The issue: Is police militarization necessary to protect and serve citizens of the United States?
The venue: James Madison University.
The event: The James Madison Commemorative Debate and Citizen Forum, described by the sponsoring Arthur N. Rupe Foundation as the “only competition that brings together individuals from all of the major debate organizations to discuss issues of importance to American democracy.”
The stakes: $30,000 in prize money – $5,000 to the winning team, $2,000 each to the winning participants – and a cup: the coveted Madison Cup.
That’s the haul William & Mary Debate Society members Venu Katta and Ben Marks, both Class of 2016, took away from the April 18 competition. The pair defeated 35 other colleges and universities, including Cornell in the final round.
“I thought I’d be elated when we won,” Katta said. “But the truth is that, driving home, I was just relieved.”
He had good reason. This was Katta and Marks’ third time in the Madison Cup. They finished seventh two years ago and made it to the final six last year.
In general, it was an excellent year for the William & Mary debaters. In the last tournament of the American Parliamentary Debate Association season, which features all of the Ivy League and schools such as Duke, Virginia and Georgetown, W&M finished third out of 60 teams. That qualified them for the national championship at New York University, where they barely missed making the single-elimination portion of the event.
Katta and Marks didn’t participate, preferring to prep for the Madison Cup. A few weeks before the competition, the subject of the debate was released. The two set about researching and rehearsing both sides of the argument, not knowing which they would be assigned in Harrisonburg.
“We split up our research relatively evenly,” Marks said. “Venu and I would spend time brainstorming potential arguments and performing research together. Though one of us would sometimes take the lead for individual arguments on each side, most of it was done cooperatively.”
At JMU, they were informed they would be arguing against the proposal to militarize the American police force.
Six teams advanced to the finals: Rutgers, Franklin & Marshall College and the University of Central Oklahoma argued in favor of the proposal, W&M, Cornell and Lee College argued against it.
“The other side talked a lot about terrorist attacks, school shootings, saying we need to have SWAT- type teams that can respond to these,” Katta said.
Katta and Marks countered with the fact that police and SWAT arrived at Sandy Hook in Connecticut within four minutes – very rapidly – but did not fire a single shot because the horrific massacre had been concluded and the gunman was dead by his own hand.
“We said, look, every time there’s an attack, whether it’s Paris – any terrorist attack – the government says, ‘Give us a little more power, give us a little bit more regulation, give us a little more training and we’ll stop it the next time,’” Katta said. “Except ‘next time’ they don’t stop it.”
Meanwhile, they argued, there is story after story of innocent people – children – being injured or killed in SWAT-type related incidents such as drug busts, with rarely anyone held accountable.
During Katta’s concluding argument, in which he asked the audience of several hundred and the judges to re-examine their assumptions about how society should respond to violence, a competitor from Lee College leaned over and told Marks, “You all just won the Madison Cup.”
“Although I wasn't sure how we'd done until we heard the results,” Marks said, “I felt very confident that we'd performed well.”
This year’s debate team featured students majoring in government, chemistry and environmental science, among many others. Marks is graduating with a degree in computer science; Venu’s degree is in international relations.
That sort of diversity, Katta said, is invaluable in successful debating.
“Each different major gives you critical thinking skills, and they give you a little bit different critical thinking skills,” he said. “So when it comes to something like debate, people look at [an issue] differently, so when you have a partnership, you want people who think a little differently.”