Gordon ’14: Kelly protesters empowered the voiceless

Guest Columnist
Monday, November 4, 2013

It is telling that of all the reflections on last Tuesday’s events circulating on Facebook, The Herald and other media, those that only superficially engage the concept of “free speech” as an abstract principle and couch their arguments in the rhetoric of respect and civility bewail the protesters’ tactics. In contrast, those that critically engage the notions of free speech and civil rights as tangible ideas that relate to and affect real communities throughout Providence and the United States in diverse ways boldly defend the protesters’ actions.

If my implication is vague, let me clarify: The thought process of those who dismiss the shouting down of New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly as “inarticulate,” “uncivilized” or “myopic” is fundamentally shallower than that of those who stand by the protestors’ decision to deny the commissioner his chance to speak. The latter is considerably less egoistic, far more nuanced and profoundly more empathetic.

If I seem unduly pejorative, I would ask you to give me the chance to empathize with those whom I have just criticized. I understand that you feel uneasy, perhaps even angry, that members of our community were denied their chance to engage Kelly in an open forum. I have no doubt that had his speech been allowed to take place, the question and answer session would have been a display of intellectual force he would have been woefully unable to withstand. We could have collectively exposed him for the menace that he is and done so in an unimpeachably civil fashion that allowed us to feel good about our community as a place in which tolerance and reason triumph over intolerance and bigotry.

But that’s where it would have stopped: our community. This civil discourse would simply not have resounded far beyond the lecture hall, and word of 100 Brown students’ intellectual triumph certainly would not have traveled to the communities throughout the country that are victims of the violent policies men like Kelly perpetuate and amplify.

I myself do not come from such a community, and I cannot claim to know the pain and degradation that Kelly’s victims are forced to live with every single day. However, I can sure as hell feel angry when people who come from privileged backgrounds like mine abuse their positions to wreak further social and economic violence on already marginalized communities, and I can do my best to sincerely help the voices of those communities ring loudly in settings where they all too often remain completely unheard.

I can appreciate the value of a society in which civil discourse is the only discourse, and I can appreciate the desire of many of my peers to act and speak in a fashion that adds to this value, but the truth of the matter is that we live in a world where this type of society cannot yet be realized. Civility that comes at the expense of further marginalizing the subjugated is not only worthless, but also criminally dishonest.

Because of this, I can appreciate that there are certain moments when an eruption of raw emotion — albeit a disruptive one — better empowers the voices of the oppressed than any sterile exercise in “intellectual rigor” undertaken on their behalf ever could. Upon reflection I have come to understand that last Tuesday was one of those moments, and I hope those of you who have not already will soon come to do the same.


Casey Gordon ’14 is intellectually rigorous and civilly disobedient. He can be reached at 



  1. What about the students of color who wanted to hear Ray Kelly speak in order to feel informed and thus empowered beyond the walls of Brown? What gives the right of privileged people such as yourself to determine what information they can and cannot be exposed to?

  2. This article was written by a clueless “priveledged” apologist. As if the “voiceless” wouldn’t like to hear or read about Kelly being probed for his views. As if the “voiceless” take any solace from a bunch of Brown students walking out on Ray Kelly.

  3. Brown '17 parent says:

    Though I understand your point, I disagree that shouting down and shutting down the lecture had a greater and more beneficial impact than allowing Kelly to respond to challenging and confrontational questions would have been. Yes, it got national attentioon but the feedback outside Brown’s campus that i have heard was entirely negative against teh protesters tactics. It did not succeed in drawing attention to racial profiling or 4th amendment constitutional rights or anything like that. I think it can be far mroe effective to let someone try and defend their actions and philosophoes, and in effect “give them enough rope” to hang themselves. For example, allowing this guy to speak his mind was way more effective than shutting him down would have been, and resulted in him being forced to give up his post:

  4. A brown man says:

    The guest columnist means well but drips with youthful hubris and the arrogance and sense of entitlement that comes with privilege. A man (pronoun gender intentional) with privilege will often convince himself that his “do-gooderism” is empowering to the “voiceless” or poor or less privileged person, even though that man actually knows very little about the real life of the ones he judges as “voiceless” or poor or helpless. The writer has the self-awareness to acknowledge that he does not know what it is like to live as one of the “victims” but he does not have the self-awareness to recognize how self-centered and self-righteouss he sounds. One of the deficits of a young man of privilege is the sense of entitlement that believes that he should be able to have what he wants when he wants it. This includes the power to make right the things he perceives as injustice, even though he doesn’t really understand the injustice. But, damn it, he thinks its wrong, and so he’s going to make it right. Right now. Because he believes he should have the power to have his way. It’s his right and privilege. It’s the way his tribe rolls. They expect to get their way. That’s the heart of privilege.
    What he assumes to be “empowerment” might be no more than a patronizing and self-satisfying act of public protest that has very little positive effect for the people he purports to care for. It might help them, or it might not, but he couldn’t know because he doesn’t know them or what it is like to live their life. If the protest had been conducted by the people who were actual victims of Ray Kelly’s grotesque practice (there you have my bias on that issue), then I would respect their protest. It would be grounded in reality and it would have integrity. But for a privileged 21 year old man to do something purportedly on behalf of people he doesn’t know, this looks to me more like long-distance charity rather than genuine caring and empowerment.
    I may find Kelly’s policy and practice offensive because it treats people as categories and caricaturizations rather than as individual souls. But I also find a privileged person’s do-gooderisms equally offensive when they are done FOR the underprivileged rather than WITH them. The author is a “Brown Man” by virtue of his college education and the diploma he will receive next year. I am a brown man by virtue of my skin color. I did not get to study at Brown. I did do graduate studies at Harvard and Princeton, but those experiences are not what give me insight into the lives of Kelly’s victims. It is living amongst the victims and learning their stories and working together to imagine good responses and following their lead – this is how I can help “empower” them – not by tantrumish demonstrations
    The protesters did earn some national attention, but not for something that most people admire. The protesters rather brought national embarrassment to an institution that espouses a genuine liberalism and generosity of spirit. The young protesters exhibited the lack of liberalism and generosity that has come to typify Tea Party extremists.
    One final note – I have known some people who are exceedingly intellectually rigorous. I have never known a single one of them to describe themselves as such. When they truly are intellectually rigorous, it is always others who say so. The most genuinely intellectually rigorous people I know tend to stand in humility before the universe, mystified by its grandeur and humbled by their inability to grasp the whole thing. This young columnist’s intellectual rigor may be helped more by a good dose of humility. To label one’s self as “intellectually rigorous” is more likely an expression of youthful arrogance than accurate labelling.

    • A brown man says:

      Oops. Sorry. I apologize for the typos and grammatical errors. Gordon’s column provoked my hasty response and I carelessly and uncharacteristically hit the POST button without even proofreading it. I regret my sloppiness and hope that my bad form won’t discredit all of what I was trying to offer.

  5. Another Job Well Done says:

    Well, news of the incident certainly did travel outside of the Brown community, so huzzah if that was the goal. Unfortunately, the only effect it had was to make the student body look like a group of barbarians and make the commissioner appear sympathetic.


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