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A Wake Up Call to the Passive Left

Standing Up Against Racism at Columbia

by ALAN MAASS

The protest against the anti-immigrant Minutemen at Columbia University and the national media uproar that followed highlight both the growing threat of the far right and the challenges facing those who want to confront racism.

The planned speech by Minutemen founder Jim Gilchrist at Columbia was part of an effort by the racist group to gain a foothold on college campuses–and to further burnish the group’s newly "respectable" image.

It wasn’t a surprise that the right-wing media would turn the facts on their heads and use the protest to accuse immigrant rights supporters of violence and attacking "free speech." But unfortunately, some liberals and even radicals joined in the denunciations. Progressive magazine editor Matthew Rothschild said the Columbia protest was "a defeat for free speech worthy not of progressives, but of goons." Jon Stewart of the Daily Show claimed the protesters made Sean Hannity of Fox News "look like the reasonable one."

Such arguments display both ignorance of what Gilchrist and the Minutemen represent, and disrespect for the historical commitment of the left to speak out against racism and oppression.

The issue of the Columbia protest has been framed as a narrow question of free speech–for Gilchrist only, it seems, not those who protested him–when the important issue is the responsibility of anyone who opposes racism not to let it go unchallenged.

* * *

Not long ago, the virulently anti-immigrant ideas that Gilchrist champions were consigned to the right-wing margins of U.S. politics. But the crackpot right’s position on immigration has been legitimated by the conservative shift in mainstream politics.

Though Bush and a variety of Republicans and Democrats would prefer to include a corporate-backed guest-worker program, both parties overwhelmingly agree that the starting point of immigration policy must be the draconian border enforcement measures championed by the Minutemen.

Gilchrist and his vigilantes are the shock troops for the right-wing offensive on immigration, formed to mobilize armed patrols to harass immigrants at the border. Lurking just beneath the surface are the Ku Klux Klan and other neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups–as watchdog organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center have shown.

When these bigots are given a platform at a prestigious university such as Columbia, it further solidifies the far right’s presence in the mainstream debate and gives them additional legitimacy.

As the Columbia protesters said in a statement soon after the event, "We are sure that if the Nazi party held a public meeting on campus, Jewish groups would be there to challenge them–so would we. We are sure that if the Ku Klux Klan held a public meeting on campus, African American groups would be there to challenge them–so would we. The Minutemen are no different."

Nevertheless, the Minutemen’s claims about what took place at Columbia during the October 4 forum were accepted and promoted unquestioningly by the mainstream media.

But video footage circulating on the Internet corroborates the protesters’ version of events. The "protesters rushing the stage," which featured in almost every media account, consisted of two demonstrators unfurling a banner on the stage 45 minutes into the program. The audience, grown increasingly angry with the Minutemen’s message, loudly showed their support, and some followed the lead of the two demonstrators.

Minutemen supporters and College Republican sponsors of the event physically attacked the immigrant rights supporters–television footage shows one Latino student being kicked in the head by a right-winger.

In this context, the claim that the Minutemen’s right to "free speech" was violated begs some questions: Did the audience members who opposed them not have a right to speak? Were they obligated to stay silent while the Minutemen spread their message? Do the Minutemen have some right to not be protested?

The double standards about free speech were evident in the reaction of Columbia University officials as well. University President Lee Bollinger has denounced the anti-Minutemen protesters, but two years ago, when faculty supporters of Palestinian rights came under attack–from some of the same media outlets and politicians now hounding the students–Bollinger said the university didn’t have to respect their First Amendment rights because Columbia is a "private institution."

Yet Columbia administrators are preparing to punish the student protesters. If they do, they will send a message that it is acceptable for the Minutemen to meet peaceful protest with racist violence, and that the victims of violence will suffer the consequences.

* * *

In the 1960s, one of the important stages in the development of the anti-Vietnam War movement came when the State Department sent a team of speakers on a tour of college campuses.

Representing the authority of the U.S. government and implicitly endorsed by university officials, the tour was meant to regain the initiative in the growing debate over Vietnam. Fortunately, these speakers were met by jeering students–a few were driven off the stage by chanting and booing.

Those protests marked a recognition by student activists that following the rules of polite discourse would be a step away from the goal of ending the war.

Knowing now the full scope of what was taking place in Vietnam, no one who deserves to be called progressive would say those students were wrong to confront the State Department propagandists–that the antiwar activists should have remained silent out of respect for the "right" of the war machine to excuse its killing.

Minutemen leaders like Gilchrist are no less propagandists, but for a different war–a racist war on immigrants. They need to be confronted and challenged. And that’s what happened at Columbia.

As the Columbia protesters point out, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King wrote that the "great stumbling block is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate…who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’"

Anyone who cares about justice or freedom should support the Columbia students who stood up against racist hate.

ALAN MAASS is the editor of the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at: alanmaass@sbcglobal.net