FAMU hazing victim as deserving of justice as Trayvon Martin

It's time for the black community to strike the right note on hazing.

In the weeks after a 17-year-old black boy was found dead in a gated Sanford neighborhood, outraged blacks took to the streets, insisting police arrest the Hispanic shooter, George Zimmerman.

The chorus thundered: Justice for Trayvon! I am Trayvon! We are Trayvon!

Three months earlier, down the road a piece, another young black man lay dying on a tour bus after taking a beating from people with faces like his, faces he knew all too well.

Trayvon's death stoked deafening indignation. Response to the homicide of Robert Champion, the Florida A&M drum major, has been decidedly more muted.

Three months later, no one's been charged in Champion's hazing homicide. And yet, no viral demands for arrests. No online petition. No T-shirts. No Justice for Robert! I am Robert! We are Robert!

That shameful hush speaks to our rancid laundry.

In Spike Lee's 1988 movie "School Daze," ranks of pledges took paddlings while spouting absurdities — "I'm cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!" — after each swat. Liberally leavened with comic relief, Lee's rendition only hinted at the closeted brutality that often infuses hazing in black collegiate Greek-letter organizations and bands — and our long-standing complicity.

"Champion's case is strange only in the fact that he was killed," says Ricky L. Jones, author of "Black Haze: Violence, Sacrifice, and Manhood in Black Greek-Letter Fraternities."

Black Greek letter organizations emerged at the turn of the 20th century, dedicated to nurturing familial solidarity among members, while becoming a paragon of civic duty and altruism in the black community. Theories abound on how that affirming ethic curdled into something whose initiations could be confused with those of gangs.

Some see the violence — which has sent numerous pledges to the ER with broken bones and internal injuries from canings, frying pan assaults, and stomp downs — as a vestige of slavery. Maybe, more simply, with power comes the potential for abuse.

Others actually believe that the hazing victim didn't have to join, could have walked away.

"America has become immune to people dying as a part of fraternity life," says Walter M. Kimbrough, author of "Black Greek 101: The Culture, Customs, and Challenges of Black Fraternities and Sororities."

"That's why people still use the phrase 'Animal House' for any group that is out of control. We aren't surprised when it happens. We feel bad, and those of us in the Greek community, go back to business as usual."

Yet, the more insidious factor is illustrated in the Trayvon/Champion confluence: It's "always easier to attack an external evil than the evil within us," Kimbrough says.

There has been some push-back against hazing. Just not the kind of seething fury you'd expect over such senseless death.

Jones' 2004 book was optimistic that hazing in black collegiate circles could be eradicated. He no longer believes that. "At this point," he said, "it's absolutely intractable."

Banning Greek organizations and getting rid of bands is a tough sell. But the nuclear option should be part of the conversation if we're serious about no longer tacitly accepting barbarism.

The Orange County Medical Examiner's Office concluded Champion died from "blunt force trauma."

In other words, some of the very same people with whom Champion performed, the very same band mates who coaxed rousing music from their instruments, are the very same people who authorities say beat the life out of him.

It's time for the black community to strike the right note on hazing. And that requires we stare in the eye the evil that's come from our hands.

deowens@tribune.com or 407-420-5095
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