Ray Kelly, Brown University and Unchecked Privilege

Ray Kelly, Brown University and Unchecked Privilege.

Gabriel Rom

On Monday October 28, former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was scheduled to speak at Brown University. He hardly got past “Hello.” In an auditorium with standing-room only, a group of over one hundred protestors disrupted Kelly’s talk until it was aborted. One after another, they stood up, took out pieces of paper, recited statements, sung spoken verse, chanted, cheered and jeered.

Eventually, a lone voice from the back of the auditorium, called out, “Let the man speak!” There was a brief, almost ashamed silence, and then a handclap or two. As if on cue, a protester stood up and pointed his finger at the suits on stage: “This pig’s policies oppress our people and shut us down!” Applause. “Well we’re here to shut you down! This is not civil discourse.” Applause. “You gunna bring the Gestapo here next?” Applause. “Who is the terrorist? You are the terrorist!” Applause.

A young man in the audience, his arms folded across his chest, pleaded with the protesters, “You all have a voice. You have the spark of social injustice and awareness, that’s why you’re here today and you’re angry for a good reason. But your volume and your inability to listen has quieted my voice and people that want to hear Ray Kelly.” A chorus, bitter and unforgiving, drowned him out. “Anybody that has a problem with protesters speaking is just part of the problem. They’re not part of the solution. So go now.” Applause.

From the perspective of the protestors, if someone wanted to hear Kelly, never mind agree with him, they became the enemy. This view is protest as censorship and it represents a world of absolutes: It’s our way or the highway. If you disagree, you’re no better than the fascist Kelly himself. You’re a revolutionary or a reactionary, a fighter or a coward. The Brown protesters challenged a policy that is nothing more than legislated white supremacy drawn up by an unrepentant white supremacist. Disagree? Sit down and shut up like a good activist ought to.

There is a shrill fanaticism behind such moral righteousness and yet it resists critique because those who question the protester’s methods are reflexively cast on the side of evil.  The protesters see discourse itself as nothing more than a bourgeois defense of the status quo. Since they conceive of themselves as “simply right” and Kelly as “simply wrong,” discussion becomes a rationalization for oppression – and merits invective, rather than argument.  According to this logic, one cannot support some aspects of Stop and Frisk and protest others. A moderate is reduced to a stiff-necked shill for oppression. Debate and discourse get in the way of perfect justice.

Doreen Saint-Brown, one of the protest’s leaders, wrote in a piece for the Guardian newspaper that “protest is discourse on the terms of the oppressed, and it takes a ‘disruption’ for marginalized communities to have their voices heard.” What Saint-Brown did not mention is that opinions on Stop and Frisk are not uniform, not even within the ethnic or lower class communities she supposedly speaks for.

According to a December 2013 amNewYork poll, 64% of Bronx residents believe that Stop and Frisk is “beneficial,” but needs to be “improved or modified.” Only 20% believed it should be outlawed. According to the same poll, 60% of black voters in New York support Stop and Frisk but similarly want it modified. In an August 2012 New York Times opinion poll, 48% of blacks and 58% of Hispanics approved of Ray Kelly and Michael Bloomberg. There is ample empirical evidence that the debate over Stop and Frisk is not over. It remains ongoing in the courts, in the media, and on the streets. Why then is it being snuffed out at Brown?

What might the protesters say to these New York residents who see some value in the program? Their behavior would suggest something along the lines of, Hush now; you’re just living under false consciousness. We, the freedom fighters from Providence, know what’s really best for you. This line of thinking is not alien to the far-left. It has strong similarities to the Leninist view of the revolutionary vanguard whose goal is to make the ignorant oppressed conscious of their oppression. There is a connection between  Marxist reeducation and these protestors, because both groups reduce the individual to a political tool rather than a thinking being. In the protestors’ quest for justice, variations in opinion — the distinctions that make people…people — are only obstacles to be overcome or annoyances to be ignored. C.S. Lewis put it succinctly when he wrote, “to be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”

Is it in fact true that to choose discourse over action is to be complicit in injustice, as the protesters seem to believe? Consider the white moderates of the civil-rights era, or the collaborationist governments of pre-war Europe. Some issues demand action and nothing less. As Ralph Ellison writes in Invisible Man, “Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to be labeled ‘file and forget,’ and I can neither file nor forget.” But when do we drop the pen and pick up the gun? Where does that line get drawn? Consider if you tried debating an anti-abortion activist who refused to talk because he claimed innocent babies were being killed while you spoke. Beneath his fanaticism is a belief that dialogue legitimates injustice. The only difference between him and the Brown protestors is what he views as unjust.

Notwithstanding the foregoing justifications for radical action over discourse, the case of Stop and Frisk does not fit the bill. While we can’t expect the democratic process to address every question of injustice, an unpopular and flawed policy is on an (admittedly slow) track to reform. In August, 2013 New York District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin ruled in a scathing 179-page report that Stop and Frisk was a “policy of indirect racial profiling” and she offered an extensive list of reforms. In October, an appeals court ruled that Scheindlin’s impartiality was compromised and halted her proposed modifications. In November the New York Attorney General released a report, calling Stop and Frisk “flawed,” and sought to “advance the discussion about how to fight crime without…violating equal justice under the law.” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has now promised that he will drop the City’s appeals and enact reforms to it.

There is an essential paragraph in Judge Scheindlin’s ruling: “to be very clear: I am not ordering an end to the practices of Stop and Frisk. The purpose of the remedies addressed in this Opinion is to ensure that the practice is carried out in a manner that protects the rights and liberties of all New Yorkers, while still providing much-needed police protection.” The ruling gives a legal corroboration to the popular opinion that Stop and Frisk should be reformed but not done away with. The legality of the policy hinges on finding a balance between police protection and and the protection of individual rights.

The Brown protesters are tolerant in principle but not in practice. They believe in open minds and the exchange of free ideas only when the exchange suits them. When it doesn’t, it ought to be stopped. This is a claim to force and not reason and when debate is discarded the democratic machine grinds to halt. It’s hard to find common ground when you are being yelled at.

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