Monday, October 09, 2006

Academic (un)freedom

As one of America's Ivy League universities, Columbia churns out members of the country's business, political, and cultural elites, as a look at this page of famous alumni shows. But Columbia also has an intermittent history of student protest, and last week that history gained a new chapter, as noisy protesters confronted the right-wing Minutemen group. The Minutemen organise vigilante patrols of the Mexican border and tell white Americans that Hispanic immigrants are taking their jobs. Members of the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazi National Alliance Party have participated in Minutemen patrols. Here's how the Columbia Spectator described the welcome the main Minuteman got on campus:

Protestors took the stage minutes after Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, came to the microphone in Roone Arledge Auditorium Wednesday night, sparking a chaotic brawl involving more than 20 students, other attendees, and guests.

Two students in the International Socialist Organization unfurled a yellow banner reading, "No human being is illegal!" which prompted other protestors to rush the stage. Gilchrist supporters then clamored on stage while the speakers were ushered out of the auditorium.

"We were aware that there was going to be a sign and we were going to occupy the stage," said a protestor who was on stage and asked to remain anonymous. "I don't feel like we need to apologize or anything. It was fundamentally a part of free speech. ... The Minutemen are not a legitimate part of the debate on immigration."

You can watch some wobbly footage of the scrap here. On the international Marxmail e list Andrew Pollak described the situation at a protest outside the auditorium:

I was at the protest last night, which I think was about 300 people, maybe more. It was clear we had enough people to shut down the event. At several points the organizers said that 80% of the people inside agreed with us outside...

During the picket a member of one of the leftie groups there was asking people if they were up for taking 40 or 50 people inside to shut down Gilchrist. I told him I thought it was a good idea but that a) all 300 or so of us should go, and b) that it should be coordinated with all the groups who'd organized the protest, especially the students. I assume the stage rush was organized separately and beforehand. I didn't know it was happening and left as the crowd outside dwindled. I assume Columbia will try to suspend or expel students involved and we have to come to their defense.

Columbia boss Lee C Bollinger has circulated a letter to staff and students which promises an inquiry into last week's violence, but manages to pre-empt the results of that enquiry by laying the blame at the protestors' door. But members of the International Socialist Organisation insist that their action was intended to be peaceful, and that Campus Republican club heavies were the ones who started throwing punches.

The stoush at Columbia recalls the famous 'He Taua' incident at the University of Auckland on May Day 1979, when a group of Maori entered the Common Room of the Engineering Department and confronted the students who had gathered there to rehearse a capping week 'haka party' that ridiculed Maori culture. The haka party, which had been held by Auckland engineers since 1954, featured racist variations on traditional Maori haka chants, and had been the subject of numerous complaints from Maori groups through the 1970s. Here's an account of what happened in the Engineering Common Room, taken from KM Hazlehurst's unpublished study of the He Taua affair:

On the morning of 1 May... a group of twenty to twenty-five young Maoris and Islanders (male and female) burst in on the engineering students during their rehearsal of the 'haka' in the common room of the Engineering Faculty at the University of Auckland. The protesters were said to have told the students that they were not to 'mock the Maoris' and that they were to stop their 'bastardization of the Maori culture'. ... they demanded that they take off their 'grass' skirts.

The students, dressed mainly in raffia skirts, either gave the protesters the skirts or had them ripped off. Some blows were exchanged, and the main force of the attack evidently came from the intruding protesters. In less that ten minutes the raid was over and the intruders fled the building leaving many of the students with welts, bleeding noses, cuts, and bruises. Three of the students were more seriously injured.

In the aftermath of the Common Room brawl police arrested eleven Maori and charged them with assault and similar offences. Janet Roth, the Marxist president of the Auckland students' union, issued a statement in support of the Maori protesters, and soon found herself removed from her position by a grassroots revolt led by engineering students.

In 1979, media commentators and right-wing politicans on and off campus were particularly scandalised by the fact that the Maori who entered the Engineering Common Room were mostly not students at the University of Auckland. The protesters were presented as barbarians who had no respect for the sanctity of free speech, and for the role of the university in protecting the right to dissent. The drunken racism of the 'haka party' was reframed as some sort of sophisticated statement on Maori culture worthy of protection by the university and the law.
In the aftermath of the anti-racist action at Columbia the American right is also discovering a love for freedom of speech and the special role of universities as havens of dissent. Lee Bollinger has made similar noises, insisting on the sanctity of free speech at Columbia:

Students and faculty have rights to invite speakers to the campus. Others have rights to hear them. Those who wish to protest have rights to do so. No one, however, shall have the right or the power to use the cover of protest to silence
speakers. This is a sacrosanct and inviolable principle.

If Bollinger talked to the Maori protesters who entered the Engineering Common Room back on May the first 1979, or the Mexican-American protesters on his own campus last week, he might find that for some people opposition to racism is also a 'sacrosanct and inviolable principle'.


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