Note: I am a Brown Alumnus (A.M. ‘09)
Last week New York Police Department (NYPD) Commissioner Raymond Kelly was invited to give a talk at Brown University titled “Proactive Policing in America’s Biggest City.” Kelly is an ardent believer in, and overseer of, the largely unpopular and controversial ‘Stop and Frisk’ policy in New York (Learn more about Stop and Frisk). Stop and Frisk allows a police officer to stop, question and frisk people, provided that there is a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. In practice, however, the policy systemically targets and harasses people and communities of color.
So when the Brown University student body, as well as the community at large, heard that Commissioner Kelly would be giving a talk on campus, there was considerable outrage and plans to protest. And sure enough, when the time came for the talk the protests were there to greet him: Kelly was shouted down and, after 20 minutes of being prevented to speak, left the stage. Responses to the incident consisted of predictable pablum: on the one side, protesters claiming that the implementer of a racist policy should not be given the opportunity to speak, and on the other side people, such as Brown President Christina Paxson, arguing that “The conduct of disruptive members of the audience [is] an affront both to civil democratic society and to the university’s core values of dialogue and the free exchange of views.”
Now, before I continue I want to make my personal viewpoint clear: I believe that Stop and Frisk is part of an overall approach to criminal justice in America that disproportionately targets, arrests, prosecutes and incarcerates people of color. Indeed, if you want to get a sense of how I feel about the policy, read the phenomenal and provocative “The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color blindness.” At the same time, I strongly believe that open societies in general, and in particular the free speech laws that are characteristic of them, are defined by their ability to permit speech that may be deemed offensive, unpopular, ugly, etc. Indeed, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the right to free speech may only be infringed in certain, specific instances, such as when it is likely to incite violence (think of the classic example of yelling ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre…that is not free speech).
Put another way, my gripe is neither with the protestors nor with the defenders of Kelly’s right to defend his policies. Instead, I want to focus on two critical questions: should he have been invited and, given that he was, what would have been the most effective form of protest?
Should He Have Been Invited?
In a word, yes. In another word, absolutely. Suppose we were to ask the protestors claiming that a racist such a Kelly* should not have been invited the following questions: should the United States engage in dialogue with Iran? What about North Korea, or the Taliban or Syria? During the 8 years of George W. Bush’s presidency, the answer was ‘No,’ and the result was less-than-stellar. Since then, we have adopted a different approach, one that is beginning to bear fruit: instead of bombing Syria, their WMDs are being dismantled*; we are in talks with Iran to ensure that they are unable to enrich weapons grade uranium; it is widely recognized that there can be no political stability in Afghanistan so long as the Taliban is not part of the political process; and so on.
What Would Have Been A More Effective Form of Protest?
Let’s ask another question: should Martin Luther King (MLK) have attempted dialogue with politicians and groups that not only were racist, but that would just as soon have lynched him than spoken to him? For him, the answer was also yes. In fact, if you read his masterpiece Letter From a Birmingham Jail”, he outlines the four steps to any nonviolent campaign:
1. Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist
3. Self purification
4. Direct action
Even though these steps aren’t entirely applicable to the incident at Brown, let’s assume for the sake of argument that they are and that we have arrived at step four: direct action. Think back on the Montgomery bus strike, the sit-ins, the marches and other protests that are so emblematic of the Civil Rights movement, and you’ll note that, by-and-large, these were peaceful and dignified protests. What’s more, they were effective because, to quote MLK, they so “dramatize[d] the issue that it [could] no longer be ignored.” Key to this assertion is that the focus was not on the protestors but rather on the policies they were protestors.
Contrast that to what has happened in response to Kelly’s speech. Much of the media coverage has been focused on the actions of the students, not on the cause of their anger. And yes, I know that many of my readers will argue that the mainstream media is biased, but that’s just the point: the media is the media is the media—there’s no reason to believe that news coverage of the Civil Rights movement was very different from news coverage today. The difference, in other words, is not in the bullhorn through which the protest was broadcast (the media), but rather in what was broadcast to begin with (the actions of the protestors).
Gene Sharp, author of pivotal books like From Dictatorship to Democracy, Waging Nonviolent Struggle and The Politics of Nonviolent Action, has been credited with inspiring some of the most effective, non-violent overthrows of governments in the world, from the Ukraine to the Balkans and beyond. In his books, Sharp provides examples of some of the tactics used in successful campaigns. These include approaching police or military barricades and handing them flowers, displays of flags and symbolic colors, and vigils (see his ‘198 Methods of Nonviolent Action‘)***
Suppose, then, that the protestors at Brown had worn t-shirts denouncing racism; had handed Kelly a boquet of flowers with a message asking for dialogue and reconsideration of his policies; had simply gotten up and silently left the auditorium; and/or had asked him a set of incisive, smart and difficult questions. Look, it’s hard to bring about social change, but let’s be very honest about one thing: what happened at Brown has had absolutely no impact on Stop and Frisk. The Commissioner isn’t going to go back to New York and re-think his policies. And you know what, nothing that day would have achieved such a lofty goal. Social change is hard and slow and painful and exhausting! And that is precisely why those of us fighting for social justice must have an urgent patience, must be extremely strategic in our actions and clear about our objectives.
The bottom line? Yelling accomplishes nothing, not so much because it is contrary to the principles of free speech as because there are so many more effective methods of achieving the aim of justice.
*I want to be clear, his policies can be construed as racist, but that does not mean that he himself is a racist…but whether you can separate one’s policies from one’s beliefs and feelings towards other individual is a separate debate for another time
**Yes, the Civil War and humanitarian crisis continue; the point is not that dialogue has solved those issues, but rather that negotiation led to a positive outcome, whereas bombing would almost certainly have not
***To be fair, the list also includes ideas like taunting officials and gestures. Yes, these contradict my argument, but I would counter that they are applicable to autocratic regimes, and not to democratic societies