What happened at the Middlebury protest?

March 13, 2017

Paul Fleckenstein writes from Vermont on the protest against a right-winger at Middlebury College and the debates and discussions that followed after.

SEVERAL HUNDRED student protesters disrupted a lecture at Middlebury College by arch-conservative Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute.

Demonstrators turned their backs on Murray, chanted and made a united statement, making it impossible for him to speak. University officials escorted Murray to another room, where he was able to give a closed-door lecture broadcast by live stream over the Internet.

Later, a smaller group of demonstrators confronted Murray as he was leaving campus with an entourage. With campus security moving in, the confrontation turned chaotic, and one faculty member accompanying Murray was injured.

The act of opposition to racism at Middlebury has touched off a firestorm of criticism of protests from right-wingers and liberals alike. It has also raised important issues for the left to take up about academic freedom, free speech, the right to protest and strategies for countering the right-wing agenda.

Murray is infamous for peddling pseudoscientific theories to justify reactionary policies. The Southern Poverty Law Center characterizes him as a white nationalist.

Middlebury College student protesters turn their backs on Charles Murray during his scheduled lecture
Middlebury College student protesters turn their backs on Charles Murray during his scheduled lecture

His best-known book The Bell Curve, co-authored with Richard Herrnstein, claimed to prove the intellectual inferiority of African Americans. Though roundly denounced and debunked, The Bell Curve was taken up as "evidence" by Republicans led by Newt Gingrich as they sought welfare "deform"--and eventually achieved it, with the help of Democrat Bill Clinton.

Murray was invited to Middlebury by the college's American Enterprise Institute Club, with backing from the school administration, to promote the arguments in his recent book Coming Apart, on the topic of the white working class in U.S. society. Murray's later book is not less reactionary--it's a blame-the-victim account of deteriorating conditions for working class people that ignores the impact of decades of neoliberalism, assaults on unions, deindustrialization, budget cuts and wars.

AMID ALL the mudslinging at the student activists--who have been variously characterized as an intolerant mob, privileged or lacking the "resilience" for intellectual debate--very few in the media took note of anything leading up to the protest.

The counterdemonstration against Murray was organized over several days, with a considerable debate over what strategy to adopt. Organizers say there were different positions put forward and considered, ranging from trying to make it impossible for Murray to speak, to waiting until the question-and-answer period to pose criticisms of him.

Murray has a particularly hostile relationship with Middlebury students. In a previous appearance, he dismissed a group of students of color who had attended his talk as better suited to attend a state college!

One organizer said in an interview that the students would have treated other conservative speakers differently, but Murray has crossed the line into hate speech. (Middlebury students contacted for this article requested to remain anonymous, out of fear that the university is preparing to single out activists for discipline.)

At the event, the strategy of vocally confronting Murray and trying to disrupt the lecture had a clear majority. When Murray started speaking, most of the attendees in the room stood up and turned their backs, with many reading a protest statement in unison, followed by continuous chanting.

The statement connects Murray to examples of pseudoscience in the past that "has always been used to legitimize racism, sexism, classism, transphobia, ableism and homophobia, all veiled as rational and fact, and supported by the government and state," the statement said.

The protesters were also critical of the Middlebury administration's role in promoting the event, even though it had been organized by a right-wing club. School officials refused to respond to student criticisms of the format and prominence given to Murray's guest lecture.

Elizabeth, a Middlebury senior who participated in a roundtable of views for the New York Times Opinion section, stated:

Were students, especially students of color, expected to just sit and listen for 45 minutes to an individual who has written that they are inferior to whites? How could students engage in debate on an equal playing field when Mr. Murray had a stage and a microphone, and we were just members of the audience? Without a platform for legitimate discussion, it seems that students had few non-disruptive tools to get their voices heard.

WHAT TOOK place later is less clear, even for organizers who were present at the time.

In a largely spontaneous action, students and some community members with signs--a much smaller number than had disrupted the lecture--lined the walkway as Murray departed from the Middlebury student center. The account from student protesters describes one person attempting to block Murray's departure, after which campus security mounted an excessive and violent response.

Middlebury professor Allison Stanger was injured in the confrontation. Official accounts claim protesters pulled Stanger by the hair, sending her to the emergency room. Protesters say the injury was unintentional, happening as she and others got caught up in the scuffle.

After Murray and others got into a car, several people tried to physically block it from leaving campus. Official accounts say the protesters climbed on the car and threatened the passengers, while protesters say the driver of the vehicle, a vice president of the college, nearly ran over several people while trying to leave.

An anonymous statement by students involved in the protest blames campus security for escalating the confrontation with aggressive behavior. That would be standard operating procedure for campus cops, of course.

But it is also true that this incident involved a much smaller number of counterdemonstrators than previously--and the confrontation came as Murray was leaving the campus, after he had suffered some measure of disgrace for being unable to face an open audience.

Some accounts suggest that this later confrontation mainly involved some protesters who weren't at the lecture and are committed to Black Bloc tactics of physical confrontation against the right in all circumstances. If true, this underlines the problem of tactics carried out unaccountably by a minority of protesters that put larger numbers and the wider movement at risk.

Whatever the details of what took place, this last confrontation with Murray and the injury suffered by Stanger overshadowed everything else that took place.

Predictably, the media has merged the nonviolent and non-threatening act of protesting and chanting inside a lecture hall with the physical confrontation that happened afterward. "Our fear," one organizer said, "is that this is the only story that is being heard, and it is reframing the entire event."

As a result, students who protested a racist speaker are now exposed to more drastic retaliation by the administration. In an e-mail to students last week, College President Laurie Patton wrote that there will be police and college investigations of individuals involved in the protests.

Protest organizers say the next weeks will be a test of where the administration of a liberal college stands: Defending its part in the provocation of inviting a notorious racist to give a prominent lecture--or defending the rights of students to challenge him.

THE PROTEST of Murray isn't the first disruption and cancellation of a right-wing speaker in the Trump era, and it won't be the last.

With the right wing on the offensive--particularly the emboldened far right--it is important for the left to discuss how best to confront the threat and build our organizational capacity to resist on campuses and elsewhere. Here are some starting points.

The first is that we must resist the media-fueled backlash and defend the right to protest Charles Murray as both legitimate and necessary.

It was outrageous that Middlebury College gave official sanction--through departmental sponsorship and an introduction by the college president--to a lecture by a right-wing hack whose lucrative career was built on legitimizing racism and reactionary politics.

As Linus Owens, one of the few Middlebury professors to publicly support the students, wrote: "To put this bluntly, y'all/we got played. I am angry that students were put in a bad situation, just so the college could prove that they are open-minded."

Unfortunately, many faculty members and the whole of the administration have joined in blaming students and lecturing them to "learn to listen, learn how to object in a proper, well-reasoned way to arguments that seem, after consideration, wrong, even repugnant," in the condescending words of professor Jay Parini, in a CNN commentary.

College President Patton urged students to develop "rhetorical resilience" in order to tolerate views they oppose. But students have raised the issue of who is being asked to be resilient?

A defense of the protesters published in Inside Higher Ed pointed out the contradictions between the depiction of colleges and universities as an intellectual bubble where all conflicts can be resolved through rational discussion and the reality of an increasingly polarized and unequal world:

Colleges are asked to model a fantasy version of society in which profound social cleavages--racial, partisan, economic--exist only as abstract issues that we can have a "conversation" about, rather than material conflicts that may need to be confronted. And most educational leaders and administrators, Robin [Kelley] writes, are basically conflict-averse--they want to "want to change words, not worlds." Isn't politics really just the contest of the best ideas, they seem to ask, rather than a conflict of resources and power?

BEYOND THIS, the left needs to be able to discuss how best to confront the right.

We should never let the inevitable complaints about infringing on "free speech," whether from conservatives or liberals, stop us from protesting. Our side has the right to free speech, too--and we should use it to make our voices heard against the racism and lies of professional bigots like Charles Murray.

But there are questions about how to protest. Our aim should be to expose right-wingers like Murray for the reactionaries they are--and make it clear that they are opposed by as many people as we can mobilize.

By this standard, the confrontation with Murray after the event was a problem. Leaving aside the fact that he was leaving, a much smaller number of people were involved in opposing Murray, which gave the right and the media an opportunity to portray the whole counterprotest as the work of a small group bent on physical intimidation.

The protest inside the lecture hall was clearly different, with at least several hundred students showing their opposition nonviolently, including vocally. As the Middlebury senior who contributed to the New York Times roundtable pointed out, anti-racists were denied any kind of platform through the format of the event, so they "had few non-disruptive tools" to send their message.

In situations like these, it is important for activists to be flexible in their tactics. We want to make our opposition clear, but if a majority of people in a lecture hall or some other scenario aren't prepared to take action in the same way--for example, by chanting and disruption--then activists have to be aware of this and consider something else. We don't want to be painted as isolated.

Moreover, in challenging the inevitable backlash from a right wing that will always complain about infringements on their rights, we need to insist that we are exercising our right to speak and protest, not necessarily stopping others from using theirs.

In the Middlebury case, some people who have come to the defense of the student protests--though not necessarily the organizers themselves--argued that Murray's hate speech should not be allowed on campus, and the university should have stopped him from speaking.

Hateful Murray is, but giving the university the authority to ban hate speech means giving them the authority to decide what hate speech is. All too often, the left will be the target of such a ban.

There is a lot to be sorted through and learned in the months and years ahead--again, this won't be the last time that anti-racists have to protest someone like Charles Murray. We need to build up the experiences of our movements and organizations in these situations.

But the first step must be to defend the Middlebury student activists against disciplinary retaliation--and defend their right to protest when a racist is brought to campus with the support of the administration.

Alan Maass contributed to this article.

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