Chapter 1: The Water Buffalo Affair
On the night of January 13, 1993, Eden Jacobowitz, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, had been writing a paper for an English class when a sorority began celebrating its Founders' Day beneath the windows of his high-rise dormitory apartment. The women were singing very loudly, chanting, and stomping. It had prevented him from writing, and it had awakened his roommate. He shouted out the window, "Please keep quiet," and went back to work. Twenty minutes later, the noise yet louder, he shouted out the window, "Shut up, you water buffalo!" The women were singing about going to a party. "If you want a party," he shouted, "there's a zoo a mile from here." The women were black. Within weeks, the administrative judicial inquiry officer (JIO) in charge of Eden's case, Robin Read, decided to prosecute him for violation of Penn's policy on racial harassment. He could accept a "settlement" -- an academic plea bargain -- or he could face a judicial hearing whose possible sanctions included suspension and expulsion.
The JIO's finding that there was "reasonable cause" to believe that Eden had violated Penn's racial harassment policy for having shouted "Shut up, you water buffalo!" to late-night noisemakers under his window was outrageous in terms of normal human interactions at a university. Loud and raucous festivities had occurred beneath the windows of students since the Middle Ages. For centuries, would-be scholars, disturbed or awakened in the still hours, had shouted their various and picturesque disapprovals at the celebrants. "Water buffalo" would have been one of the mildest such epithets ever uttered.