March 2, 2006

Two Towns

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I’m from a small town outside of Houston called Missouri City that you’ve probably never heard of, which is three hours away from an even smaller town called Jasper. You probably wouldn’t have known the name either, except for the infamy it received following the murder of James Byrd in 1998.

I was a freshman in high school when it happened. I couldn’t wrap my head around it, not because of its close proximity to my home, but because of the utter inhumanity it exuded. I once more faced the sobering reality of that atrocious incident during my freshman year at Cornell when I attended a screening and discussion of an incredible documentary entitled “Two Towns of Jasper.” Brilliant documentary-filmmakers Whitney Dow and Marco Williams set up camp in the sleepy town to record both the white and black populations’ reactions to the heinous news story. One filmmaker is white, the other black, and together they ingeniously captured the two separate segments of the community in places of work and worship, but also in the residents’s element within the privacy of their homes. What was said in public and private discourse couldn’t have been more drastically different. Reactions not in the light of public opinion were often appalling; white residents brutally denounced Byrd’s character, as if it offered reason or explanation for the crime. How, I thought, could they take the time to argue such irrelevant non-specifics as the merit of the deceased in the face of something so grotesque?

I refer to this documentary because of the many interesting parallels I see between the response of the Jasper community in a time of crisis and ours, particularly people needing, wanting to recreate hypothetical scenarios of the event and find logic in a situation that offers none. Although the administration has perhaps fostered this atmosphere of misinformation and conjecture with its blankly vague and faulty public statements, it still surprises me. It’s quite unfortunate, that in this insidious quest for quantitative facts we have lost sight of a number of serious issues that have surfaced in light of this tragedy.

First and foremost, I think that so many of us have forgotten that there is a victim. 22-year-old Charles Holiday has since been re-hospitalized for the severe injuries he sustained last weekend while recovering in Schenectady with his family. One of his friends from Union left a comment to a newspaper story on the Daily Sun’s website. It was read aloud to me last week, and maybe you should look at it too. Charles is someone’s son and friend, not just a random visiting student. Beyond reclaiming the victim’s humanity, another issue worth discussing is the presence of weapons on this campus. Carrying deadly weapons on this campus is in strict violation of the Campus Code of Conduct. According to District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson at a forum on Sunday night, the weapon was a knife. And so what if it wasn’t? A student attended a party on Friday night with a concealed weapon, which is defined as anything that can be used in that capacity, and in an alcohol-induced state used it against another person, be it self-defense or not. Such blatant recklessness equates to driving to a party, drinking heavily and leaving from said party. Because a car isn’t a weapon, it’s a means of transport. But at the command of an inebriated driver, it may as well be a loaded gun.

The use of hate speech at Cornell University, in a sober or judgment-impaired capacity, needs to be addressed. True, there hdsn’t been a stabbing on this campus in 25 years, but bias-related incidents are nothing new. Last semester I wrote an article about hearing slanderous speech on my walk home from a party. I’d like to say that was the only time, but I also experienced an episode as a freshman when someone said something incredibly inappropriate owning it up to her drunken state. This has happened to my friends and will continue to occur if we remain fixed in this inaccurate notion that bias simply doesn’t exist at Cornell.

And what do I make of the argument that this was a drunk college male, “uncharacteristically” spewing racial epithets who simply “got out of hand” after a night of heavy drinking? Well I’m going to quote District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson once more to say that “Voluntary Intoxication is not a defense to any crime.” It does not excuse the use of racial slurs and it does not excuse the belligerent erratic behavior that led to last weekend’s violence. It needs to be widely understood that even in states of heightened intoxication; you can and will be held accountable for your actions that are deemed hurtful and harmful to others.

During the filming of the documentary, it was discovered that the town’s cemetery had a color line in the form of a fence, separating the black and white deceased. It was torn down as a result of the attention that the film attracted to such a despicable reminder of a segregated past. If anything positive can come from this horrible and ugly stain that has pervaded our campus, perhaps a necessary dialogue on a series of pertinent and grave issues can be promoted and achieved.

Archived article by Sophia Asare
Sun Staff Writer