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Co-PAIT and the University’s legacy of student protest

By
Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Over 100 students gathered on the steps of Faunce House Oct. 2 in one of the largest student protests this fall, just yards away from an event for alums taking place in Sayles Hall.

Members of the Coalition for Police Accountability and Institutional Transparency read anonymous student accounts of incidents of police incompetence, insensitivity and brutality. As individual student speakers stepped up to the microphone, they cast their criticisms – that the University’s crime reporting was inaccurate and that Department of Public Safety officers profile students – across the Main Green. Alums began to gather at the foot of the steps.

Some of these alums reminded students that they, too, had protested race-related issues while at Brown.

But while Co-PAIT is part of a longstanding tradition of protest at the University, its goals and approaches differ significantly from those of the students who first protested race issues on campus. One of the clearest differences is that members of the coalition “have made the conscious decision not to work within the University system,” as four of its members wrote in a Nov. 30 letter published in The Herald. The letter also explained that Co-PAIT members would meet with University officials at public meetings scheduled by students but not in closed-door meetings in administrators’ offices.

Some of the students who first protested about race issues in the 1960s, however, combined dramatic protest with talks with administrators to successfully change the composition of the student body.

In December 1968, 65 black students marched from Faunce Arch to Congdon Street Baptist Church to protest the low number of black students – who made up 3 percent of all students – at the University as well as other grievances. Though students had protested about the issue before, this time administrators responded – with talk and with action. Five months later, 12 percent of students admitted for the incoming class of 1973 were black.

But today’s administrators fail to back up their words with action, said Co-PAIT member Josh Teitelbaum ’08. University officials have failed to “take (student activists) seriously in terms of actually making change,” he said. He added that they have instead “just tried to make us happy.”

As enrollment of students of color nears the 30-percent mark, how are protests – especially those related to profiling – different at a University now led by a black woman as its president? Now that the protestors of the 1960s are Brown professors themselves and the provost’s office is occupied by an alum who spent his days on College Hill protesting ROTC, how has the administration’s response to activism changed?

Protesting after a culture of protest

The fact that 100 students gathered in front of University Hall Nov. 16, weeks “after the (first) protest says something about sustainable organizing,” Teitelbaum said. But on the same ground nearly 38 years ago, 1,000 students gathered in solidarity with the black students who had marched to Congdon Street Baptist Church. Those students heard both professors and students criticize the University for its failure to increase the number of black students.

Though student activists in the 1960s had different criticisms of the University from those of today, national attention and the changing composition of the student body have also created a different environment for student activists, said University officials and professors interviewed by The Herald.

During the 1960s, a national culture of protest and widespread focus on civil rights and race relations gave students more power to influence administrators, said one former student protestor.

“There was national concern about civil rights,” Kenneth McDaniel ’69 said of his time at the University. One of only eight black men in his class, McDaniel participated in the 1968 Congdon Street Church walkout. “It just seemed to be, if you were doing something at Brown, it was occurring at every other point in the country,” he said.

In the same 1968 academic year, students also protested against the on-campus ROTC program and in favor of co-educational housing.

Though apathy is commonly associated with today’s college students, Senior Lecturer in American Civilization Paul Buhle said only a small core group of energized students were willing to take the time to organize and lead rallies, “even in the hype of protest days” in the 1960s. “You would get 15 students coming to the planning meetings, but then 50 or 100 would follow them,” he said of his experience as a student protestor.

But now there seem to be fewer students opposed to University administrators who are following the student organizers.

According to a poll conducted by The Herald in late October and early November, 48.9 percent of polled students approve of the University’s handling of a September incident of alleged police brutality, in which a black graduate student was arrested on campus after refusing to show his Brown ID when requested by a DPS officer. Only 27.3 percent of respondents said they disapprove of the administration’s response. 22.8 percent of students expressed no opinion in the poll, which had a 3.8 percent margin of error.

Felipe Floresca ’73, former director of the Third World Center, said the increased enrollment of non-black students of color has broken down the “black-white student paradigm” of the 1960s.

“Students are a lot smarter and more comfortable in their identity” today than when he was a student.

Today, diversity issues such as black student enrollment are not specific to any one activist group like Co-PAIT, Teitelbaum said. Instead, he added, “That’s a general concern for everybody.”

Gina Rodriguez ’08 said only so much could be accomplished in the racially divided community of the 1960s. “It’s far more helpful to be organizing an anti-racist agenda in a multi-racial community,” she said.

A media game

If students have changed, University officials have become smarter and more agile, student activists said.

“The University knows how students organize their lives here,” said former Co-PAIT member Jane Mee Wong ‘06.5. “They know we go away for the summer, and for study abroad and that we burn out.” Instead of making policy changes, administrators take advantage of the irregularity of student life and wait for students to “cool down,” she said.

In the 1960s, administrators feared that students would blow up in violent protest and thus grew receptive to student demands, Buhle said. “Administrators were terrified of the student protests at Harvard and Columbia,” he added, referring to student takeovers of the presidents’ offices at Columbia University in 1968 and Harvard University in 1969.

“The (1968) administration would not have gotten into a dialogue nearly to the extent that the present administration does,” McDaniel said.

More than violent protest, University officials today fear the negative media attention student activists could bring to campus.

“It’s a big media game,” Teitelbaum said.

“Everything is filtered through Mike Chapman,” he added, referring to Michael Chapman, vice president for public affairs and University relations. “No one can talk.”

Teitelbaum said administrators today are afraid of student activists in a “quieter, ‘we’re kind of scared, we’d like to bring you into our fold'” way.

“I know some administrators who wine and dine activists,” he said, adding that officials have “gotten a little smarter” since first confronted by activists in the 1960s.

An Oct. 3e-mail sent by Assistant to the President Marisa Quinn addressed to “University Colleagues” perhaps reflected the fear of reaction.

The e-mail advised faculty and administrators on how to act if student protestors took control of University Hall. Quinn quoted University protocol on protests: “Protests or demonstrations that infringe upon the rights of others to peaceful assembly, orderly protest, free exchange of ideas, or that interfere with the rights of others to make use of or enjoy the facilities or attend the functions of the University cannot be tolerated.”

The e-mail is another way for the University to “protect itself” and “maintain its own power,” said Co-PAIT member Dara Bayer ’08.

Quinn’s e-mail also advised employees not to leave their offices unlocked or unattended, to keep “sensitive material in safe and secure locations” and to call DPS if a student group prevented them from entering a building in which they worked. Yet she wrote that “an occupation” was “unlikely” and ended the e-mail by advising employees to “treat protestors with respect.”

But Wong said University officials are more likely to treat activists “like children.” Meetings held by administrators are like “show-and-tell sessions,” she said. “They don’t listen.”

Wong is also a former member of Action for Safety, a student group that formed in response to incidents of police misconduct against two male Hispanic students in the spring of 2004, and said police brutality incidents similar to this year’s occurred in 2002. Students’ short time at Brown impedes sustained protest against similar incidents that occur again and again, she said. University officials take advantage of the lack of “institutional memory” students have, she added.

Working with them or against them?

Teitelbaum said Co-PAIT’s decision not to work with the administration was largely informed by Action for Safety’s experience.

Action for Safety members were much more willing to meet with University officials at meetings scheduled by the administrators, Teitelbaum said. But administrators often gave short notice before meetings and did not continue to work on these issues after the end of a semester because they believed students had cooled down over the break, Wong said.

Wong pointed to Associate Provost and Director of Institutional Diversity Brenda Allen’s response to the 2004 incident as an example of administrators’ failure to deliver on their promises. Allen was charged with creating a revised discrimination and harassment policy in the spring of 2004. A year later, the activist group Gay Shame Providence posted fliers around campus pressing Allen for the revised protocol.

Allen and the ad hoc committee formed to revise the policy completed its work in Fall 2005, Allen said. Because of a “technical glitch,” the policy did not go onto the office’s Web site or into Morning Mail, she said.

“It fell through the cracks, and it really was my fault,” Allen said. “But it was perceived to be some big conspiracy.” She said the mistake “seemed to have taken on a life of its own.” Allen added that she and other administrators were not trying to hide anything from students.

“I’m not sure why … students think that administrators are so afraid to address these issues, or that there is some kind of back room thing going on,” she said.

Rodriguez said, “When you have a platform that is critical of the University it doesn’t make sense that you’re working with them.”

But Allen said she did not understand Co-PAIT’s criticisms because she has not spoken directly with the group’s members.

“I don’t understand the criticism because I don’t understand what it’s based upon,” she said. “What’s the evidence that there is nothing happening?”

She cited the recently released Diversity Action Plan as an example of change led by the administration. She said the University has successfully pursued its goals to increase the representation of women and minorities in the faculty. “If someone said, ‘the numbers haven’t changed,’ I would have to disagree, because the numbers in the past five years have been the opposite (increasing),” she said.

Although some students may be confused by Co-PAIT’s refusal to meet with administrators on certain terms, Rodriguez said attention to that only reflects how “unprecedented” the organization’s approach is.

Evan Wright ’10 said he had learned from upperclassmen Co-PAIT members that students in Action for Safety who worked with the University “felt they did not meet their goals.”

Activists said the skin color or gender of those in positions of power is irrelevant.

Administrators use the presence of black officials to deflect criticism that the University is racist, Teitelbaum and Wong said. “I want to judge (administrators) by politics, not by skin color,” Wong said. “Someone can survive racism and still implement racist policies.”

She compared administrators who point to their race as evidence that they understand student activists’ issues to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, two people of color working for the Bush administration.

“They’ve joined what they were fighting against,” Wong said of University administrators.

Administrators have also learned how to take advantage of race politics and make students feel that mechanisms are in place to respond to their complaints immediately, Teitelbaum said.

Provost David Kertzer’69 P’95 P’98, who protested the ROTC program on campus when he was a student at Brown, said student protestors could get a stronger message across. He said he appreciated students who expressed their frustration with University policies but said they should consider their messages more carefully.

“When President Simmons and (Chief of Police) Mark Porter walk past white students holding up signs saying ‘The University is racist,’ what do you think they are thinking?” he said, pointing outside University Hall while Co-PAIT members protested on the Main Green.

“It’s really hard for us to swallow sometimes that some people we thought were big advocates for students have turned around,” Teitelbaum said. “But where you sit is where you stand.”

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