Hung Up

A noose at a local college brings the Jena 6 controversy home

It was early one afternoon in mid-October, and Gabriel Keith, newly appointed as an assistant editor at his college newspaper, was not happy. Sitting in a corner of the small, windowless newsroom, deep in the bowels of the nondescript downtown campus of Minneapolis Community and Technical College, the sandy-haired former military man was fed up with blown deadlines.

Keith penned a harsh letter to his recalcitrant writers. But it lacked urgency, he felt. How could he make the message stick?

Then it hit him: He'd attach it to a noose.

Excited by this breakthrough, Keith announced the plan to his three fellow staffers at the semi-weekly City College News. Two of the three were black, a reflection of the college's racial diversity: The roughly 12,000-strong student body is nearly 50 percent nonwhite.

Sita Hinds, the Jamaican-born business manager at the paper, was crunching ad rates when Keith came up with his idea. Both she and Senah Sampong, a West African writer who was sitting at a table in the middle of the news room, told Keith the noose was a bad idea, although they didn't spell out the racial overtones. "We were even giving him ideas of what he could do instead," she recalls. "But he wasn't listening."

Keith took the drawstring from a hooded sweatshirt and set about tying his noose. But he didn't know how. He turned to Andy Warwick, a mild-mannered, white graphic designer, and asked for help. Warwick obliged.

Drawstring noose in hand, Keith paced the room, looking for the best spot to display his get-tough-on-deadlines message.

He jumped onto one of the tables, landing just in front of Sampong, then taped the noose to the ceiling above.

Through gritted teeth, Sampong told Keith he'd take the noose down if Keith didn't. After about five minutes, Keith gave in. He tore the noose down and threw it in the trash.

Keith's unfortunate choice of a motivational tool came at a time when nooses, which have long carried overtones of race-based lynchings, are very much in the public conscience.

There are the still-simmering tensions in Jena, Louisiana, which started when white students hung a noose from a tree to discourage blacks from congregating there.

Last month, in another headline-grabbing occurrence, a black Columbia University professor returned to her office to find a noose hanging from the doorknob.

And just last week, the New York Times published a story listing another six recent noose incidents in the New York City area, with knotted ropes turning up everywhere from a police locker room to a Home Depot.

So it's understandable that Hinds and Sampong would be on edge. Which is why, later that evening, Hinds fired off an email to Margaret Campbell, the 19-year-old editor-in-chief of the paper. "I do not think I will be able to simply forget this incident and pretend it didn't happen," she wrote.

Campbell agreed, and fired Keith from the paper.

But that wasn't the end of it. Ben Lathrop, a high school teacher who doubles as the faculty advisor to the paper, didn't see Keith's actions in such stark racial terms. It was just a drawstring, after all.

Calling Campbell on the phone two days after the incident, Lathrop told her she didn't have the authority to fire anyone. He moved Keith's status from "fired" to "suspended," and told her he'd have to report her overreaching to the administration.

In short order, both Hinds and Sampong filed official complaints with the school. Hinds made clear that her anger had spread from the incident to Lathrop's handling of it. "I would like for him to be replaced with an advisor who is qualified, able, and willing to handle issues of diversity, and committed to fostering an environment of inclusion," she wrote.

The school, faced with an ugly, racially charged conflict, quickly launched an investigation. The college's lawyer interviewed everyone involved at length, completing the probe last week.

According to Laura Fedock, the school's interim associate vice president for student affairs, the investigation cleared Keith of bigotry. "There was no evidence the incident was racially motivated," said Fedock.

Keith, Lathrop, Warwick, Campbell, and Sampong all declined interviews for this story, but Fedock said that Keith is no longer working for the paper. He was fired by his editor, she said, who was within her rights in doing so.

Given the school's diversity, Fedock added, some good can come of the unhappy incident. "It's a chance to educate our students," she said.

 
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