A boycott at Berkeley for safety and solidarity

October 4, 2017

In the past year, the University of California at Berkeley has been a high-profile target of the growing far right, most recently with last week's "Free Speech Week" publicity stunt that fell apart before it started, but nonetheless drew menacing packs of alt-right groups like the Proud Boys to the campus and surrounding community.

In the lead-up to that showdown, several hundred faculty put their name to a call for a boycott of classes, delivering a strong message of support to Berkeley students feeling under siege. One of those professors is Katrin Wehrheim, the first female professor hired with tenure by the university's math department. Wehrheim spoke to Eli Ward about the purpose of the boycott and the impact it had on campus, before and after the far right's events fizzled.

WHY DID faculty call for the campus boycott?

IT CAME from a variety of intentions.

For me, I have gotten death threats because I co-authored a statement before the Milo event [when thousands of people protested a speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopolous on February 1]. I've been on the radio and have had Proud Boys outside of my house. So I knew if I did any media, I would get threats again.

That makes it dangerous to be in a classroom where the class is regularly scheduled and its location can be found online. For me, it was clear that I would have to cancel class.

For other faculty, especially humanities professors, they're more aware of the diversity they have in their classrooms and knew that undocumented students and people of color were going to be a lot less safe on campus. Many of these students wouldn't have the option to come to class. One of our arguments is that we didn't want to discriminate against them, so better to just cancel class for everyone.

The other discussion we had was trying to make the point that the campus should be free for education and knowledge. We are protesting against our classes being disrupted. There's going to come a time, if this trend continues, where it will be resistance against oppression to hold class. But right now, we can't pretend that it's just business as usual.

Opponents of the "alt-right" mobilize at UC Berkeley
Opponents of the "alt-right" mobilize at UC Berkeley (SW)

We have to make a clear signal to the administration that this is dangerous and absolutely unacceptable. We didn't put this in the letter, because it was contentious, but we wanted to make space for students so they could come to an alternative event.

For us in the math department, the only students who even knew what "Free Speech Week" was were the very few students of color we have. Everyone else had absolutely no idea.

It's crucial for us to educate our students about what's going on around them. In the STEM departments, this was also a boycott to encourage students to get informed.

SO THE primary motivation was safety?

YES. SAFETY and solidarity with the student groups who are already being victimized. I wasn't part of the group that wrote the letter calling for the boycott, but I believe they were in contact with student groups and student organizers. The questions were "What would help you?" and "What do you need?"

When marginalized student groups ask us to do a boycott, I personally am down to do something like that.

I'VE BEEN hearing a lot of reports of threats and backlash against faculty members. Can you elaborate on this?

THERE HASN'T been any direct backlash from the university administration yet, but there has been denial and a total lack of support.

What has been happening in the humanities is the Berkeley College Republican students go to classes they're not registered for and start heckling professors and follow them around on campus. Sometimes, outside hecklers come into classrooms or student group meetings.

That hasn't personally happened to me this time, but the night before the February 1 event with Milo, I had the Proud Boys out in front of my house. Fortunately, I had the lights off, so they didn't know I was inside. That's why I haven't been sleeping at home. Since the New York Times article came out [in which Wehrheim is prominently quoted, along with a photo], my friends said, "You're not sleeping at home alone!" The faculty were careful not to walk across campus alone.

That article took two quotes of mine completely out of context. We were talking about the German context, and [the reporter] asked me, "What are people in the U.S. missing?" I said they're missing the parallel with how fascism arose. That was the point in time when all the good Germans pretended it wasn't happening and were all focused on ANITFA-like violence--in Germany, it was Communist violence--and that enabled the fascists to take power.

This was the analogy I was trying to draw about the present moment, using German history. Instead, they quoted me at the end of the article--after asking me about laws in Germany, where if you "Sieg Heil" you'll wake up in jail--saying, basically, "You get thrown in jail for these things and that's a good thing." So I've been getting a fair amount of hate mail.

HOW DOES the boycott and the accompanying activist work inform the role of faculty in community justice and student solidarity?

I WAS super-psyched and moved to be invited into the student coalition meeting and see how fabulously run that is. To see students keeping a tight, two-hour schedule while managing to reach consensus by the end gives me hope for the world.

Regarding the faculty, it created a bit of communication across departments. Especially with such a huge diversity of faculty member backgrounds, I think it's important for the faculty to talk to each other and form a more stable group.

We also had a group after the February 1st Milo event that fizzled out. So what we need, and what this group may become, is some kind of group of not just progressive faculty, but faculty that are actually willing to show up and organize in solidarity with students.

I think this boycott worked well in that respect. It just helps to get pragmatic discussion into faculty because a lot of the discussions in the faculty realm are so academic, polemic, and frankly irrelevant.

YOU MENTIONED the dissolution of the group that organized around Milo last year, I know it's premature, but do you see a different end for this faculty group?

I DON'T know--it's always going to be a changing thing. I think we did much more than for the Milo event: outreach as well as significantly more media. It's also a more diverse group--the earlier group was almost exclusively white. The sense of urgency is also higher now. I hope that this group will remain.

What helps is when we hear very clearly from students--such as those involved in the coalition--that they need faculty solidarity.

Because for me, a lot of this is driven by student needs. I consider it my job to do what students on campus need, and so that's why I devoted a lot of my time these previous weeks to what students who are not served by administration need: organizing around this problem, specifically working the media and helping with the artwork.

And something my colleagues don't understand is that it takes so little for the faculty to have an impact! It takes an e-mail, one public statement or even an announcement in class. But we're often so afraid. So it's good to hear that it actually makes a difference.

As a STEM student myself, it's a bit surreal to be working with a politically active math professor. My experience is of a population mostly lacking political consciousness. Could you talk about?

IT ISN'T STEM, but the STEM community that's apolitical. Doing science itself has become subversive in the age of presidential twitter. This is why on my Mathematicians for Equality sign, I placed the statement "True is True and False is False." These are controversial statements. On some level, even just doing science and standing up for it is maybe an act of resistance.

Honestly, I don't know that I can separate the apolitical nature of my colleagues and the STEM departments here from the broader California effect that I'm feeling. I suspect that my East Coast colleagues are a little bit more clued in--for example, Boston was huge.

Maybe people on the East Coast have a little bit more of a sense of people power. The idea that maybe you as an individual can't change much, but if you get out, and your neighbors get out, and everyone gets out, then you can make a big difference.

I find that that mentality is something that's absent in Berkeley. Everyone in my department looks to themselves. People are willing to address a problem only if they can solve it and receive the credit. There's a lot more individualist conditioning here--and maybe in STEM culture as a whole, we're used to solving things on our own.

The other problem is that this situation is so overwhelming. One thing I certainly see in my math colleagues is that they do rarely approach something with no simple answers, especially if the problem comes a little bit with blame.

When the relevant problem on campus is white supremacy, it's a tricky situation to discuss with colleagues who are mostly white, male and straight. So this whole talk of privilege and pointing out problems without clear solutions is very uncomfortable for mathematicians. It's typically a mathematician's natural response to discuss the problem away or ignore it.

This attitude is reflected in STEM research generally. In this day and age, we often don't find a question that moves us to do whatever it takes to answer that question. We find a question that we can answer, so that we can write a paper. People in STEM are no longer used to sticking with a question that's hard and a problem that you don't know how to solve.

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