By: Evan Myers, News Editor
Andrej Suttles is more than a “young African-American alumnus,” as he was labeled in an email that President Elizabeth Davis circulated to the campus community on Sept. 11. As Suttles clarified in a Facebook post on Sept. 12, he is a Furman Paladins All-American and Record Holder, computer-science grad, mentor to current Furman students, instructor for Furman’s SCOPES Summer Program, and the list goes on. “These are just some of the qualities and organizations that define me as a black man advocating for positive change in our community,” Suttles says, “it is regrettable that my own alma mater has become the very institution attempting to smother that change.”
The incident that first sparked tension between Suttles and the Furman administration occurred on the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 10. Although there remain some discrepancies between the parties as to what occurred that morning, the undisputed facts are as follows: Suttles was on his motorcycle in North Village; he then rode towards the center of campus and had an altercation with the occupant of another vehicle; both vehicles wound up in the Chapel parking lot; and a Furman police officer—who was originally responding to complaints about a motorcycle revving its engine in the North Village housing complex—then intervened, gave Suttles a trespass notice, and told him to call a number if he would like to appeal the decision.
Given the circumstances, it is understandable that an officer—unaware of Suttles’ connections to campus—might be concerned and even serve Suttles with a trespassing notice. That said, it is also reasonable that Suttles, who was delivering homework to a Furman student that he mentors and had just been “flipped off by a guy in a silver car,” might feel singled out.
That is where this story should have ended. Suttles, an alumnus, mentor to Furman students, and business owner, should have called and appealed the claim, and Furman should have quickly revoked the trespass notice. Or, if he preferred not to speak with the police, Suttles could have met with Chief Diversity Officer Michael Jennings, who reached out to Suttles after the incident occurred.
Instead, however, both parties have since escalated the situation into a legal battle with no end in sight. Initially, Suttles took to Facebook to voice his frustration, and almost immediately, students, alumni, present and former faculty, and other community members began to support Suttles and voice their own stories of frustration with Furman. In response, President Davis circulated the aforementioned email on Sept. 11 to inform students of the incident. The poorly worded email, which described Suttles only as an “African-American” alumnus and emphasized that the police officer who gave Suttles the trespass notice was also African-American, only served as further evidence that Furman often mishandles cases that are even tangentially related to issues of diversity and inclusion. Finally, on Sept. 12, Suttles took to Facebook again to inform his followers that—after reviewing President Davis’ “unfortunate letter”—he “found it necessary to retain counsel to ensure that (his) rights are protected.”
Suttles claims that “it’s about more than myself,” and that he is fighting for a larger cause. He seems to believe that Furman has handled these cases incorrectly in the past and still struggles with diversity and inclusion in the present. His Facebook followers’ stories support his claim, and other incidents—with more significant implications for the student body—have also been reportedly mishandled. Thus, I am inclined to agree that Furman still struggles to confront its racially-charged past, address issues related to bias in the present, and set a course for an improved environment of diversity and inclusion in the future.
However, precisely because I think that diversity and inclusion are important issues to be addressed by Furman’s administration and student body, I must state that—in my view—Suttles’ case has little to do with bias and much more to do with circumstance. Given the officer’s position (responding to a noise complaint about a man on a loud motorcycle at 8:00 A.M. who then has an altercation with another vehicle and proceeds to follow that vehicle into a parking lot), I am also inclined to agree with Furman Police Chief John Milby’s statement that based on his perspective, the Furman officer was “acting in the best interest of safety and de-escalating a potentially dangerous situation.”
The situation, which thanks to actions by both parties—but primarily President Davis’ poorly worded email—has become a controversy about how Furman deals with incidents of racial bias, is simply a misunderstanding between an officer doing his best to keep campus safe and an alumnus doing his best to continue to contribute to his alma-mater. The most regretful aspect of the heated dispute between Furman and Suttles is that it could have been resolved so easily.