There are times when the line between shock, rage and sadness become so blurred it is impossible to know when the flow of emotion ends or begins. The shock and rage come from hearing about an African-American student violently tormented by his three white housemates at San Jose State University. Thrown together randomly as first-year students tend to be, Logan Beaschler, 18, Joseph Bomgardner, 19, and Colin Warren, 18 found common cause in acts of racist sadism against their fourth housemate. They at times forced a bike lock around the neck of this young man. They barricaded him in his room. They nicknamed him “three-fifths” or “fraction” in reference to the three-fifths Compromise of 1787 that decreed slaves to be less than a full person. They hung confederate flags outside their room. They scrawled swastikas on white boards and hung pictures of Adolf Hitler. Let’s say their names again: Logan Beaschler, Joseph Bomgardner and Colin Warren, three people who made their dorm into a fascist chamber of horrors for their own amusement.
Arrests have been made, the school is holding its own investigation, and students are rallying, and that is all well and good. The shock and rage becomes sadness, however, because this is not just any old university. This is San Jose State, also known as Speed City, also known as the place where John Carlos and Tommie Smith won NCAA national championships, learned the skills to set Olympic sprint records, and learned the politics to compel them to raise their fists at the 1968 Olympics. It was the place where Dr. Harry Edwards combined anti-racist militancy with sociology and sports, to create a synthesis that led to the formation of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. It is the place where Lee Evans and Ron Davis showed the world that athletic excellence could be used as leverage to fight for dignity and make history. It is the place where that history is commemorated by the remarkable twenty-eight-foot statues of Carlos and Smith that stand in the middle of campus.
I spoke to John Carlos and I cannot do justice to the sadness in his voice.
“This is a heartbreaking situation,” he said. “At San Jose State that monument was established to promote diversity, love, understanding and respect. It is very difficult for me wake up and think that the school would be a place where students feel they can act in such a manner and think they can just abuse a person of color in such a way. Once again we are bitten by the ugly bear of racism. I would hope San Jose State would deal with this in as firm a matter as possible. This cannot stand.”
Pressure to make sure San Jose State truly confronts what has happened will be necessary. In recent years, San Jose State has made a concerted effort to cut itself off from its history and anti-racist traditions. It is currently being sued by former cross-country coach Ron Davis, the same Ron Davis mentioned above who was a part of those historic teams of the 1960s and a member of the school’s athletic hall of fame. Mr. Davis is claiming racial bias and discrimination led to his firing. He was fired after the school hired Gene Bleymaier, the fired former athletic director of Boise State, who turned that school into a national football powerhouse. Bleymaier is attempting to transform the San Jose State football team into a similar kind of cash cow and a haven for sponsors. Anti-racist history and corporate football don’t mix, and Ron Davis believes that he was a casualty of a new administration with new priorities.
A school that disrespects its own history and its own legacy as an iconic center of African-American liberation reaps what it sows. In this case, several residential assistants apparently knew to some extent what was happening, saw the Confederate flags and did nothing. Yes, Messrs. Logan Beaschler, Joseph Bomgardner and Colin Warren deserve to be punished to the fullest extent. But this is a school that needs to take a long, hard look at itself. If you are going to be home to “the statue,” you had better be worthy of what it represents.
Dave Zirin looks at the legacy of John Carlos and Tommie Smith.