerned, the matter was over.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Of course, some impact's still coming. 

The eventual settlement, finding, or dismissal against the university and the city could have financial impacts, particularly on Durham's budget.

And some would say there's been impact on the university side, from the hiring of well-liked Durham Tech president Phail Wynn to helm a new Duke-Durham relations office, to the growth of athletic competitions between the two schools, to a renewed emphasis on service learning through programs like DukeEngage.

Ultimately, for all the portrayal of lacrosse as a case of white-versus-black, and the idea of a community at the edge of racial tension, lacrosse's legacy has been as a cultural flashpoint between two still-largely-white groups of liberals and conservatives.

That it played out in a university context made it a clear battleground in the war over perceived political correctness by the right, while those on the left, particularly in higher education, still saw the party itself and the use of strippers as a violation of what universities ought to be about.

It's a war for which the Battle of Duke Lacrosse will be long-remembered.

But it's also a war whose tendrils stretch far beyond Durham, North Carolina, and whose impact on the city seems more as an historical event than as something that has implications for the city's day to day life these days.

One example: during the lacrosse case, when you went somewhere and mentioned you were from Durham, the case is all some people wanted to talk about.

These days, when I talk to people thinking about relocating to Durham, I hear many of the same questions that have been there for years -- of neighborhoods, crime, schools, parks and the like. But I can't think of anyone asking about the lacrosse case in a while.

Or take the Durham Convention and Vistors Bureau's survey results this fall.

By decade's end, the DCVB's survey found Durham to have the strongest perception of any major city in North Carolina. 

In neighboring Wake County, perceptions of Durham plunged during the lacrosse case, but have soared to higher marks than ever in the years since.

Yes, the lacrosse case was perhaps the biggest single event, from the lens of what matters to media producers and media consumers, in Durham this decade.

But I'd argue it was far from being the biggest Durham story of this decade, in terms of the things that really impact and reverberate within a community and set its path and direction.

By those measures, the lacrosse mess saw regional and national attention settle in like a swarm of bees, only to flit along somewhere else when the winds of big stories changed.

Obligatory disclaimer: As noted on the About BCR page, "The opinions expressed at BCR are those of the author and/or commentors and do not necessarily reflect those of the author's employer or of any other entities."

Comments

Parrish

The Duke case represented a great opportunity for initiating reforms in Durham and NC, which the both city and state have thus far failed to seize upon.

North Carolina lacks a Speedy Trial law, the right to a Probable Cause hearing (after a grand jury indictment); does not require transcripts of grand jury hearings; and much else besides. Nifong knew that and exploited those holes in the NC justice system to sustain a year-long prosecution that elsewhere would have been stopped in the first five minutes.

Yet surprisingly there has been little interest in enacting reforms to prevent another Duke case from happening.

Perhaps one reason for this is that many of the usual activists for reform were, in the Duke case, reduced to shilling for Nifong. For instance, the NAACP, which normally supports changes of venue and opposes gag orders, abruptly reversed itself in the Duke case on both these issues.

Activists also overlooked violations of police procedure, including a ludicrous lineup process, fraudulent warrants, and witness intimidation. (Nifong arrested several associates of the accuser, a major defense witness, and the police chief's daughter, in what many suspect were attempts to influence the case.)

Neither Durham nor the NAACP could find a word to say in defense of a Sudanese immigrant whom Nifong arrested and tried on false charges. The man refused to lie, though he was threatened with deportation and the loss of his chance at citizenship. For this he was selected as a Readers Digest Hero of the Year. But both Durham and the NAACP have cold- shouldered him.

It should also be noted that there were over 120 claims of rape in the Durham area in 2006; yet the NAACP could muster itself to take an active interest in only one of them.

It would be hypocrisy for these activists to speak up now in favor of reforms which would prevent the very kinds of activity they refused to criticize during the lacrosse case. Perhaps that accounts for their blaring silence.

The Duke case rapidly turned into a case of "us versus them"; "black versus white"; "poor versus rich"; "town versus gown". It was about everything except whether specific individuals committed a specific crime. And, for those with agendas, it was another example of "a case which is too important for innocence to be allowed as a defense".

It showed us that human nature never changes and crosses all color lines; and that we must constantly study the past in order not to repeat the same injustices all over again.

R. B. Parrish
(author, "The Duke Lacrosse Case: A Documentary History and Analysis of the Modern Scottsboro")


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