May 2, 2014

Letter: Alum Geffen does disservice to Alpha Delta Phi, WHPK, and the larger community

A Saturday ago, WHPK and the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity hosted a free show at Alpha Delt that featured rising pop musician Frankie Cosmos’s band, supported by local bands The Lemons and Richard Album and the Singles. At this show, one of the members of the Chicago band Twin Peaks took the microphone and heckled the crowd. He was asked to stop by one of the brothers and, shortly after, threw the first punch—which was returned to him. He fell to the ground and there was a bloody nose. A few brothers took him to the kitchen, cleaned his face up—“You should see the other guy,” our perpetrator muttered indignantly as he was being tended to. He was allowed to stay till the end of the night because of his connection to the bands playing, which seems fairly kind of the brothers, all things considered.

A day later, an article ran on the music blog Consequence of Sound written by UChicago graduate Sasha Geffen. It has since been reprinted in the Maroon and has prompted many strong reactions. However, I, a DJ with WHPK and occasional performer at Alpha Delt, strongly feel that Geffen’s piece, “Throwing Punches at Frankie Cosmos” (4/25), does a great disservice to the current members of Alpha Delta Phi, WHPK, all of the students attending the show, and the bands that have been hosted at Alpha Delt over the last two quarters.

What makes me most uncomfortable about Geffen’s piece is, in part, that the underlying questions which she poses are as vital and needing of discourse as ever, at a time when rape is endemic to college campuses (and particularly fraternity houses) all over the United States. Her concerns with racism, sexism, systems of privilege, and an absence of “queer meeting spaces and progressive community groups” are the reason she has taken aim at Alpha Delt. However, at the given moment, the name of Alpha Delt has been dragged through the mud because Sasha Geffen found it to be the most comfortable way to weave a narrative.

After recounting the heckling and the fight, Geffen tells us about her housemate who was allegedly raped at the fraternity in her first year and has since graduated. While I am not trivializing or making excuses for rape in absolutely any way, I take issue with what she has done here in making her point. First, I don’t believe that the current brothers can be indicted for what has occurred in the past. Second, the ways in which Geffen makes her point are elegant and convenient, but also problematically conjectural. She speaks about how college is a place where the rules of “real life” don’t always apply (and where “sleep deprivation” and “intoxication” are the ways that students “find themselves”). In the full version of this piece, published in Consequence of Sound, she posits that this type of culture can also be found at music festivals like SXSW (South by Southwest). She follows by reminding us that this year, a drunk driver killed four and injured many at SXSW. Thus, festivals like SXSW feed the mindset “that allows for drunk driving.” However, we are reminded that UChicago’s death record over the last few decades exceeds that of SXSW, which has been around since 1987.

She approaches Alpha Delt through the lens of her question, which is the one of how space informs meaning. If that is her mode of inquiry, then a fraternity is an easy culprit. There are many notions surrounding those spaces, and so it is comfortable to make her next point, which is about the kind of atmosphere a DIY show / frat party must entail. In her depiction, it is a place that apparently implies a tacit consent to “showing off your racism and sexism onstage,” rooted firmly in a tradition of white male privilege and domination. And on this last little part of her point, I cannot disagree.

The beautiful ivy-covered buildings that dominate our campus stand as the physical legacy of some of the most powerful and privileged white males that this country has known. But to take this fact and make a broader statement about the current students here seems a little unfair. And while the problems she identifies with DIY venues in Chicagoland—that they are owned by white males and foster insular socialization—might be entirely valid, her assumptions about Alpha Delt as a show space are not.

What happened at Alpha Delt on Saturday was an isolated incident, and the cause of conflict was an entirely external one. This year, it seems that a burgeoning music scene has been emerging on campus—bands from Hyde Park and the rest of the city have been coming to play shows, and the reaction from students here has been quite positive. The day that Geffen’s article ran online, there was an assembly of a number of people from Alpha Delt, WHPK, and campus bands spurred by the events of Saturday—but not in response to Geffen’s piece. The topic at hand was remedying the types of issues that both we and Sasha find to be problematic and deserving of concern.

It should be said that while people might have impressions about what the fraternity as a space implies—perhaps that is why the heckler, inebriated or not, might have found it appropriate to inquire, “Who’s a Bulls fan, bitch?”—it is the responsibility of community members and active bystanders to remedy the social ills that they identify around themselves. A number of DIY spaces, like SUNY Purchase’s The Stood, have adopted statements of purpose and safer-space policies like the one below:

“Be mindful of your speech and actions and the effect they may have on others.

“Do not make assumptions about people’s identities in terms of gender, race, sexuality, abilities, class, or background.

“Respect people’s boundaries and always interact with others’ consent, be it physically, emotionally, or verbally.

“Carry these guidelines through all forms of communication, physical and non-physical: in person, by telephone, and on the Internet.”

The group of people assembled on the day Geffen’s piece ran sought to figure out how to best implement policies like these and how to mitigate the potential problems that DIY shows create. But Sasha Geffen’s article takes liberties in pursuing a narrative that is inflammatory and plays on emotional triggers, and has thus antagonized an effort for inclusive community-building. I can only hope that you, the reader, will recognize the importance of what we are hoping to do and join us in helping give the spaces we occupy the positive meanings for which we wish them to stand.

—James Kogan, Class of 2017