Newsroom noose fuels sensitivity debate at MCTC

Ronnie Brown wasn't just upset about a noose hung on the ceiling at the campus newspaper at Minneapolis Community & Technical College where he's a student. He wanted to know why he and others weren't made aware of the incident.

"When you push it under the rug then it keeps happening," said Brown, 20, who attended a student-organized rally last week and participated in a campus discussion on race Thursday at the downtown campus.

Administrators were held back by privacy laws, which prevent them from disclosing complaints about discrimination involving specific students, MCTC President Phil Davis said during the discussion Thursday.

The discussion had been planned well before the noose was hung on Oct. 10, but administrators bumped up its timing after the incident, which led to the firing of the news editor of City College News.

Gabriel Keith, 23, said he didn't realize the racist implications of nooses and their connections to lynchings of blacks in the South when he put one up as a joke to get student writers to meet story deadlines.

"A noose to me signifies Boy Scouts and westerns, but to them it was racism," said Keith, who is white. He said it was only up for a few minutes before he noticed his colleagues' uneasiness and took it down.

Two black students on the newspaper staff, who discouraged Keith from hanging the noose, filed formal complaints about the incident. The newspaper's editor, Margaret Campbell, fired him.

As college administrators investigated the incident, word of it spread quickly. An article appeared in the weekly City Pages, and student groups criticized administrators for not making the incident public.

"That seems to be the center of the question here," Davis said in an interview after spending more than two hours talking with people concerned about the incident and how it was handled. "It's the first time I've seen where people have wanted information not available to them and then gotten angry about it."

Had the incident been a threat to students' safety, it would have been handled more publicly, Davis said. Still, he promised to review the process used to deal with such complaints.

In the end, administrators ruled the incident was not an act of racial discrimination, which also drew anger and more questions.

"We'll never really know what his motivations were," said Campbell, 20, who stands by her decision to fire Keith. "Lots of people have experienced it to be an act of racial intimidation. Whether it was meant to be isn't the issue."

Shannon Gibney, who teaches English at MCTC, suggested people be held accountable for acts of racial discrimination. She had a hard time believing Keith's story that he was unaware of what nooses symbolize.

"There's a huge history of white people saying, 'I didn't know,"' she said. "We've heard it so many times that we just don't believe it anymore."

Others, such as student Mohamud Galony, said Keith deserved the benefit of the doubt, and he said firing him didn't accomplish anything.

"We're in a learning institution," said Galony, who is black. "When you make mistakes, you learn from your mistakes."

Nooses have sparked outcry across the country in recent months, appearing on a black professor's office door at Columbia University and leading to the suspension of a Harahan, La., public works department supervisor accused of displaying two nooses in his office.

In one of the more publicized incidents, three white students hung nooses from a large oak tree outside a high school last year in Jena, La., fueling racial tensions and the arrests of six black teens in an attack on a white student. In September, the case prompted one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in years.

At MCTC, where students of color make up 43 percent of the nearly 12,000 enrolled, administrators and students agreed that their discussions Thursday were only a starting point.

"The noose has become part of the public consciousness," Davis said. "It's a lesson to us that learning is never over."

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