KRWG

D'Ammassa: Pushback Against Nonviolent Protests Can Be Dangerous

Oct 24, 2019

 


 

Credit Photo by: Nathan J. Fish

Commentary: A student protest interrupted the opening orientation event at the college where I transferred as a freshman.

Seeing a table set up with a live microphone, two students — part of a group petitioning the university administration over budget priorities and other policies — seized their opportunity. 

Nearly 30 years have passed since that January morning, and I remember little of what they said beyond the speaker's opening words. Seizing the microphone, she said, "Maybe we need to be impolite." 

Faculty and administrators in the room responded by listening, while continuing to eat.

At that small liberal arts college in New York City, talk of career-building was secondary to personal development, to exploring disciplines and ideas about the world. There was an acceptance that political activism, including protests, was part of many students' lives and thus of campus life.

Whatever individual opinions my professors held, they tended to respect extracurricular political organizing as an educative and social experience. One semester, I received academic credit for working as an office intern at the War Resisters League. 

This month, a group of UCLA students were acquitted by a jury after facing serious prison time for being impolite when U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke at their campus in 2018.

After interrupting the secretary's speech, the students were not merely removed from the auditorium, but arrested, charged with several crimes and temporarily banned from campus. 

The distance between heckling a speaker at a public forum and more serious acts of civil disobedience has been truncated, and the implications are dangerous for universities and society beyond campus.

Much has changed since the years I was involved in political demonstrations in New York and Los Angeles, but over the last two decades, tougher policing and legislative efforts have made protest a scarier, costlier gamble for citizens. 

By the 2016 Standing Rock oil pipeline protests in North Dakota, violent crackdowns on nonviolent protesters were on brazen display, while legislators in several states had begun introducing bills seeking deeper criminal penalties for non-violent protest. Journalists covering pipeline protests and demonstrations at President Donald Trump's inauguration faced rioting charges.

In the name of protecting free speech and civility on campuses, lawmakers have tried to legislate how public universities control protest and punish students on their campuses, particularly when it comes to interrupting speakers. 

The argument behind these laws is over whose liberty needs to be protected most. It also advances a deceptive notion of civility. 

When the Israeli military and government leader Yitzhak Rabin gave an address at our university in New York in the early 1990's, we students staged demonstrations outside the auditorium protesting his involvement in the "Iron Fist" crackdowns on Palestinians, a policy in which he participated as defense minister.

In a world before mobile phones with cameras, there was little tactical value in trying to interrupt his speech. We were trying to reach the public and back then this required being seen in public and getting on the news. We scarcely dreamed of being able to take our own video and quickly publish it on the internet.

What has not changed is the need, on occasion, to be impolite; and the necessity for universities to push back against efforts to define free speech in a way that favors the powerful and punishes dissent, even when that dissent is heated or disruptive. 

This is not, as it will surely be assumed, a defense of preemptively silencing everyone with whom we disagree. It is a warning against overreaching and disingenuous notions of "free speech" that equate "civility" with being quiet in the presence of the powerful.