For Indy photographer Derek Anderson, the Duke lacrosse tragedy that started a year ago this week was about the house next door. You can see some of the pictures he took out of his windows over the past 12 months in this week's issue. But the strange thing is, it felt that close for most of us who live in Durham.
While it might seem like an eerie coincidence that our photographer lives next to the house with an image that's been blasted across the world's satellites and coaxial cables nearly every day, it doesn't seem all that strange to the people who live here. Durham's a city of about 200,000 people, but it feels much smaller. In some ways, it reminds me of America in the 1950s, or at least the version sold on TV and the movies. There are streetfront shopping districts and mostly neighborhood schools, parades and music festivals, corner groceries and local sports teams, and neighbors who chat among themselves on the street and over the Internet.
But Durham has one thing that sets it apart from America in the 1950s (and most of America today): a continuing conversation about race, class and power led by large African-American and progressive communities. The former was empowered by fair (read: union) wages paid for decades by the cigarette industry, the latter by the presence of a major university. So when there's a real or perceived grievance, there are people ready to loudly address it.
And that's where much of the media (and America) misread the lacrosse tragedy. When activists—white, black, female, academic—protested after the assault accusation was made, it was in the context of communities that have long fought racism, sexual violence and an overemphasis on athletics. While the media and the rest of America saw rich vs. poor, most of Duke's recent problems have been between partying students and upper-middle-class neighbors. When the issue was portrayed as an elite, private university vs. an historically black, public one, they missed Duke's recent history of community involvement. Where DA Mike Nifong was seen as pandering to African-American voters, they ignored the attempt at equanimity that represented. When they saw conspiracy in a police detective's suspiciously perfect memo, they missed a history of problems within the Durham Police Department. And when they saw Nifong withholding exculpatory evidence, they ignored the larger problem that pervades the state's entire criminal justice system (and longtime problems in the Durham courthouse).
Those nuances were not lost on most Durhamites—we've been addressing problems at Duke, in the police department, in the criminal justice system, and in race relations for years. But those issues, and the way the community confronted them in the lacrosse case, were skewed beyond recognition. Most media found conflicts they imagined before they got here. They could have used the insights gained living next door.