October 2, 2007

Alleged Harassment at D.P. Dough Sparks Controversy

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D.P. Dough and the Ithaca Police Department are at the center of controversy this week amid allegations of racial prejudice against members of the black student community.
The controversy stems from a Sept. 18 incident at the downtown Ithaca restaurant, when Christine Baptiste-Perez ’10 and three friends, all women, were allegedly harassed while eating a late-night meal. At around 1:30 a.m., two white men entered the restaurant and allegedly began verbally assaulting the four women, all of whom attend Cornell and are of African descent, with sexist and racist remarks. The confrontation escalated to an argument, and the restaurant manager soon called police after the parties involved refused to leave the premises. Ithaca police officers arrived and, according to Baptiste-Perez, told the four women that neither the manager of D.P. Dough nor the two customers had done anything wrong.
Baptiste-Perez, though, was not convinced. Alleging that the restaurant manager should not have asked her and her friends to leave the premises and that the responding officers were unattentive to her complaint of racial prejudice, the Cornell sophomore took her case to a variety of student advocacy groups on campus, including Black Students United.
“The police department is supposed to make us feel safe, but they just seemed like they didn’t care,” Baptiste-Perez said.
According to BSU President Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo ’08, the incident involved elements of both racism and sexism on the part of the restaurant and the IPD that need to be addressed.
“When you hear phrases these two men used [like ignorant-ass hoes], they are usually directed at females of color,” Lumumba-Kasongo said. “D.P. Dough [subsequently] treated its customers like objects, not people, and the IPD showed a [lack of concern] for the incident.”
Tonight’s protest, she continued, will be the first in a series of actions directed at D.P. Dough and the IPD. The campaign, she said, will aim to combat the “disrespect shown by the restaurant to its customers” and the subsequent behavior of the responding officers, who “dismissed the gravity of the situation [irresponsibly].”
D.P. Dough, though, sees the incident differently. According to Ed Rieth, a co-owner of the restaurant, the manager on duty did exactly what she was supposed to do in response to the argument.
“We tell all [our managers], ‘Get it off the property if there’s an argument,’” Rieth said. “She told everybody to leave, no one left, so she called the cops.”
Rieth said he did not believe any of the comments made by the two white customers were motivated by race and maintained that his manager acted without regard to race or gender.
“The males accused the females of being ‘ignorant hoes,’” he said. “How is that racist?”
For its part, the IPD said in a statement to The Sun that it has begun an internal review of the incident.
“The IPD is following up on this matter,” stated Deputy Chief of Police John Barber. “We are conducting an internal review which includes the district attorney’s office, the mayor and the human resource director’s office, and the officers involved. The IPD is committed to the fair and equitable treatment of all citizens.”
Baptiste-Perez and her friends brought their complaint to groups like BSU and Ken Glover, her residence hall director at Ujamaa, just days before the black student community held a rally for the Jena Six on Ho Plaza. The rally was organized in support of six black high school students accused of beating a white teenager in the small town of Jena, La., a case that has garnered national attention for its racial overtones and perceived racial prejudice. Cases like the Jena Six, Baptiste-Perez said, encouraged her to bring her own experience into the open.
“I don’t want this to blow over,” she said. “People need to be aware that things like this still happen in the United States.”
With the BSU at the lead, the black student community has drafted a letter to President David J. Skorton highlighting a number of racially-motivated acts of prejudice in Ithaca and across the United States.
Among them includes the Sept. 18 incident at D.P. Dough as well as an ongoing case of alleged racial bias in the Ithaca school district.
The letter urges Skorton to “address the Cornell student body and make them aware that Cornell University will not stand idle in the face of racial discrimination.”
According to Lumumba-Kasongo, the Sept. 18 incident at D.P. Dough is even more relevant in light of these other acts of racial prejudice.
“We’re seeing grassroots activism,” said Lumumba-Kasongo, “but we’re not really feeling the pressures from above, from the administration and from the institution itself. By keeping people aware, we hope to affect some real change.”