This past weekend, a Penn graduate student -- one whom you've likely never met nor ever will meet -- sat down at his computer, penned a few words and dramatically changed the way many of you think about this University. His story was shocking and compelling. His sentiments, downright infuriating. And when his message drew to a close, Gregory Seaton jumped out of the world of a student and into a world of controversy. Seaton's story is one with which you are likely familiar by now. The third-year Education doctoral student claims that he was "viciously attacked" by a group of four white males while attending to business at the Campus Copy Center at 3907 Walnut Street last Tuesday. In his e-mail -- which spread like an informal wildfire across the University's listservs on Saturday -- he says, rather bluntly, that the violent altercation ensued simply because he was a black man who dared to demand equal service in a store run by whites. He contends that the primary aggressor, Ron Shapiro, treated him unfairly because of his color; and further suggests that a white professor in the store and a pair of white police officers who responded to the scene were guilty of endemic racism by not responding adequately to his cries of disparate treatment. Seaton's e-mail, understandably, was a veritable fountain of anger. He painted the picture of a scenario tainted by racism at virtually all levels -- and used the proper words and images to back them up. He quotes a lengthy Ellison description of the black man as "invisible." He says that he initially felt like he was being sent "to the back of the bus." He describes the story's players strictly as "white men" or "black men." He even portrays himself as the "savage nigger" who Shapiro and his cronies tried to put in his place. The sad truth of the matter is that Seaton could in fact be right. Racism, in one form or another, thrives in our world. It thrives in cities, in rural areas, even here at Penn. And, regrettably, it could very well thrive at Campus Copy Center. But that's a very big "could." It's a possibility that rests on a number of factors that go far beyond the emotion-laden story of one victimized student. It's a claim and an indictment that can ruin the future of a campus business, the lives of its employees and the reputation of the University that sustains it. And it's also an assumption, unfortunately, that was accepted almost universally in the first moments after Gregory Seaton's story became public. It's an assumption that has led to conflict between campus groups, a hastily-called boycott of Campus Copy and a wealth of tensions between students who, right now, should be concerned solely with the fact that one of their own was physically hurt in his visit to a local merchant. On Sunday evening, dozens of concerned students filed into the Multipurpose Room at DuBois College House to discuss the Seaton story and ways to address the injustices he alleged. Some students, rightly, said that sweeping action should wait until an investigation concluded -- or at least until Shapiro had an adequate opportunity to answer the charges. Some, with just reason, said that immediate action must be taken to isolate Campus Copy Center from the mainstream, non-racist businesses that surround it. Others seemed to be there just to gauge the feelings of their peers. All of those concerns were at least partially justified. Justice should indeed follow its normal channels toward resolution. And action of some kind must be taken now to ensure that another such story -- whether or not Seaton's account is totally accurate -- never again occurs at this University. But the DuBois meeting didn't progress this productively for long. Soon after the first few students started airing their concerns, the "student leaders" took over. And then Gregory Seaton's story became the property of a whole other entity. It became an issue of student groups vying for the right to lead the response. It became an issue of students versus police -- of a slow, cautious investigation versus a group of students demanding an immediate response. And finally, it became an issue of "Us" versus "Them" -- of an angry group of students, and a local merchant that will now forever be associated with allegations of racial violence. Maybe it was Seaton's dramatic words that forced such universal acceptance and response. Maybe it was the fact that the complainant in this story happened to be a student -- one of "Us." Maybe people were just looking for a controversy. But no matter what the reason, Gregory Seaton's claims should not have been accepted without at least a reasonable measure of skepticism. And they should never have been allowed to become fodder for petty political battles between campus groups. Right now, this issue is where it belongs -- with police investigators. And soon enough, we should know what happened; we hope to know exactly who to blame for the widespread indignation which Seaton says he faced; we will have a better idea of how we, as a community, can work to fight such injustices in the future. Until that point, though, it's important that this University lets that process of justice carry on -- and helps Gregory Seaton and the people who care about him recover from the incident that has changed a lot about the way people view themselves and the community around them.Comments powered by Disqus
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