Monday, September 24, 2007

Here a Noose, There a Noose..

ONE NIGHT IN JULY, A SECOND-YEAR COAST Guard cadet found a noose among his personal belongings when he returned to his berth after a stint on watch aboard the barque Eagle.
A noose. The 19-year-old engineering student put it in his pocket and went about his business, taking solace in the knowledge that he was on the fifth week of a six-week cruise.
The next morning, though, found him hurt and angry. The cadet, who is Black, reported the finding to his commander, Capt. J. Christopher Sinnett. It is important to note that the cadet was at first willing to have his name attached to this story. But again, after overnight consideration, requested to have his privacy. Ultimately, that it happened at all is far more import than to whom it happened.
Sinnett investigated the incident, but found no culprit. Of course, no one admitted to it. And, for that matter, exactly what was it? Was it a poorly thought-out prank, intended to amuse? Or was it a racist act intended to intimidate and humiliate?
Sinnett said that he was, in polite terms, very upset, as were many of the cadet's friends, classmates and shipmates of varied backgrounds and cultures. They were disturbed that one of their own would be subjected to such a gesture, and that one of their own would so egregiously violate the oft-repeated code of “honor, respect and devotion to duty.”
Sinnett said he made it quite clear in an address to everyone on board that the incident was unacceptable behavior.
So what to do next? There's no one to punish. Well, you educate. Ken Hunter, the academy's civil rights officer, was notified immediately. He put together an impromptu race relations training for all of the cadets on campus and anyone who interacts with them. Unlike the academy's standard annual sensitivity training, these sessions included discussion, photographs and anecdotes on the historical derogatory symbolism of the noose.
“When you first hear about things like this, you wonder, 'Do people get it?'” Hunter said. “Then you wonder, 'Was it was a joke, or was it race motivated?' And, 'Aren't we past this?'”
Aboard ship, Sinnett convened focus groups, comprised of 10 to 15 cadets each, to talk about what was done and all of its ramifications.
“It is a problem. We looked at it as a problem and we talked about it like a problem,” he said. “The feedback was astounding. Unfortunately, there were no indications as to who did it or why, but there was a lot of positive feedback from the crew and the cadets. Many of them had a lot to say, and I think it sent a strong message to whomever did it.”
“Honestly, I think it was an inappropriate joke,” the cadet said. He said only the perpetrator knows if the act was one of bigotry.
Frankly, I find it difficult to perceive the cowardly act as having anything other than purposeful racist motivations. That perception was fortified Friday evening when academy spokesman David French told me that during the course of the training, a noose was also surreptitiously delivered to a white female who was conducting part of the training.
Generally speaking, friends of differing cultural persuasions care enough and know enough to never assume they have the privilege of making off-color jokes or comments. I can't believe that was the case here.
Incidents like this beg intense public reaction, especially on a campus where, among the minority staff and personnel, there is a feeling that the leadership on campus is insensitive to racial matters. They believe the academy would prefer such incidents remain out of the pubic eye.
Their perception is bolstered by the fact that this incident only came to light more than two months after it happened, and certainly through no effort of the academy, but rather from people who felt it was intentionally being kept quiet.
Does it beg a protest led by Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and the NAACP, such as is ongoing in the noose-related incident in Jena, La.? I think not. But should the public that the Coast Guard is bound to serve and protect, especially the local public, know that such things go on in our local Homeland Security college? Absolutely.
Much to its credit, the academy was quite forthcoming in response to my inquiries. Most important, the offended cadet is satisfied with the academy's response, and the opportunity he had to address his classmates and crewmates aboard the Eagle.
“I confronted everyone the next day at quarters,” he said. “I said what I needed to say. I think what I said will have the most impact on the person who might have felt that way. Or the person who played an inappropriate joke knows it and won't do it again, whichever it was.
“But, whatever it was, now I've put it behind me and moved on.”
The young man is a credit to the academy. He is even more so to his family and his culture.
(This is the opinion of Chuck Potter.)

This gives an indication of the environment and the atmosphere at the Academy that gave rise to the things that happened to Webster Smith. The Academy is pretty much a closed society. Attitudes and actions start at the top of the chain of command and run down hill. The senior officers set the tone, and the lower ranking officers and cadets take their clues from them. The senior officers gave the impression that they wanted to scape-goat African American cadets to make political points with Congressman Shays and the Militant women's organizations to show how they were protecting the young white female cadets.
What they did to Webster Smith signaled to the cadets that they could engage in some subtle racially intimidating behavior. Also, if they were caught the punishment would be lax or little at all. They started to roll a snowball down a mountain, and now it is picking up momentum. They unleashed a whirl wind. Who knows where it will end? One thing is sure, Van Sice and Wisniewski opened up a Pandora's Box.
This did not happen over night. It has been brewing. What happened to Webster Smith was not an abberation. It was in keeping with the decisions and signals from the Superintendent and the Commandant of Cadets.
The correct decision in the Formal Complaint of Racial Discrimination could put the brakes on this trend, and might even stop it all together. It would show some of the lesser bigots that their pranks or intimidating acts will not be tolerated by the larger society outside of the Academy grounds.
The Rule of Law still prevails in this country. Most people would do the right thing for the right reason, if they were allowed to do so.

What's done in the dark, will soon come to light.