The president of Brown University has announced the establishment of a committee to investigate what happened on October 29, when NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly faced protest at a speaking event. The university may even choose to hold certain individuals or organization responsible for violating the “Code of Student Conduct.”
According to President Christina H. Paxson, the counter-subversive-sounding “Committee on the Events of October 29th” will make “findings and recommendations” in two phases. One phase will “review the activities and circumstances related to the October 29 lecture and identify issues that contributed to the disruptions.” Alleged violations of the “Code of Student Conduct” may be “resolved.” And, in the second phase, the committee will “address the broader issues of campus climate, free expression and dialogue across difference that have been the context of much of the discussion and activity of the last week.”
Kelly was invited to give the university’s annual Noah Krieger ’93 Memorial Lecture. He was to discuss, “Proactive Policing in America’s Biggest City.” The event would honor Kelly’s “distinguished contributions to public service.” But a number of students on campus did not find it appropriate that the university would celebrate Kelly because he has been responsible for a stop-and-frisk policy, which has resulted in police systematically violating the rights of people of color in New York City.
Students planned to make statements from the audience in opposition to Kelly. Their statements disrupted the lecture and caused the university to close the event. Kelly left and did not give a lecture.
The Brown International Socialist Organization stated that the protest “succeeded in allowing those who are never given this platform a chance to speak and be heard campus-wide, if not nation-wide. The mainly black and Latino students and community members who disrupted the events were heard, even if their statements about the policies had rarely been reported before. Finally, the protest disrupted Kelly’s ability to teach the Providence Police force — for whom the two front rows were reserved — how to implement these policies here in Providence.”
The successful protest by students has stirred debate, which has been ongoing for over a week. Multiple liberal voices have weighed in and expressed objections to what the students did.
One of them, Katha Pollitt of The Nation, argued, “Shouting Kelly down shows lack of respect for the audience and for the larger—much larger—number of people who had never given Stop-and-Frisk much thought. By shutting down the event, activists successfully threw their weight around—all 100 or so of them—but did they persuade anyone that Stop-and-Frisk was a bad, racist policy? Did they build support for their larger politics and their movement? I don’t think so. I think the only minds that changed that night were of people who felt bewildered and irritated by being prevented from hearing Kelly speak by a bunch of screamers and now think leftists are cynical bullies who use and abandon free-speech arguments as it suits them.”
Pollitt neglects to mention that after the students shut down the event Paxson held an open forum on the protest the next night. It was to be about “values and expectations” on campus, but, according to a report from students involved in protesting Kelly, the open forum was attended by “more than 600 students and other members of the Brown community.” Students present spoke up about racism. There also was a teach-in on stop-and-frisk that packed a 400-person auditorium.
In other words, Pollitt’s opinion is a typical liberal statement, one which distances herself from the noisy people who are willing to actually confront powerful individuals when they are present in front of them.
Eleanor Randolph at The New York Times wrote, “New York City’s stop and frisk measures may very well be unconstitutional. But it’s not only the loudest and most disruptive who are entitled to free speech. Without differing views, it’s not possible to have an intellectual debate. What you get instead is a pep rally.”
Has Randolph ever been to a pep rally? The moments before the rally begins in a gymnasium or auditorium do not count. People are often rowdy and shouting, but that typically stops when the rally starts.
Peter Beinart at The Daily Beast suggested the protest reflected a much deeper issue on America’s campuses:
On the surface, campuses like Brown’s seem hegemonically liberal. But in my experience, that apparent consensus conceals a crucial gulf between students and faculty who hold left of center opinions but accept basic norms of fair play and students who consider freedom of speech a scam employed by the powers that be to perpetuate their racism/sexism/classism/imperialism/homophobia. Convinced that freedom of speech is an illusion denied them outside the university gates, they take revenge in the one arena where the balance of forces tilt their way. And they thus inject into their own campuses the totalitarian spirit they believe characterizes society at large. It’s no surprise that such activists targeted Ray Kelly, and that for years they tried to bar military recruiters. What better way to deny your government’s basic legitimacy than to turn the people it deputizes to protect you into pariahs.
Beinart, like others, frames the issue in a way favorable to power by casting it as an issue of free speech, but what he is really upset about is that students would oppose an authority figure like Kelly and not recognize what he has done as police chief as legitimate.
He also disapproves of previous efforts by students to “bar military recruiters.” That makes his true position even more clear. To him, students shouldn’t reject authority. They should engage authority to the extent that authority allows and always venerate those in positions of authority, especially in the military and law enforcement, because they work every day to keep this country safe.
Arguing that students disrupted Kelly’s lecture event because they believe “freedom of speech is an illusion denied them outside the university gates” is a sanctimonious and patronizing way of dismissing students who dare to engage in dissent. This is obviously not their motivation.
The motivation was as follows [Taubman Center sponsored the lecture]:
The Taubman Center has a history of being a “hub connecting students, faculty, the community, and distinguished visitors for interdisciplinary study, research, and advocacy of sound public policy and the betterment of American institutions.” We believe that hosting Ray Kelly is in direct contradiction to the mission and history of the Center.
We believe that given the Taubman Center’s reputation and influence in discussions of public policy on a local and national level, the Taubman Center has the responsibility to facilitate these discussions in good faith.
Commissioner Kelly has a history of implementing aggressive policing policies that systematically target marginalized communities.
We believe that allowing a platform for Commissioner Kelly to speak sends the resounding message that the Taubman Center, as well as Brown University, condones policies, such as Stop and Frisk, that are proven to be harmful and unconstitutional.
The students were not protesting because they do not believe in freedom of speech. Rather, they were protesting because they believed the university should never have agreed to honor Kelly by allowing him to give a prestigious lecture.
Opposition from liberals to what students did at Brown University reflects a profound yet misplaced faith in institutions to address injustices and aid in the advancement of social justice. They do not recognize the role these institutions can play in enabling and reinforcing the power of individuals like Ray Kelly to persuade a public that a pro-white policy like stop-and-frisk is not as bad as they think, even when a judge has determined the policy is unconstitutional and racially discriminatory.
They call for politeness and respect to be extended to people like Kelly when this is a man who, as Rania Khalek points out at The Nation, said the intent of stop-and-frisk was “to “instill fear” in Black and Latino men “every time that they [leave] their homes.” Is it polite or respectful to regularly stop hundreds of thousands of Black and Latino men in a year when the vast majority are entirely innocent?
Protests—the effective ones, ones which actually challenge the core of power structures in this country—are very rarely polite. People go where they are not supposed to go. They say what they are not supposed to say. They do what they are not supposed to do. They do not obey rules or guidelines. They do not mind their manners. They engage in protest or civil disobedience until someone with authority shuts them down because they believe something deserves to be challenged or should not be met with silence.
This country has a rich tradition of protest and civil disobedience, however, far too many liberals these days seem to get upset when actual dissent unfolds in front of them. (The Occupy movement was a prime example of protest truly capable of challenging power, which many liberals refused to support.)
Now, Brown University has embarked on a path that involves a pseudo-democratic committee that will likely carry out an authoritarian response to the protest by investigating students and organizations responsible for subverting the lecture event, which Kelly was supposed to give. One wonders if liberals will support calls to punish students and campus organizations or if they will recognize the value of having a culture of dissent on university campuses.
Video of the protest at Brown University against Ray Kelly.