After 'hate-crime' melee, calm eludes Quaker school
Like the banners condemning hate and the chalked peace signs on sidewalks, the makeshift scarecrow that stands on the tree-lined Guilford College campus is a testament to the trauma gripping this small Quaker school, as well its determination to heal.
With a mop for hair and a cardboard-box face, the scarecrow wears a sign inviting students to "Write the definition of community." Pinned to the corkboard hanging around its neck are scraps of paper with words like "Tolerance," "Accepting of all," and "Well-being."
The community scarecrow, as it's called, was erected last week by students after at least five members of the school's football team were accused of attacking three Palestinian students. According to court documents, the players allegedly beat the students with feet, fists, and brass knuckles, while calling them "terrorists" and racial epithets.
This coming week, the FBI and local prosecutors will begin interviewing football players. They'll also interview the three alleged victims.
Five of the football players have already been charged with assault and battery, as well as "ethnic intimidation," North Carolina's formal name for its hate-crimes law. The FBI is also investigating whether the Palestinian students' civil rights were violated.
The altercation shocked the campus and the surrounding community – in no small measure because Guilford is dedicated to core Quaker values like diversity, integrity, and community. It also has a long history of recruiting Palestinians from the Friends Schools in the West Bank, offering them scholarships and paths to a new life.
National hate-crime experts contend the fact that such an alleged attack could take place at a school like Guilford – voted by Newsweek as the "hottest for social conscience" in 2006 – is a reflection of how deeply distrust of Islam now permeates the United States. For data, they point to polls, such as one done by CBS last April. It found that 45 percent of Americans now have a negative view of Islam – more than 9 percentage points higher than in the tense months following the 9/11 attacks. And a Washington Post poll found that the number of Americans who believe Islam stokes violence has more than doubled – from 14 percent in January 2002 to 33 percent in March 2006.
"What we have here is a climate where Islamaphobia is not only considered mainstream, it's considered patriotic by some, and that's something that makes these kinds of attacks even more despicable," says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. [ Editor's note: The original version misnamed the center's university.]
The only facts not in dispute surrounding the events of that late Saturday night at Guilford are that a fight occurred, racial slurs were thrown as well as fists, and people were hurt. The three Palestinian students, one of whom was a visitor from North Carolina State University, all sustained concussions and contusions. One also has a broken jaw, another a broken nose. And a third has back injuries. All have been released from the hospital.
"At the end of the day, we believe the facts will show they were attacked by a group of individuals, and it was an unprovoked attack," says Seth Cohen, a lawyer who is representing the Palestinian students.
The father of one of the football players, who was arrested and charged, released a picture to the media that showed his son had a bruise shaped like a belt buckle on his back. He says that is proof the football players were not the only culpable ones. In a statement released to the media last Friday, he wrote: "When all of the facts are revealed, we believe that those who are sensationalizing this story will be rightly embarrassed...."
The college administration, which has its own independent investigation under way, is determined to quell the excited emotions on both sides of the debate. It has said it will not pass any judgments until its review is complete.
"We seek truth, justice, and reconciliation," Guilford College President Kent Chabotar told students at an open forum last Wednesday. "Those are hard – impossible to achieve without due process and without listening to each other."
That determination to uphold the Quaker value of patience has angered some students at Guilford who believe that the college should be moving faster to label the incident a hate crime. During the past week, they've held candlelight vigils, staged a one-day boycott of classes, and held repeated meetings with top college officials.
"If there's one thing almost everybody ... agrees on, is that it was a hate crime," says Yuri Woodstock, a freshman from Roanoke, Va.
Other students believe the school is handling things well. And they've found their colleagues' way of expressing their anger inappropriate.
"Despite being somewhat displeased with the almost irrational initial reaction, I was also pleased to see that people actually cared," says Wes Corning, a senior from Washington, D.C., and president of the school's Community Senate. "It's formed into a real sign that the students like to protect Guilford and all it stands for – they do take the Quaker values really seriously here."
Those values have also helped the local Muslim-American community, which has always had good relations with the college, come to terms with the incident.
"If it had happened at any other college, I'd be standing on the corner raising [a ruckus]," says Isa Abuzuaiter, chairman of the Board of the Islamic Center of the Triad, which represents the estimated 10,000 Muslims in the Greensboro area. "But it's Guilford, and so we really don't know what to do."
Mr. Abuzuaiter and others in the area are doing their best to support the three students. But they are worried about the impact of the incident on their own children. His son Michael, who was born and raised in Greensboro, plays football for Guilford's archrival, Greensboro College.
"Would these players take revenge on my son and try to hurt him on the field? I don't know," he says.
But he and his colleagues are also optimistic about the future for Muslims in America, despite the current climate. And one reason, they say, is the way that Guilford College and its students are responding to the incident.
"The Quakers are our friends. They have always opened their hearts to us," says Badi Ali, president of the Islamic Center. "What we're seeing now is the fruit of those years of cooperation.... We need more education and exposure to each other. We need to stand up for victims and to challenge the racist mood in this country."