While the anger that charged the events leading to the premature end of Ray Kelly’s lecture yesterday was justified, holding the intellectual rights of fellow students hostage was not. Wrestling Commissioner Kelly from the stage stripped other attendees of their right to listen and moreover, undermined the goals outlined by the protestors themselves. The demonstration was a profound misunderstanding of the lecture’s purpose, and by extension, an oversight of more powerful alternative responses to racial profiling. It puts thousands of Brown students in a box without their consent. A coalition largely outnumbered by the student population – bolstered by activists completely unaffiliated with Brown – should not be able to limit the right of everyone else to hear political viewpoints, even problematic ones. To do so is to cast doubt on the intellectual capability of one’s peers to further understand the reasoning behind these policing strategies, and then to decry their injustice.
The disruption empowered a few voices at the expense of silencing many, and unnecessarily so, because the voices of the protestors certainly could have been heard on terms respectful to the free speech of other students attending the lecture. Such an outcome is unacceptable in any intellectual ecosystem that values collective growth. The school’s reputation as a bastion for open-mindedness now appears sullied, but it’s important to recognize that this action is by no means indicative of the university as a whole.
Marian Orr, the director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy, has devoted the entirety of his twenty-year academic career to researching the plight of marginalized communities in urban politics. According to Jamelle Watson-Daniels ’16, who spoke to Professor Orr shortly after the lecture was cancelled, “As a black man, and also as an intellectual specifically studying strategies of political change, his hope was that Commissioner Kelly would be challenged by the intellectual capacity of individuals who are at this school.”
Though the Taubman Center framed the event poorly and failed to explain in concrete terms their motives for bringing Kelly to Campus, it was clearly not Orr’s intention to offer the Commissioner a one-sided platform to condone systemic racism.
The director’s introductory words alluded to the philosophy of Alexander Meiklejohn, an alumnus, former dean, and the namesake for Brown’s first-year advising program. Meiklejohn espoused the right of everyone to hear all viewpoints, believing that change arises through informed intellectual discourse, not through stifling offensive or ignorant opinions. Even if Commissioner Kelly’s “proactive” policing strategies are implicitly racist, outwardly suppressing bigotry breeds the most inwardly stubborn form of obstinacy. When racism is not publicly confronted, it doesn’t disappear, it festers within. Therefore, to compel change requires adopting the bigot’s terms for debate: listening to his logic, even if it may be perverse. Without that understanding, both parties harden in their respective corners, looking down on one another, refusing to search for common ground. Discourse with Commissioner Kelly does not lend legitimacy to his racism; it’s the only tool that can aptly fight it. Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio cannot simply refuse to engage his opponents on stop and frisk, however unreasonable their stance. His campaign staff knows that without dialogue, a more humane policing policy will never come to fruition.While challenging Ray Kelly in a Brown lecture hall is unlikely to engender change in the NYPD’s policing strategies, silencing his side of the story nonetheless impedes the evolution of public discourse. Offering Commissioner Kelly a public forum with a designated space for questions would have assured the audience exposure to the best arguments for his policies, and just as importantly, the best refutations thereof. The demonstrators directly hindered their own cause by robbing attendees of the opportunity to fully inform their opinions and thus become better advocates for minorities oppressed by systemic targeting. Instead, driving him out of town empowered Ray Kelly with further ammunition to label the community ignorant.
Protesting racially motivated policing strategies deserves admiration. So does a candlelight vigil expressing solidarity with minorities victimized by discrimination. But infringing upon the intellectual rights of others by drowning out a speaker in the midst of expressing gratitude to the family of a deceased alumnus is unacceptable. Of equal concern, the protestors’ incendiary chant branding the entire NYPD as racist, sexist, and anti-gay verged on slander, and conflated the police force’s orders with their personal morality. For the same reasons that we reject Kelly’s policy of generalizing people of color, we should not generalize the work his staff does for the city of New York. This is not a black and white issue, and the police force is not black and white either. Not long ago officers wearing that uniform plunged into the smoke of burning towers felled by terrorists to save the lives of helpless New Yorkers – men and women, white and of color, gay and straight alike.
Demonstrators justified their behavior on the premise that Ray Kelly’s policing practices don’t even merit debate. Why is that value judgment theirs to make on behalf of Brown as a whole? How is it remotely possible to draw a clear standard for when it is or is not legitimate to suppress speech, if indeed some viewpoints are offensive enough to warrant such extreme retaliation? And what exactly did shouting down Ray Kelly accomplish, beyond fostering a widespread discussion of this community’s values?
During the anti-apartheid movement, beloved former president Ruth Simmons faced a comparable predicament. As the fiercest of advocates for marginalized communities, she initially refused to listen to a fellow student’s argument for apartheid. Her 2001 inaugural speech expressed remorse: “I have never forgotten these simple words spoken in opposition to my own. They taught me more about the need for discourse in the learning process than all the books I subsequently read. And I have regretted for 30 years that I did not engage this woman’s assertions instead of dismissing her as racist.”
Brunonians, we can do better.