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Guilford president urges patience with investigation as students plan walkout

by Jordan Green

The president of Guilford College acknowledged a longstanding cultural division on the campus of the traditional Quaker institution at a mass gathering held at the New Garden Friends meeting on Jan. 24 to address a brutal beating four days earlier in which three Palestinian students allegedly endured racist taunts, and at least two of them reported suffering concussions at the hands of members of the football team.

President Kent Chabotar cautioned against drawing the conclusion that a hate crime had taken place during the altercation at campus residence hall, as a bloc of students announced a walkout the following day to express their impatience with the administration’s response to the incident. Few student-athletes spoke at the traditional Quaker business meeting during an open comment period billed as “speaking from the heart,” but a member of the lacrosse team privately expressed confidence that the administration would gather the facts and act appropriately in due time.

“This is a sad time for our community not only riven apart by Saturday’s incident, but also riven apart by underlying issues only exposed by Saturday’s incident,” Chabotar told a capacity crowd of students and faculty, some of whom sat on the floor or crowded into open doorways. “The eyes of the world are on Guilford College. The underlying issue of Saturday – the divisions, I don’t have to tell you about the divisions….”

He continued: “Hate speech, hate crime – there, I’ve said it. Those are very strong words. They have a precise legal definition. They must be proved. If we find that certain speech was made because of who someone is, that’s hate speech. If we find that certain actions causing bodily harm were done because of who someone was, that’s a hate crime.”

Three members of the football team, 20-year-old Michael Six, 20-year-old Michael Bates and 19-year-old Chris Barnette, were arrested after the three Palestinian students filed criminal charges on Jan. 21. Court records signed by a Guilford County magistrate indicate that the three, “along with up to 15 other ‘football team’ members, beat three Palestinian students with brass knuckles, feet and fists. This caused as least two to sustain severe injury. They called them ‘terrorists’ and ‘sand niggers.'” The three football players were released early on Jan. 23, each on $2,000 bond. They are charged with assault and battery, and with ethnic intimidation.

The three Palestinian students are Faris Khader, who suffered a concussion and a broken nose, and Osama Sabbah – both of whom attend Guilford College – and Omar Awartani, a student visiting from NC State University in Raleigh, who sustained a concussion and a dislocated jaw.

Chabotar said he ordered the two sides in the dispute to have no contact with each other while the college conducts its investigation, that he enlisted extra security personnel to ensure the safety of specific students, and that he asked all the students involved in the conflict to find sleeping accommodations off campus. Some supporters of the Palestinian students argued that it was unfair that the victims also be asked to leave campus, and said they thought the football players should have been suspended.

Several students in the front of the meeting room expressed their outrage with the incident by wearing crimson armbands emblazoned with the words “stop hate.” As student Raji Ward spoke, they rose to demonstrate their agreement.

“It requires a heavy beating to sustain a concussion,” she said. “It’s very important to understand the severity of the situation. This was a hate crime.”

In a rippling murmur several students uttered the traditional Quaker declaration of agreement: “Friend speaks my mind.”

A parent of a freshman student-athlete said his son has not always felt welcome at Guilford.

“He came here to further his education,” said Daniel Ward of Wilkesboro, who is no relation to Raji Ward. “I am very proud of my son. He is working his tail off to further himself at his sport.” He added: “Please understand that a stereotyped athlete – that’s not about race and nationality. That’s about somebody trying to work towards his dream.”

One of those standing in solidarity with the three Palestinians, John Douglas, announced that students would walk out of classes the next day.

“We believe a hate crime was committed,” he said. “We call for a general student walkout at 10:15 tomorrow. It is a mockery that we hold a meeting when our Quaker values were undermined. That’s why we’re holding this strike.”

After the conclusion of open discussion, the college president said, “I’m sick of promises. I’m sick of talk. I think we’ve taken action. We need to take some more action.”

He resisted calls for the immediate suspension of members of the football team who led the attack.

“It’s easy to say, ‘We know what happened, get on with it, hang ’em all,’ or ‘don’t hang ’em all,'” he said. “We need the facts. There’s a core of things which are very consistent. There’s also a core of things that are inconsistent.”

In an echo of the Duke lacrosse case, the Guilford College assault has drawn national attention, with interest groups forming on either side of the dispute. The Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington called on the FBI to investigate the incident on Jan. 23. Prompted by the Muslim advocacy group’s involvement, a conservative California news website that monitors radical Islamic groups and advances a counterterrorism agenda, PipeLineNews.org, launched an inquiry into the incident the following day.

Imam Badi Ali, president of Greensboro’s Islamic Center of the Triad, said he believes Guilford College should address the behavior of its football team, but said he does not blame the institution for the violence.

“This has nothing to do with the college; it has nothing to do with the Quaker community,” said Ali, who is Palestinian. “I am really sorry that this happened at Guilford College. I know the Quakers. They are our friends. My heart goes out to them in this crisis.

“In all the colleges here in Greensboro, they recruit students from Palestine,” he added. “They open their doors, their hearts, their pockets. What else? Do we see other colleges doing that? No. Do we see other countries doing that? No. The Quakers were able to help other communities here in Greensboro. Now they are opening their arms to Arabs and Muslims. Their reaction, their politics are my own.”

Amy Kingsley contributed reporting for this article.

To comment on this story e-mail Jordan Green at Jordan@yesweekly.com.

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