This is the second in a series of posts looking at the crusades mounted on both sides of the Duke lacrosse case, in the hope of shedding some light on the way they’ve overshadowed meaningful debate about the incident and its aftermath. You can click back to the first post for an introduction and overview. Here I’ll take on the potbanging protest—the rally on Sunday morning, March 26, 2006 at the scene of the party that led to the rape allegation. I’m writing, I think, mostly for people who are inclined to approve of or rationalize this protest as uncompromising and forceful advocacy and the speaking of truth to power. That was more or less my first impression as I ran across references to it in articles and discussions about the case (this was months after they happened for reasons I explain in my introduction). My reaction was probably defensive as much as anything else, because what I came across first, mostly, was dismissive or derisive comments from liestoppers—those on Liestoppers and similar web forums who see the case only in terms of the injustice done to the lacrosse team. That kind of defensiveness is all too typical of polarized debates like this one and all it does is perpetuate and accentuate the divisiveness. After taking a closer look, I believe this protest was ill-conceived and self-defeating. It’s a shame that those who have pushed for a broad discussion of social or gender or racial equity have let the issues raised by this and similar protests fester.
How did protesters espousing an end to not only sexual violence but all violence convince themselves that it was a good idea to stand in front of the lacrosse players’ house on Buchanan Blvd. with a banner screaming “Castrate!!”? Even given the rally’s aim of confronting the lacrosse team to get them to talk, it’s hard to see what purpose such a vile but empty threat could serve, and also hard to imagine that no one involved realized how much it made them look like hypocritical, bloodthirsty zealots. Of course that’s all ridiculously easy to point out in retrospect. I don’t at all discount the genuine concern for victims of sexual assault—a terrible, debilitating crime—that motivated most if not all the protestors. I expect that some of the outrage came from brutally real personal experience of assault, something that far too many women have to live with. I can only go on what I can see and read, though, and in that the action is represented not only as a denunciation of the team but also righteous support for the woman alleging rape and for other assault survivors. The “Castrate” banner, which was likely the work of only a few of those present but was apparently tolerated all around, shows how much the action was ultimately defined by what was opposed rather than what was supported.
Behind the rally was a spirit of vigilantism. The call to protest that went out the night before (see below for a link) describes the alleged rape as a fact and says the lacrosse team has to be confronted because they’re “maintaining a strict code of silence.” The “Castrate” banner as well as the other slogans like “You can’t rape and run” and “It’s Sunday morning, time to confess” were apparently meant to break down the team’s resistance. The decision to shout down the team as rapists was based on incomplete, highly filtered, second- or third-hand information, or, in the case of the “code of silence,” misinformation. It’s all depressingly consistent with vigilantism’s bad rap. I get a whiff of mob psychology from the videos of the event on YouTube (especially the second one), which doesn’t mean I have any truck with the knee-jerk geniuses who imagine the potbanging crowd as some kind of lynch mob—it’s like saying a headache is the same as a brain tumor. I can’t blame activists acutely aware of sexual assault as a largely unacknowledged, unpunished crime for having an intense urge to do something. But I wish they’d treated the story the police were telling about a “wall of silence” with even a fraction of the skepticism they would have treated a story from the same source that was unfavorable to the accuser.
Provocative as it is, the “Castrate” banner didn’t attract much attention until months after the protests. A quick LexisNexis search finds only one mention of it immediately after the rally, in the next day’s Durham Herald-Sun—not something that found a lot of eyeballs, especially around Duke. My best guess is that the banner became a fixture in discussions of the case after the picture was included in an account of the protests posted on Liestoppers in Nov. 2006 (the post, which quotes the call to protest in full, is fairer and more informative than you’d think from all the bric-a-brac of grudge-nursing around it). It isn’t mentioned on DIW until Jan. 2007 (the single instance that seems to be from 2006 is misdated). Both the banner and the typical liestopper reaction to it perfectly follow the culture-war logic that pumping up your own indignation and hurting the other side trumps all else. While I was searching for background on the protest I stumbled across a post from John In Carolina, who took it to comic extremes by writing a letter to the editor complaining that The News and Observer didn’t even mention the “Castrate” banner for more than a year—imagine how many decent citizens were deprived of their full portion of moral outrage!
Speaking soon after the event in an MSNBC interview, Manju Rajendran, one of the protest organizers, describes the confrontational tone as an end in itself:
Women in Lima, Peru, initiated this as a way of surrounding the houses of women who were being assaulted by their husbands or by their partners. And it was a very confrontational way of saying, We demonstrate solidarity with the women who are being attacked in this way or by anyone who’s being persecuted in this fashion. We challenge the racism and the sexism and the classism implicit in these actions. We want to shame the attackers, and we want to invite the witnesses to step forward and come clean.
A little googling makes it clear that the cacerolazo is a common form of protest in Latin America, but I can’t find any examples that fit Rajendran’s description. In principle, especially in a place where incidents of sexual assault or domestic violence generate little attention (if not unhelpful attention) from the authorities, it sounds like a fine idea. But she transferred wholesale to Durham a response to a very different sort of rape, one involving intimate partners, from a very different context, the social framework of a tight-knit third-world neighborhood (that’s my inference, of course, but I can’t think of a plausible alternative), where among other things the effect of shame would be both more pointed and more contained.
The fact she was talking about the protest a few days later on nationwide TV shows how uncontained the shame and everything else was in her version. That the protest would send words and images ricocheting out of control around the media and the web seems utterly predictable (though I may just be indulging 20-20 hindsight).
One discrepancy is especially revealing. Unless there’s some kind of women’s brigade in Lima that responds to distress calls from here and there, the intervention Rajendran describes would have to be organized by women familiar with both the victim and her abuser. It seems to me that Rajendran wasn’t differentiating between her connection to the parties of the lacrosse allegation and the connection she’d have if, say, a friend or neighbor in an abusive relationship came to her for help (in which case a lot more deliberation would surely be involved before gathering a crowd to chant on the sidewalk). But knowing the accused and accuser by type and role—gender, race, class, titillated viewer or demeaned hireling, etc.—was apparently enough familiarity to call out the pots and pans on Buchanan Blvd.
An essay written by Durham-based activist Brian Proffitt in the wake of the protests and the negative DNA results is another window onto the reduction of the lacrosse team’s accuser to a type. In it he stresses his “commitment to believing those who come forward with stories of survival first.” His perspective is different from Rajendran’s, in that he’s writing as an advocate for assault survivors rather than a scourge of assaulters, but he and Rajendran both have ties to Ubuntu, a group founded in reaction to the lacrosse accusation, and my impression is that, whether or not he was involved in the potbanging protest, he is speaking from the same general perspective. Even when I disagree with him, I admire his forthright efforts to explain his position without rancor. He’s at his best writing as an advocate about the debilitating effects of sexual assault and the bleak prospects survivors have for a fair hearing, much less justice and resolution.
Proffitt also makes a couple of good points in support of his “commitment to believing.” One is that, for a woman going through the grueling process, simply being believed can make a big difference. The other is that bringing a charge of rape is typically a punishing and humiliating experience for the accuser—a natural deterrent to false allegations. Just how much of a deterrent is a matter of psychology and socialization, though—I don’t doubt that it’s enough to many women who have really been assaulted that they choose not to press charges. But there must be some who would be much less bothered, especially in our fame- and notoriety-driven culture. But Proffitt’s blanket faith is so ironclad that, in his writing about the lacrosse case there is no “accuser” (and no “allegation”), only a “survivor”—one of a sanctified class that’s “creating the path forward… [by] resisting violence, homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, and capitalism.” It’s a belief that would tend to short-circuit the difficult questions that should be asked before standing on a sidewalk and very publicly denouncing people accused of a serious crime, like whether the case fit the scenario in which false allegations are highly unlikely.
Coming up next, the dangers of perfection…