Lessons From the Fordham 9: Thirty Years Later

Ten years ago, this piece was written on the 20th Anniversary of the Fordham 9. It was written by Stephen Philion, Professor of Sociology at St. Cloud State University, who was one of the student leaders of the 1986 “Fordham 9” sit-in blockade of CIA recruitment interviews conducted at the Fordham University Career Planning and Placement Office.

This March is the 30th anniversary of the Fordham 9 action and it retains a relevance today, given recent efforts to convince the Fordham Administration to rescind a 2012 honorary degree given to John Brennan, whose long CIA career culminated in supporting George Tenet’s infamously false ‘intelligence’ gathering on Iraqi ‘WMD threats’ that provided the pretext for a deadly war that to this day sees blowback style fallout worldwide that only worsens with every passing day. Today he serves as Obama’s CIA director. Plus ca change…

This combines with Brennan’s enthusiasm for torture, recounted by former CIA Officer (now CIA critic) Ray McGovern in a letter to the the Fordham Ram, “(he) had been an ardent, public supporter of the kidnapping/rendering of suspected terrorists to “friendly” Arab intelligence services for interrogation.  He also defended the use of U.S. secret prisons abroad, as well as “enhanced interrogation techniques” (also known as torture).” How many more Fordham 9 anniversaries and endless blowback will be needed before university administrations reconsider their ties to the CIA and the military industrial complex?

Twenty years ago this month a group known as “The Fordham 9” conducted a successful blockade of a CIA recruiter at the Career Planning and Placement Office at Fordham University’s Rosehill Campus in the Bronx. The act was carried out after months of negotiations with administrators that ended in a stalemate. The result of the blockade was (as far as could be ascertained) the cancellation of open CIA recruitment at Fordham for a period of at least a year.

I was one of the organizers of this action as a senior in the spring of 1986. The action was conducted by two student organizations, the Fordham Progressive Student Alliance and Fordham Pax Christi. It was a very carefully thought out and planned action that took very seriously the link between theory, strategy, and outcomes. Now twenty years later, plainly this protest takes on a special resonance as students in colleges and high schools organize to demand the removal of military recruiters from campuses around the country. As a professor in the Twin Cities, I’ve had the opportunity to observe two different patterns of anti-military recruitment, one more directly politicized and militantly antiwar that resembles the Fordham 9 model and one that eschews foregrounding the war question and offers another model that is more in keeping with a narrow and politically safer focus on issues of diversity.

The Fordham blockade was planned for easily 6 months, since it was recognized by organizers that the protest was probably going to be necessary after attempts to negotiate with the administration would meet with refusals to disallow CIA recruitment at Fordham’s campus. The action was seen as necessary by activists at the campus for a number of reasons. To begin with, in the early and mid-1980’s they were very busy disseminating leaflets, holding forums, showing documentaries, rallies, and the like that highlighted the role of the US in providing direct and indirect forms of aid to dictatorships aligned with landed elites in Latin America and the hundreds of thousands of Central Americans who had died as a result of such intervention.

In the process of studying America’s military, economic, and political ties with right-wing military regimes in the Americas, the role of the CIA in the Americas and the world was readily apparent. What was even more immediate was the role Fordham itself played in granting the CIA access and in supplying it with some of its most important lead players, not least of which was then CIA chief William Casey. Casey was a venerated alumnus of Fordham and had a lifelong relationship with and keen interest in Fordham University. Many universities had engaged in blockades or protests of the CIA during the 1980’s. From the vantage of the students who would come to take part in the Fordham 9 blockade, because of the Casey connection, the symbolic importance of their act took on a special importance. Not only would the act contribute to the widespread campus movements against the CIA at the time, but it would send a direct message that would be noticed by the CIA: even at William Casey’s conservative alma mater, the CIA’s role and US foreign policy around the world was being challenged.

For months, perhaps, more accurately, over a year, the Fordham PSA and Pax Christi laid the groundwork for developing a cadre of non-violent direct action participants and supporters. Special emphasis was put on interrogating the contradiction between the proclaimed Jesuit mission and the CIA’s values. The students and their faculty supporters spent several months in meetings at all levels with the Fordham administration. Not taking lightly the gravity of their case and intentions to act on their convictions, the Fordham 9 practically memorized the university regulations for procedures to be followed in the event of an act of on-campus civil disobedience. It would be not be an exaggeration to state that they knew those procedures and rules better than the administration that had drawn them up! This knowledge would prove especially helpful in the moment of the occupation for reasons that will soon be clear.

In a nutshell, the ‘compromise’ that was worked out between the Fordham 9 and the administration in March of 1986 was that a ‘debate’ would take place between the CIA recruiter and a representative of the Fordham 9 in Keating Hall. Presumably the CIA recruiter would then decide if he wished to recruit and, if so, then his freedom of speech could not be interfered with. At no time was there a quid pro quo for the ‘debate’ and the 9 prepared for the likelihood that the recruiter would proceed to Dealy Hall afterwards and conduct interviews in the Career Planning and Placement Office.

The agreement to this plan proved decisive in giving the 9 an edge because they had to not only deal with the administration, but as well an oppositional group of conservative and ROTC students led by Thomas Liddy, son of another famous Fordham alumnus . Not having any other information available, since the decision to go ahead with the blockade was a very tightly kept secret, Liddy’s group departed the debate between the late Jesuit Brother Peter Cicchino and the CIA recruiter and returned to their regular schedules. Unbeknownst to them at the time the ‘debate’ concluded, the Fordham 9 had already occupied Deal Hall’s second floor Career Planning and Placement Center for over an hour and a half. Almost no one knew this from the opposition and therefore they were unable to mount any opposition to the actual blockade as a result.

This left just three groups to contend with and how they were dealt with reflects on the time put into thinking and planning all the way up to 2 in the morning of the day the blockade was to occur. Upon entering the Career Planning and Placement office, there was an immediate and anticipated tension between the 9 and the clerical staff. This was expected given age and class strata differences; older, white Catholic working class secretaries and young white and Hispanic students whose parents tended to be professionals or managers. To minimize the level of threat to their office and positions that the clerical staff perceived, the 9 prepared two items, one a short letter for each of the staff apologizing for the inconvenience and expressing respect for their work. They clarifyied their position that the protest was not directed at the staff, and that the occupation would remain throughout both non-violent and performed in a manner that made it easy for the staff to do their work. The other item, perhaps as critical in bridging the cultural gaps between elite protesting students and working class staff was a bouquet of flowers presented to the secretaries as a physical expression of their regret for causing them inconvenience during the CIA recruitment blockade.

Even further contributing to the clerical staff’s lack of investment in actively taking on the role of our opponents was the Fordham 9’s immediately letting them know that, according to university regulations, the matter was not one that they had to deal with; it was instead for Campus Security and the Fordham College Dean to confront. And that brings us to the next area where planning played a critical role in the success of the protest, namely handling of security. In this instance issues of class and race entered into the picture as potential causes of unneeded conflict. Security at the overwhelmingly white Fordham was majority African American or Hispanic and sure enough the head of security who showed up, upon being notified of the blockade, was African American and none too thrilled at the sight of privileged white student radicals taking over a campus office. The tension that emerged from that was quickly dissipated when the chief of security was informed that the matter was one that he also did not have to deal with unless and only if the protest in any way turned violent. As long as the protest remained non-violent, the Dean of Students had to make any decisions about physically removing non-violent student protestors and that could only be done by NYPD. Again, as with the clerical staff, the head of security realized that he was not responsible for much aside from monitoring the situation and notifying the Dean of Students, whose phone number he was provided with by the Fordham 9.

By this point, it should be mentioned, about 50 student and faculty supporters had arrived to show support in the hallway, only further contributing to the sense of magnitude of the protest-even though only 9 were inside actually blockading the recruiter’s activities. While a few interviews actually proceeded, upon the arrival of the Dean, he and the recruiter both agreed that it was not desirable for the CIA or Fordham to attract further publicity with the arrest of students at Fordham being plastered all over the metropolitan and potentially national evening news. The recruiter left and the next morning the campus awoke to the surprising full page photo and headline in the Fordham Ram shouting “Fordham 9 Stops CIA”.

The spirit and tactics of the Fordham 9 are seen in today’s activism against military recruitment as a means to pressure the US to end its bloody war and occupation of Iraq. In the Twin Cities there have emerged two tactics; the first is seen in the citywide protests against high school and university campuses that culminated in a large rally of students against military recruitment on campus at the University of Minnesota. This protest took place as part of a nationwide protest against the ongoing US military occupation of Iraq and highlighted the role of recruiters in seeking out poor and/or minority youth to serve as canon fodder for that adventure. The intensity of such protests reflects the potential for directly and concretely confronting how this war and war generally shapes and reproduces inequalities of race and class under US capitalism.

The other tactic has shown itself in the form of a protest against military recruitment on Hamline University’s campus where students and faculty organized to disallow military recruiters from their campus. However, the motivations for this departed from the nationwide antiwar movement, with a focus instead on the military’s blatant disregard for university diversity provisions that prohibit organizations that utilize campus resources from discriminating on the basis of race, creed, gender, sexuality, etc. Diversity and the rights of minorities within the military are not unimportant issues, and certainly leftists should affirm such rights strongly. Nonetheless, it is odd that, at a time of massive death and injury in Iraq being brought to Iraqis by the illegal US invasion and occupation, this should be the primary issue and so much in the forefront at this point. If anything the major problem with the military right now might well be an in-your-face affirmative action policy of actively recruiting poor and minorities to serve in the Iraq quagmire. When the goal of forcing the military to recognize gays and lesbians as full citizen soldiers is met and protest movements then welcome the military back to campuses, what is the message conveyed aside from acceptance of military recruitment on campuses in a time of ever mounting war atrocities as long as diversity goals are met?

The spirit of the 1986 anti-CIA recruitment protest that guided the Fordham 9 and other nationwide protests in that period can only be replicated if the relationship between current protests against recruitment by the US military on American high school and college campuses is linked as ones against the military’s role in reinforcing the political-economy of capitalist inequality and empire building. These issues are perhaps even more urgent today than they were in 1986, with a situation that requires even sharper and more nuanced analyses of an empire building strategy that embraces the language of global diversity and rights as the US seeks to rationalize its mission as a newfangled kind of human rights imperialism. With any luck, the Fordham 9 action will seem like a Sunday picnic compared with future protests on college campuses against military recruitment and US wars in the Middle East and elsewhere today and to come.

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Steve Philion is Professor of Sociology at St. Cloud State University in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, teaching Social Theory, Sociology of Race, Global Inequality, and China and Globalization. His writings can be found at his website. He can be reached at: sephilion@stcloudstate.edu .

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