Columns, Opinions

Roundtable: Should the University punish the students who interrupted the Ray Kelly lecture?

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Opinions Columnists
Friday, November 22, 2013

Enriquez ’16: No, Protesters were standing for racial justice

On Oct. 29, student activists and members of the local community stood up and spoke over New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s planned lecture. Their personal narratives and quotes eventually resulted in the speech’s cancellation.

People who support the punishment of these student activists highlight the fact that the students violated the “free inquiry” clause set forth in the University’s Code of Student Conduct and in our mission statement. I see where those people come from. When I heard that the lecture was canceled, I was angry and disappointed that a few students could ruin a chance for others to form opinions about Kelly. That was until I realized the issues tied to this event are larger than just listening to a single speaker — they are unavoidably tied to our fellow students. Because of the activists’ personal experiences, their positive intentions and the fact that they actually facilitated greater intellectual inquiry, it would be entirely misguided for the University to punish those who stood up.

In the days after the talk, I spoke to black and Latino students who lived in Harlem or the Bronx, and I saw them relive memories of  their teenage siblings walking the city streets. They recounted how Kelly’s policies encouraged the police to treat them like criminals solely based on their race and age. I heard someone describe having siblings with strong opinions on what is right and wrong in society — who may burst at the injustice of being patted down for the alleged crime of having dark skin and walking home from school.

I had a visceral reaction to their anecdotes, in which I imagined my friends walking back from class and a police officer pulling them aside, asking them to identify themselves, patting them down, going through their pockets and rifling through their bags. I realized that my protected suburban life never exposed me to the experiences of my minority friends and their families in New York living in constant fear of our government. Only when I saw their bodies shrink with shame as they talked about the police in their neighborhoods did I really understand what I thought I already knew. If Kelly had calmly lectured to that tiny auditorium, I would not have been able to have the impassioned conversation that led me to that realization.

Brown’s mission statement declares, “The mission of Brown University is to serve the community, the nation and the world by discovering, communicating and preserving knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry.”

For the thousands of students, faculty members and administrators in our community who were not in the auditorium as Kelly spoke, the actions of the protesters called attention to an issue that many of us would have otherwise brushed aside. Their defiance spurred our campus into weeks of discussion about “proactive policing,” free speech, racism and the ethics of modern society.

It seems to me that through the protesters’ passion and experiences, they communicated something that many of us had not yet discovered for ourselves — stop and frisk is unconstitutional and harmful to communities.

Beyond this fulfillment of the Brown mission statement, their bold actions resulted in wide media coverage of Kelly’s planned speech that amplified this lesson. The New York Times, CNN, the Huffington Post, Fox News and dozens of media outlets carried stories about the protest and therefore brought this essential discussion to the nation.

Recently, when Melissa Harris-Perry of MSNBC discussed the actions of the protesters, she launched into a lengthy debate about the ethics behind stop and frisk. Looking at statistics from the New York Attorney General’s office, Harris-Perry concluded that on top of the policy being unconstitutional, “stop and frisk does not stop crime” and is “harmful to black communities.” Maybe more people felt empathy for the victims of stop and frisk as a result of the news coverage. Harris-Perry’s national discussion is so much more important to the health of our nation and the millions of people who have been unjustly treated in New York than 200 people sitting quietly, doing the “safe” thing and keeping our university out of the national spotlight.

Not only did the protesters spark a national discussion, they also sent a clear message to the local community. At Kelly’s talk, there were a sizable number of white male police officers seated prominently in the front two rows. Among those officers was Providence Commissioner of Public Safety Steven Pare. The presence of the commissioner and his officers was threatening to the community protesters, who feared that the University was elevating both Kelly and his controversial policies. By standing up, they sent a clear message to Providence law enforcement that our local community would not support the implementation of similar policies.

An essential requirement to the “spirit of free inquiry” in any community is that every individual feels safe enough to venture into that community, both physically and intellectually. Those members of our community — our friends, co-workers and neighbors — who protested Kelly acted non-violently in the interest of their safety and the safety of others. They promoted a discussion that was inevitably more effective than Ray Kelly’s speech. They should not be punished.

Many people in our generation, myself included, are often too disillusioned to make their voices heard. They believe that they cannot change anything and that the powers that be will not respect their opinion. Punishing these individuals for standing up for New York’s communities only feeds this disillusionment and deepens the divide between the establishment and the leaders of tomorrow. Let these brave people go.

Nico Enriquez ’16 is thankful to those in our community who stood up. He can be reached at nenriquez3@gmail.com. 

 

Delaney ’15: Yes, Protestors must be held accountable 

Over the past several weeks, Brown has been immersed in a discussion centered on the Ray Kelly incident that has brought to light many important tenets of the University, including freedom of speech, social justice and the free exchange of ideas. The Herald has printed columns and letters from students, alums and faculty members with a multitude of viewpoints and ideas regarding the matter.

The most important point that has consistently been made is that this is not a discussion of the validity of stop and frisk. It is a discussion of how members of Brown’s student body acted in response to their opinions of Kelly and his policies. Therefore, the question of punishment should be derived from examining the actions taken by the protesters, independent of what they were protesting.

First of all, the actions of the protesters were an unacceptable form of discourse. As many have already pointed out, the disruptive protests silenced the voices of many students who wanted to challenge Kelly with questions they had prepared. It is not acceptable for some students to feel that their voices are more important than those of their peers, especially in the context of a university.

Furthermore, the forum that was held the following day continued this unacceptable form of discourse. Several students made highly caustic remarks toward faculty members and peers, with one student accusing a Brown police officer of being a racist and another directly referring to President Christina Paxson as a terrorist. This is not an appropriate way to express grievances and underscores a lack of respect toward the student body and the University that should not be tolerated.

Second, as many have pointed out, the students’ actions were a clear violation of Brown’s mission: to foster the free exchange of ideas. It is entirely acceptable that students protested outside the lecture hall — they have the right to voice their opinions through protest. But it is not acceptable that they proceeded to disrupt and ultimately force the cancellation of the lecture.

Speakers, especially controversial ones, are an important medium of discourse and are crucial to both the exchange of ideas on campus and the promotion of students’ intellectual curiosity. It is unacceptable that the group not only shut down the lecture but also potentially jeopardized Brown’s ability to host controversial speakers in the future. It is possible that these speakers will be hesitant to come to Brown after hearing about the way Kelly was treated.

If the University does nothing, it will effectively condone the protesters’ behavior, which would be unacceptable for the administration to do. Nobody is forcing any Brown student to agree with, or attend, any lecture on campus. But for many students, these events are one of the great benefits of attending a university that can host such high-profile speakers. The suppression of intellectual diffusion must never be tolerated.

Finally, aside from what Paxson referred to in her email as “the extraordinary nature of these events,” the actions of the students were a clear violation of the Code of Student Conduct. In the section on “Protest and Demonstration Guidelines,” unacceptable forms of protest include interrupting or halting a lecture, a debate or any public forum. All Brown students agreed to abide by this code prior to matriculating, and they must be held accountable for violating it. The extraordinary nature of these events does not provide sufficient cause for violating the code.

One of the arguments in support of the protesters’ actions is that the context of the situation required a more extreme form of action and justified what happened. Many people at the forum, including a professor, supported the protesters on this basis.

But the emotions and opinions of this small group of people do not warrant impeding the flow of ideas, silencing the voices of other students and violating the code of conduct. And as demonstrated by a recent Herald poll, 73 percent of the student body agrees with me (“Poll shows mixed opinions on Ray Kelly, coal divestment,” Nov. 6).

The majority of the student body also agrees that stop and frisk is an unacceptable policy, one with repercussions to which many of us cannot fully relate. But the protesters crossed the line. The ends do not always justify the means, and the University must hold the protesters accountable.

Finally, I think Brown should consider inviting Kelly back to speak. I understand that some students have visceral reactions toward the man and his ideology. But this is a step the University could take to reinforce its mission to support the free exchange of ideas, even if — or perhaps especially when — they are controversial or upsetting.

Daniel Delaney ’15 can be reached for comment at daniel_delaney@brown.edu.  

Topics:
  • TheRationale

    Since this happened, all of the debate has been about whether the protest was justified, not about any of Ray Kelly’s policies past the concept that they’re racist.

    The net outcome from this debacle is that it makes Brown and its students look like they are not mature enough to handle free speech. The protestors have failed twofold: The lecture and ensuing discourse never happened, and the conversation has been successfully diverted away from Ray Kelly’s policies and to the actions of the protestors.

  • blind authoritarian

    The civil rights movement was disruptive in the extreme and broke law after law. Moderates like Danny Delaney clucked their tongues and criticized their methods.

    • Alum 2013

      Comparing stop and frisk to the civil rights movement is exactly the kind of immaturity, naivete, and ignorance Professor McWhorter criticizes the protestors for when pointing out that they ignore the complexity of the actual situation, act like dogmatic zealots, and become easily frustrated when they realize their opponents are not complete idiots.

      What happened October 29th was a missed opportunity for those opposed to Stop & Frisk to be effective. Despite the unsubstantiated claims of the protestors, has Ray Kelly said anything or acted in a manner blatantly racist? Without pressing during questioning you can’t actually show one way or the other.

      Then there’s also the issue of persuading people that weren’t already convinced that Stop & Frisk is an issue as you see it. Here is where the protestors failed spectacularly. Instead their display drew the wrong line in the sand.

  • student

    y is the herald framing the issue this way

    • student

      depressing & dumb

      • student

        let’s approach this issue from the standpoint of people with authority deciding whether or not to punish student activists

      • student 2

        let’s approach this complicated issue from the standpoint of people with authority deciding whether to punish student activists

        • ThirteenthLetter

          Yes, “student 2,” it’s totally cool for you and your friends to shout down anyone you don’t like. Only racists like freedom of speech and reasoned discussion!

          Incidentally, I see that your tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt haven’t given you the ability to use punctuation or capital letters. You’re gonna be sorry for that in a few years.

  • John Doe

    Punish the mentally challenged? Why? They already seem to punish themselves. If you wanted to punish them, you would have them sit through an actual discussion where people exchanged ideas, maybe even debated each other reasonably.

    • proust

      These children are not being taught how to discuss nor are they being taught how to debate. they are being taught to hold their breath and throw tantrums. Their feelings are paramount, facts are trumped by emotions.

      It is a new world of social justice where right is what the majority screams it to be.

  • BrokeJose

    The protestors should go to the Bronx and make their case there. That would be a swell idea. But we all know they would NEVER do that. It’s more fun to be self-righteous in a bucholic setting like a ivy league university campus.