As most CounterPunch readers surely know, Jim Gilchrist of the Minutemen Project left the stage of Roone Arledge Auditorium at Columbia University after being challenged by a number of anti-racist audience members on October 4, 2006 . Invited to the university by Young America’s collegiate right-wing propaganda hitmen, the Young Republicans, the Minutemen left the stage after twenty or so protestors joined them there to exercise their free speech. I contacted Monique Dols, one of the protest organizers, the day after the protest. Although she was quite busy, given the press coverage of the protest and the university’s reaction, she was able to answer a couple of questions. After at least two Columbia students received letters from the administration threatening them with expulsion on Friday October 13, she was unable to answer any more, figuring it was more important to address this latest attempt by the Columbia administration to repress the protestors’ freedom of speech.
Ron: To begin, can you give me your impression of what happened the night of Wednesday, October 4 Roone Arledge Auditorium at Columbia? Who invited the Minutemen to speak in New York — at Columbia of all places? What do you think they wanted to achieve?
Monique: The College Republicans invited the Minutemen to campus as part of a string of right-wing speakers they have lined up for the fall. They did so in a context in which students of color on campus have already been under attack. Last year, there was a series of racist incidents on campus, including racist and anti-Semitic graffiti in public places. In 2004, a student newspaper published a racist cartoon making fun of Black History month that looked like it could have come out of the era of Jim Crow. This came right on the heels of the College Republicans “affirmative action bake sale”. That same year, the Columbia Marching Band posted flyers all over campus making fun of the death of Palestinian Professor Edward Said. The Columbia administration’s response to these events has been anemic at best and silent at worst. The Republicans’ invitation to Gilchrist can be seen as a direct continuation of this assault on students of color on campus.
Minuteman Marvin Stewart opened up for Jim Gilchrist and got the already pro-immigrant audience worked up with his 45 minute rant. I wasn’t inside the auditorium at this point. I and another activist were holed up waiting for the right moment to sneak onto the stage to unfurl our pro-Immigrant banner. A friend who was in the audience told me that at one point, an audience member called out to Stewart to speak “In Spanish please!” and at this point many in the audience stood up and turned their back on the speaker.
From where we waited, we could hear the audience becoming increasingly impatient with the Minutemen’s message. The speaker responded to the opposition of the audience by insulting them. The spirited crowd responded to his insults with groans and chants of “wrap it up.” We became increasingly encouraged by the audience’s audible response to the Minutemen. We had planned banner drops before at Columbia. When Former Attorney General John Ashcroft visited we dropped a banner. When torture -defender Alan Dershowitz graced us with his presence we held up our banner. We had done it before, taken our stand and maybe gotten a picture in the school newspaper. Just a few minutes before our appearance on stage it became crystal clear that tonight the crowd was with us.
By the time Minutemen cofounder Jim Gilchrist came onto stage, the audience had had enough. A few minutes into his appearance we entered stage right with our banner that read: “No One Is Illegal” in Spanish, Arabic and English. The audience response was electric. Immediately, the crowd was on its feet cheering for us in a way that I have never experienced. Within 20 seconds the Minutemen security guards stormed the stage followed by pro-immigrant activists with a second banner reading, “No al Racismo, No to Racism.” Just as we had our banner ripped out of our hands and the second group attempted to unravel their banner, the Minutemen thugs attacked our peaceful protest with punches and kicks. In the Univision coverage of the event you can see one of these racists kicking a Latino student, who was not even on the stage, in the face.
The fact that our protest was attacked by these racists should not be a surprise to anyone. They are an armed vigilante organization that brings violence and chaos everywhere they go.
What did they want to achieve? Nothing short of promoting the Minutemen’s name and recruiting for their cause. The Minutemen started off as an obscure group of right-wing nut jobs who patrol the borders and force immigrants to cross the border through more remote areas where they are more likely to die from dangerous conditions. They are still right wing nut jobs but they have been thrust into the national spotlight and legitimized by a rightward shift in mainstream politics and their complacent media mouthpieces. They blame hard working, struggling immigrant families for everything from this country’s terrible health care system to unemployment and low wages. Rather than blame corporate America, they blame powerless migrant workers and incite racist violence against them. Getting a boost from the government’s backlash against the outbreak of last spring’s brilliant immigrant rights movement, they spread their hate to parking lots across the country where they harass and beat up day-laborers looking to feed their families. Today the Minutemen and their allies are looking to spread their hate on college campuses. We were there to make sure that the Minutemen did not recruit even 1 or 2 new vigilantes. Racist violence, we believe, is not up for debate and is certainly not welcome on our campus.
Ron: From the video footage I saw, it appeared that the first speaker was an African-American man. Besides the obvious reason–that he was up there to counter claims that the Minutemen are a racist organization–what do you make of his presence there in support of the Minutemen?
Monique: The right-wing media have used the fact that Marvin Stewart is African-American to attempt to brand our protest as racist. On Fox, Stewart went so far as to claim that the audience had yelled out racial slurs against him. This is a complete inversion of reality. The Minutemen openly appeal to white supremacists to join their movement. Stewart’s presence on campus was an attempt to give legitimacy to an organization that is widely recognized as a nativist militia that has declared open season on immigrants. The Minutemen stand in the tradition of the racist citizen’s councils of the 1950’s and 1960’s so headlining the voice of an African American is a very weak attempt at legitimacy.
But there is more to it than this. Anti-immigrant forces in the United States have cynically appealed to African-Americans for support. Suddenly, there are racist politicians and commentators who have “discovered” the problem of Black unemployment just in time to blame Latino immigrants for it. It’s yet another example of pitting one section of the oppressed against the other. And this is not just the far-right groups like the Minutemen, but also the strategy of mainstream politicians as well. However, it is encouraging that at Columbia students have rejected these divide-and-conquer strategies. The protest against the Minutemen was multi-racial with Black, Latino, Arab, Asian and white students participating together.
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As I noted above, the Columbia University administration sent at least two students letters threatening them with expulsion for their alleged involvement in the protest. Monique wrote me a short note adding that the major thing that she wanted to point out was that the rightwing and the liberals were attempting to reframe the entire question around the Minutemen and other vigilante groups as one of free speech. She emphasized that “it has become the major argument around what we did. ” While freedom of speech is important to defend, it is also important to examine how that speech is defined. For example, in this instance, did John Gilchrist have more of a right to free speech than those in the audience who opposed his message? Did his presence as a guest of the Young Republicans override the audience’s right to express their opposition to his message? If so, than how does one reconcile the right to free speech with this hierarchy? Do some folks have a greater right to free speech than others? If so, who decides? Those in power? If this is the case (as it seems to be at Columbia and many other venues, educational and otherwise), who decides? As anyone involved in organizing almost any event opposed to the war, capitalism, or other realities favored by those in power in our country, those who decide are the same folks that are in power. Freedom of speech is not given to those of us not in the halls of power, we have to fight for it. The Columbia event was but one small skirmish in the ongoing struggle to keep speech free for everyone, not just those who support the folks in power (or are in power themselves).
There’s a well known line written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in a 1919 US Supreme Court decision that reads: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.” Applying this analogy to the events at Roone Arledge Auditorium that October night leads me to believe that it was Mr. Gilchrist and his supporters who falsely shouted fire. Does this mean that they should not have been granted the right to speak? My answer is that they should certainly be given the right to speak, but they should not expect their speech to be accepted without protest. In other words, they did not deserve any special protection, because their right to free speech is no greater than that of those who oppose them.
To show your support for the Columbia student protestors call (212-854-9970), fax (212-854-9973) or e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) President Lee Bollinger’s office and asking that he stop his threats of discipline. Copy/send messages of support to the Columbia Protesters’ Defense Committee at email@example.com. You can also sign an online petition in support of the protests.