Hazing or hate crime…?

January 27, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Guest Editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

Robert Champion, Jr.’s murder may never be solved. Those who struck the fatal blows may never disclose whether they used the guise of hazing as an accidental homicide to cover up an intended hate crime.

Champion was an unusual student to be at one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). He was openly gay, and a drum major slated to be the head drum major next school year. At HBCU, drum majors are usually heterosexual macho brothers equivalent to captains of football teams.

On November 19, 2011, Champion, a music major from Atlanta, was one of six drum majors of the famous Florida A&M University (FAMU) Marching “100” band who traveled to Orlando for the annual Florida Classic football game between FAMU and Bethune-Cookman University.

At the end of the game that evening, Champion was found dead aboard a band bus resulting from blunt trauma suffered from flogging. Thirteen band members, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, each independently stated to police that Champion was forced onto a band bus with a reputation for hazing.

Law enforcement and the medical examiner ruled that Champion’s death a homicide. But rumors that he was singled out because of his sexual orientation forces HBCU’s to once again examine its institutional heterosexism along with its students’ individual and group activities of anti-gay violence.

Morehouse’s highly publicized 2002 gay-bashing incident has no doubt taught HBCU’s very little in terms of developing safe, nurturing and culturally competent schools with support services for its LGBTQ administration, faculty and student body.

On November 4, 2002, a Morehouse College student sustained a fractured skull from his classmate, sophomore Aaron Price, not surprisingly, the son of an ultra-conservative minister. Price uncontrollably beat his victim on the head with a baseball bat for allegedly looking at him in the shower.

In the 1980s and 1990s it was more dangerous to be openly GBTQ on Morehouse’s campus than it was on the streets in gang-ridden black neighborhoods. And throughout the 1990s Morehouse was listed on the Princeton Review’s top 20 homophobic campuses.  In 2012 HBCU’s as a whole are still slow to take on the public challenge on LGBTQ issues, as some schools were founded with conservative religious affiliations.  But there is another perspective which views the milieu of Black colleges as no different from African American communities in general, and leads some to argue, including members of the FAMU community, that Champion’s death was about his being gay is creating a mountain out of a molehill.

From the Hinterland Gazette: “Um, who cares? Unless his sexual orientation was the reason why he was beaten to death, then it’s quite irrelevant. We had previously heard about him being gay, but we declined on reporting about it because if the police were told this when they characterized his death a result of hazing and didn’t connect the two to say this was a hate crime, then why throw it out there? I’m sure Robert Champion wasn’t the first homosexual to pledge a fraternity.”

No one in the FAMU community wants to broach the topic of Champion’s sexual orientation as a possible motivating factor for the incident. And the push back from students and administration is fierce.

Whereas an institutional shift at FAMU needs to take place, embracing an inclusive acceptance of its students’ various sexual orientations and gender identities, FAMU will work indefatigably to ward off lawsuits. (The Champions cannot sue FAMU for six months because of the state institution is protected under a sovereign immunity.)

In an anemic attempt to exonerate FAMU band director, Dr. Julian White, of any culpability concerning Champion’s death, Chuck Hobbs, his attorney, released a statement that reveals both ignorance about anti-gay violence as well as no desire to change the culture that brought about Champion’s murder.

“Assuming that the assertions of the Champion family and their attorney Chris Chestnut are true, then it is entirely possible that Champion’s tragic death was less about any ritualistic hazing and more tantamount to a hateful and fully conscious attempt to batter a young man because of his sexual orientation. As such, the efforts Dr. White expended to root out and report hazing could not have predicted or prevented such deliberate barbarity.”

We may never know if Champion’s beat down from “hazing” was an accidental homicide or an intended hate crime.

But these are the facts we know presently:

Champion was forced onto a band bus with a reputation for hazing; he was a vocal opponent against hazing, a band disciplinarian, slated to be head drum major, and he had an “alternative lifestyle.” Everyone in the FAMU community is willing to talk about all these issues except about him being gay.

Rev. Irene Monroe is a nationally-known writer, speaker, and theologian.  She  has been profiled in O, Oprah Magazine, and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  (The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.)

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  1. By Chuck Hobbs, Esq.
    January 27, 2012

    In November 2011, Florida A&M University (FAMU) student Robert Champion, a drum major for the university’s famed Marching 100 Band, died following an alleged hazing incident in the hours after the annual Florida Classic game that pits FAMU against its in-state rival, the Bethune Cookman University Wildcats.

    Last December, the Orange County Coroners office issued a preliminary finding that Mr. Champion died from organ failure induced by blunt trauma to his body. At present, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office has yet to make arrests in Champion’s death.

    The week immediately following Champion’s death, Florida A&M University President James H. Ammons terminated Dr. Julian E. White, the band’s director, for “alleged misconduct in reporting incidents of hazing.” On November 25, 2011, I forwarded to President Ammons nearly 175 pages of documents compiled by Dr. White that pedantically detailed efforts that he expended to eliminate hazing in the Marching 100 dating back to 1989, when while serving as an assistant band director to the late Dr. William P. Foster, he developed several anti-hazing initiatives in the wake of the death of Joel Harris, a Morehouse College student who died while pledging the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. These reforms included hazing workshops as well as affidavits that Marching 100 members, including Robert Champion, signed promising to neither haze nor submit to hazing.

    Since 2002, Dr. White has suspended nearly 100 members of the Marching 100 for hazing, including 26 band members for a previous hazing incident following the 2011 homecoming festivities. Only days before Champion’s tragic death, the entire band was sternly lectured by university administrators to cease and desist from hazing.

    As such, the fact that Champion was dead barely 48 hours after that meeting continues to haunt Dr. White, who tearfully indicated at Champion’s funeral that the 26 year old music major was slated to become head drum major the following year.

    Earlier this month, the Champion family and their attorney Christopher Chestnut convened a press conference in Orlando where they expressed concerns that their son may have been singled out for abuse based upon his sexual preference. While the family later stressed their personal belief that their son’s death was not a hate crime, in a statement that I released to the press on Dr. White’s behalf, I indicated that under Florida and federal law, the specter of a hate crime could significantly impact how the case is charged and how the individual culprits are later tried in that punishments are often more severe if the battery or hazing was a result of bias based upon race or sexual orientation.

    I also opined that “it is entirely possible that Champion’s tragic death was less about any ritualistic hazing and more tantamount to a hateful and fully conscious attempt to batter a young man because of his sexual orientation. As such, the efforts Dr. White expended to root out and report hazing could not have predicted or prevented such deliberate barbarity.”

    My comments were based upon my experience as attorney of record for four members of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity who were the first individuals to be charged under Florida’s felony hazing law in 2006, a case that garnered international attention and was carried live on Court TV. Felony hazing in Florida provides in pertinent part that hazing occurs “when an individual intentionally commits an act of hazing upon another person who is a member or an applicant to any student organization and the hazing results in serious bodily injury or death.” As such, my original statement was intended to suggest that as Orange County prosecutors deliberate which charges to file, that it is entirely possible that Champion’s tragic death was intentional and personal as opposed to a ritual that he was impelled to submit.

    With that in mind, I strongly disagree with assertions in an opinion column posted on Huffington Post.com by Reverend Irene Monroe who avers that my statements were an “anemic attempt to exonerate Dr. White from culpability.” Nothing could be further from the truth, as the copious documentation that Dr. White provided arguably led to his being reinstated and being placed on administrative leave with pay by university trustees. To that end, it is important to note that Reverend Monroe clearly misunderstands the philosophical underpinnings of hazing law and hate crimes and her opinion regarding the legal sufficiency of my prior statements is without credibility or merit.

    Separately, I personally share Reverend Monroe’s concerns that incidents of crimes against gays, lesbians and trans-gendered individuals are deplorable and I applaud the efforts of law enforcement agencies in aggressively prosecuting the same. As a Morehouse College graduate who enrolled the year after Joel Harris’ unfortunate death, as well as being a former legal adviser to the Florida State Conference of Branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, I have worked diligently throughout my career as both a lawyer and journalist to elucidate the darkness that is discrimination. Accordingly, I, as well as my client Dr. White, fully support the efforts of law enforcement to bring Robert Champion’s attackers to swift justice.

    Chuck Hobbs is a trial lawyer and freelance journalist who won first place honors in the 2010 Florida Bar Media Awards and was nominated in 2011 for a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for a series of articles published in the Tallahassee Democrat regarding judicial diversity. Reach him at chuck_hobbs@yahoo.com

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