Reflections on the Geisel Noose Suspension and Shirley Sherrod   1 comment

I’m not sure how it works, but once two things are bonded in your mind, it’s extremely difficult to deactivate the trigger linking them. I do think that this quarter, the most prevalent Geisel meme will concern its essence being rendered into a snow fortress for the film “Inception”, but I’ll never forget where I was and how I felt when the Geisel noose was discovered. Whenever I peruse the stacks, whenever I scan the shelf tags for a call number, I feel the echo of that noose hanging there. And how quick and unfair a reaction it unleashed.

Until recently, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what that whole Shirley Sherrod debacle reminded me of. Sherrod’s is the story where a video excerpt from a speech given by  a Georgia USDA worker was taken out of context and posted on a blog after hours, resulting in her firing by the White House. Ms. Sherrod appears in the video clip recalling an instance in which she discriminated against a white farmer based on race, and when it was brought to the media’s attention, she was forced to pull her car over to the side of the road and resign because, she was told, “You’re going to be on Glenn Beck tonight.” Something like this happened before–recently enough–at UCSD. The Geisel noose affair. The stories share striking similarities.

This is the Geisel noose, hanging on the seventh floor in a relatively obscure corner. The way the call tag glows in the camera flash resonates eerily in my mind. For obvious reasons, it would be inappropriate to post Sherrod's image anywhere near this one.

The Geisel noose was discovered late at night on the seventh floor of Geisel Library and its likeness and location were immediately spread through text message. UC Regent Live Blog, run by the student Regent at UC Irvine, posted the noose discovery late Thursday night sometime after midnight. Other blogs quickly followed (this one included) and overnight, the Black Student Union organized a sit-in protest at the UCSD Chancellor’s Complex. In the morning a campus-wide email announced that the UCSD police was on the case as protesters flooded the Chancellor’s office. In the afternoon, it was announced that the person who had left the noose had turned herself in and been suspended. This is all in the course of 18 hours, from noose discovery to suspension.

The Shirley Sherrod affair, from the first blog posting to her forced resignation, took a similar whirlwind path. The timeline of events and the media coverage are the subject of controversy, but all agree that the video excerpt of her speech was first posted on Andrew Brietbart’s in the late morning and she was forced to pull her car over to the side of the road and resign around 5PM. Her whole affair took only six hours, compared to roughly 18 for the noose hanger, but the ordeal of turning herself in clearly delayed the process. Both events were first widely reported on blogs, and led to impulsive disciplinary action in less than a day, which was unwarranted in both cases.

The Geisel noose suspension and Sherrod firing are similar in being catalysts of false racial controversies. The suspended party in the noose incident had nothing to do with the “Compton Cookout” event and she herself is a minority student. However, the “Cookout” and subsequent protests provided the context in which her “mindless act” (her apology is clear) triggered a rise in racial tension and a media firestorm.

The Sherrod affair wasn’t a stand-alone racial issue either. Andrew Breitbart, the blogger who posted the misleading video excerpt of Sherrod, claims to have done so to show that the NAACP was racist for cheering Sherrod’s tale of anti-white discrimination. The week before the video was posted, the NAACP passed a resolution demanding that the Tea Party condemn racist elements within their ranks. Breitbart saw this as hypocritical and posted the video in the context of the argument between NAACP and Tea Party about which group was racist. Sherrod and the suspended party in the noose incident both acted innocently, but were punished because of the racially charged context in which others saw their actions.

And both Sherrod’s and the suspended party’s intentions were horribly misconstrued. Sherrod spoke about a turning point where she abandoned a race-based approach in favor of a class-centered narrative. The suspended party in the noose incident committed a “mindless act” after a short-lived fascination with knot tying quickly passed as her studies commanded her full attention. With Sherrod, all people saw was a misleading video clip that showed her as a racist, and with the suspended party, all people saw was a symbol of racial hatred. What people saw was wrong and worth apologizing for.

In hindsight, both hasty conclusions were not only wrong, but avoidable. The clip of Sherrod’s speech that was posted was obviously a portion of a larger narrative and the unthreatening green hue and obscure placement of the Geisel noose made it possible to question whether it was meant as a threat. The noose had been hanging there for two days before discovery, which is important. No malicious threatener would leave a symbol of hate in a part of UCSD’s most famous building where it takes two days to be discovered. Sherrod gave her speech to the NAACP in March, but her the excerpt of her video didn’t hit the blogs until July. Both time delays speak to the context in which their controversies were unveiled. Clues to the true and innocent nature of both cases were ignored by an overeager blogosphere, media, and respective dispensers of discipline.

The overreactors and agenda pushers in both cases are easy to identify, but I believe the authority figures in both acted worst of all. That is, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and the White House in the Sherrod case, and the UCSD administration in the noose suspension case. Other actors and inflamers are not pardoned for their behavior, but they aren’t final decision makers with official firing and suspending power.

The media did not treat either case fairly. It was irresponsible and credibility-damaging for any journalist or news reporter to condemn Sherrod as a racist or to proclaim the Geisel noose as a threat. A black racist in the USDA and death threats at racially tense UCSD would be great news stories, but they weren’t true. Shame on the media. And shame on the blogs, which aren’t usually held to the same standard, but spread extremely quickly. There is a party in the Geisel noose controversy that has no parallel in the Sherrod affair, but is deserving of admonishment. That is the protesters who flooded the Chancellor’s complex the day after the noose was discovered, and that includes me.

I understand the tensions and the emotional outrage protesters felt when the noose was discovered– I was there. I felt it too. Powerful feelings roared inside me, and nooses play no painful role in my Japanese-American history as they do in African American history. But it’s not an excuse. The suspended party, I’m sure, felt way worse than anyone else when she discovered the pain her absentmindedness caused, and the sit-in protest made her feel even worse than that.

A movement, no matter how convicted it feels, is not infallible. It was unreasonable to flood the chancellor’s office with protesters for eight hours, pressuring the administration to crucify someone whose motives they knew nothing about. It was unreasonable to express disappointment when it was announced that the student responsible for the noose had been suspended, which I heard full well standing in that crowd. Not enough information was known to act so harshly, no matter how incensed the noose made people feel.

The Sherrod affair happened too quickly for organizers to protest, and there’s no guarantee Tea Party members wouldn’t have done so, given time to organize. However, real live protesters taking over an administrative building as happened at UCSD in response to the noose, has no parallel. Someone with power and a duty to protect students who felt threatened, Chancellor Fox, felt direct pressure in her office from  the BSU and their protesters to take action. Secretary Vilsack was under no such direct pressure to force Sherrod’s resignation.

Secretary Vilsack and Chancellor Fox are directly responsible for Sherrod’s firing, and the suspended party’s suspension respectively. The media, blogs, and protesters all played a role, but ultimately people in power need to take responsibility. Vilsack didn’t know the context of Sherrod’s video clip, but reacted to the media and had her fired. Chancellor Fox was able to hear the suspended party’s story, listen to her explanation, and witness her mortification. Perhaps that’s why a “mere” suspension was handed down, and not an expulsion or arrest.

This is how the suspended party always intended to leave that call tag.

In California, Penal Code 11411 (a) PC criminalizes, “Hanging a noose with intent to terrorize.” The last four words–even just that last one–is of the utmost importance. The suspended party had absolutely no “intent to terrorize.” Absolutely none. It was a “mindless act” in her own sincere words, not a heartless one. Because the intent was not malicious, no crime was committed. Given that the campus police (decided not to make an arrest) and Chancellor Fox were able to hear her out, I cannot figure out why the suspended party was suspended. What did she do? Commit ignorance? The typical university punishment for ignorance is ‘F’s, not suspension.

I can think of no other explanation for the suspended party’s suspension other than mob appeasement. She committed no crime. Claiming she was suspended for her own safety sounds similar to what the government told my grandparents when they were sent to Tule Lake during World War II. She was suspended because she made a lot of people mad. That reasoning hardly sounds consistent with academic principles. It sounds like a decision made in fear of a very passionate faction- and there happened to be one flooding the Chancellor’s office at the time.

The blame game gets unshelved when embarrassing mistakes are made by powerful people or groups. Many, including the NAACP and Sherrod herself blamed Fox News for her firing. It was the responsibility of Secretary Vilsack and his staff not to take such drastic action with such little information. They acted out of fear of Fox News and the similarly disposed, but made their own bad decisions. Chancellor Fox, in suspending the student responsible for the noose, acted out of fear of  BSU protesters who had already breached her office doorstep. She did not want to announce that no disciplinary action had been taken against the noose perpetrator and then have to explain the full circumstance. The BSU’s response would be unbearable. But blame and responsibility evaporated into thin air.

And that bothers me the most. A girl was suspended from school. Her academic career, present and future, jeopardized, for one admittedly stupid mistake. One that hurt no one and was never intended to do any harm. I’ve forgotten to turn off the stove and taken off for class before– it was a stupider and more dangerous act than what got this girl suspended. She was punished for a context. One she played no role in creating. That’s not fair. And no one has taken responsibility for that unfairness.

Chancellor Fox never had to explain the suspension. The BSU acted as though the narrative had not changed just because of the small revelation that the suspended party meant no harm. There were no apologies to the suspended party by anybody who had condemned her. Shirley Sherrod was treated much better than that when the truth was revealed. Many took a cynical attitude to the suspended party’s apology and explanation. Blog commenters said she was playing dumb and that there was no way she was telling the full truth. That’s despicable and intellectually bankrupt. She’s given her apology for an honest mistake. She is still owed an apology by those who condemned her.

Shirley Sherrod and the suspended party in the Geisel noose incident did not deserve punishment. They were punished. Blogs and media quickly spread inaccuracies about them and formed a power narrative before the persecuted could even respond. Powerful officials reacted quickly to carry out swift judgment, before the whole story was really known. Both were victims of a larger narrative, groups calling other groups racist, and they got caught in the middle. Removed from the racial context, and granted a context of good faith, no firings or suspensions would have occurred.

When the record was set straight, Shirley Sherrod was exonerated. She was presented with many apologies, a phone call from President Obama, and another job offer. To my knowledge, no such vindication has been granted to the suspended party. She deserves, at the very least, an apology from Chancellor Fox and from the BSU, and to have her suspension expunged from the record. When White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs addressed the Sherrod debacle, he cited it as a proverbial “teachable moment.” I would ask Chancellor Fox what is “teachable” about the mob rule and lack of accountability demonstrated by the Geisel noose suspension.

And ask that she take a moment to apologize to the suspended party.


One response to “Reflections on the Geisel Noose Suspension and Shirley Sherrod

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  1. hope and change

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