How we stood up for “light and truth”

October 11, 2018

When Brett Kavanaugh invoked his Yale University diploma again and again during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a group of angry alumni decided the Yale motto of “light and truth” would be best served by loudly saying: #YaleKavaNO. Pranav Jani, an SW contributor, associate professor at Ohio State University and Yale graduate (Berkeley ’93), tells how the campaign was organized and what it meant to him.

OVER THE last year, every time I got an e-mail reminder about the 25th reunion of my Yale University graduating class of 1993, held last spring, I reached for the delete button.

I had arrived at Yale nearly three decades before as a South Asian, public-school kid from northern Jersey. While I met some of my dearest, lifelong friends there and cherish each of those connections, Yale University — the alma mater of presidents, members of Congress, CIA officers and, as we know too well, Supreme Court justices, with an overwhelming atmosphere of rich, white, male privilege — could be a difficult and alienating place.

I have always believed in the “lux et veritas” (“light and truth”) of Yale’s motto. But my search for knowledge and justice, which Yale faculty and classmates certainly helped ignite in me, has led to conclusions that fundamentally differ from the Eurocentric and “high culture” traditions of Western civilization that Yale institutions and administrators repeatedly emphasized when I was there.

Yale alumni protest Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme court nomination outside the Yale Club
Yale alumni protest Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme court nomination outside the Yale Club (Harold Levine | Yale Alumni Say NO to Kavanaugh)

How could I go to this reunion? I felt I needed to remember my college experience on my own terms — which, quite often, was centered on relationships with South Asian and other students of color at Yale, and not the mainstream crowd that would show up at the reunion.

I was concerned that an institution that is never shy about projecting its vision of itself would run roughshod over my good memories of the place.

Plus, after witnessing years and years of struggle by Yale custodial, cafeteria and clerical workers in Federation of University Employees Locals 34 and 35; the university’s crushing of attempts by graduate workers to unionize; and the dismissals of so many assistant professors, some near and dear to me; attending a Yale-sponsored gala event felt like crossing a picket line.

The rot goes to the very foundations of the institution. A crucial donation that built Yale College came from Elihu Yale — an East India Company official of the 17th century who made his wealth from the colonization of India and the African slave trade.

Why shouldn’t his name be stricken from the university, just as pro-slavery political leader John C. Calhoun’s name was removed, following protests, from one of Yale’s residential colleges last year?

Nevertheless, in this past month — between Brett Kavanaugh’s arrogant and misogynistic congressional testimony on September 27 and his confirmation as a Supreme Court justice on October 6 — I was intensively involved with organizing a group called Yale Alumni Says No to Kavanaugh (#YaleKavaNO).

Which meant affiliating with Yale, however critically, and claiming space as a Yale graduate.

And when we decided to compile a video of alumni wearing Yale gear and expressing their dissent, I was ready with my shirt — picked up at, you guessed it, the 25th reunion. Just two weeks before the event, a South Asian classmate convinced me that we needed to show up and assert our Brown presence — and a white classmate and I hopped in a car and went.

Building on Leela Yellesetty’s contribution to a SocialistWorker.org roundtable last week, I’d like to tell more about how we organized a campaign of alumni to say “no” to Kavanaugh and, as she wrote, “challenge his despicable attempts to use his Yale credentials as a shield to deny accountability for his actions” — while wrestling with our own complicated experiences there.


#YaleKavaNO and the Resistance to Kavanaugh

Our group, Yale Alumni Say No to Kavanaugh (#YaleKavaNO / @yalekavano), formed the day after Kavanaugh’s ugly testimony refuting the accusations of sexual assault made against him by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and others.

#YaleKavaNO was one expression of a massive, national resistance — a continuation of the mass, women-centered movement that broke out in Washington, D.C., after Trump’s inauguration, that continued through International Women’s Day, that emerged forcefully through the #MeToo movement late last year and that has revealed itself throughout at clinic defenses against right-wing bigots.

As the struggles in Argentina and Ireland have shown, this upsurge of women in the U.S. is linked to a much wider, global movement.

Rather than relying on the opposition of the Democrats or the outcome of an FBI investigation, this resistance brought the Supreme Court nomination process into the streets, featuring courageous acts of civil disobedience, sit-ins, marches, speak-outs, teach-ins and walkouts involving thousands and thousands of people.

The same spirit of defiance and protest motivated the Yale alums in our group.

The first steps for mobilizing Yale alumni against Kavanaugh had actually been taken a few days before, soon after Deborah Ramirez, a classmate of Kavanaugh’s at Yale, had accused him of waving his genitals in her face at a party. Led by Deborah’s classmates, more than 3,000 Yale grads signed a letter by “Women of Yale” defending Ramirez and Ford. A letter by “Men of Yale” soon followed, with over 1,500 signatures.

But the September 27 testimony raised the bar, effectively turning Kavanaugh’s nomination into a national clash over the #MeToo movement and the struggle for justice for sexual assault survivors. Stopping Kavanaugh would only be possible with a vigorous mobilization.

Following a conversation with a comrade in the ISO, I decided to reach out to an organizer of the “Women of Yale” letter and outlined an idea about forming a group to build on the work of the two letters and call for a wider mobilization.

Within 20 minutes, she had written back enthusiastically and introduced me to the organizers of the “Men of Yale” letter. It snowballed from there, as we each brought in Yale graduates we knew with a commitment to mobilizing against Kavanaugh.

Working at a furious pace that reflected the urgency of the moment, individuals negotiated their responsibilities at work and in the home to participate, contributing their ideas and skills, and collectively forging a plan of action and sense of purpose.

Early in the week, about 25 of us organized a group with a clear goal, a name, a hashtag and social media platforms. We wrote an open statement with a plan of action that was eventually signed by 1,500 Yale alumni. We organized a protest at the famous Yale Club in New York City — the target of a large “No Justice, No Seat” protest the night before.

Various alumni used their media contacts and extensive networks for publicity. Some of the people at the protest had never organized anything like this before. It didn’t stop them for a moment.

Following a brilliant idea from one of our members, we had been asking alumni around the country to submit short video clips of themselves standing up against Kavanaugh and naming a specific reason for taking a stand: women’s rights, survivors, immigrants rights, reproductive rights and so on.

Some of our tech-savvy members dropped two videos midweek — a short video and then an extended one — that really projected the message.

Our Twitter presence, in particular, became so extensive that we received 500,000 impressions in just about two days — with celebrities and Yale alumni forwarding the videos and using them to directly target Yale graduates on the Senate Judiciary Committee and in the Senate at large.

Undoubtedly, the name “Yale” has such currency that the media pushed our efforts quite far — exactly as we had hoped. We clearly had started tapping into the extensive network of Yale alums in the media, in political circles, among celebrities, etc. — our own network to counter the old boys’ club Kavanaugh relied on all his life.

Getting that going took some effort, but it showed that in this climate, activists will get a hearing — if we have an outward-looking approach and a willingness to confront the right wing on any battlefield.

Kavanaugh made Yale a site of struggle, and we were there to respond and do our part.


Y-alienation

We’re all proud of whatever role we were able to play in fighting Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, though disappointed with the outcome. But for many of us, claiming a Yale identity in order to resist gender, class and race privilege felt profoundly confusing and even contradictory.

First of all, Kavanaugh’s testimony itself was traumatizing, forcing us to recall memories of people and places we had often suppressed. We all knew people like Kavanaugh — the arrogant private school kids, usually white and male, who walked around like Yale was their birthright. We all knew or had heard about what DKE parties were like.

We all knew the culture of heavy drinking that, at Yale, was given the halo of “tradition” — far beyond DKE keg parties and into the more sophisticated spaces of societies, secret and not. The threat of sexual harassment and assault hovered around all of those scenarios.

I got to Yale several years after Kavanaugh graduated, and I learned over time that, in certain circles, refusing to drink at expected levels kept you out of them.

And so, while the collective statement of #YaleKavaNO ends with the idea that Kavanaugh’s nomination would “debase our alma mater,” many of us were less concerned with the stain that Kavanaugh might leave on the university than the fact that Yale is one of the key institutions that staffs top positions in the state and the 1 Percent itself — with a closed culture of elite camaraderie to protect aspirants to power.

Kavanaugh, from this perspective, is not a bad apple but quite representative of Old Yale culture. My critical affiliation with Yale for the sake of protesting Kavanaugh was also meant to call out that dominant aspect of Yale’s heritage, which persists today, despite efforts to make change.

I reflected on these same thoughts before Kavanaugh was nominated — in the spring, when I attended my reunion. I enjoyed the reunion — but it also reminded me of my alma mater’s culture a number of times.

At one point, I found myself in the middle of a group of drunk, middle-aged, successful, white men who, after talking in sexist ways about their wives, started telling stories about a female classmate, laughing while referring to parts of her body in vulgar terms.

At another point, when walking through some of my old classroom buildings, I was asked for directions to the bathroom by a fellow alumnus — in the polite but condescending tone that white people of a certain class reserve for nonwhite custodial workers.

I don’t mind being seen as a janitor — but I do reject the confident assumption that a person of color wandering around a Yale building must be a janitor, not a student or a graduate.

Those experiences in that setting felt extremely familiar, though I don’t expect it’s the sort of “nostalgia” that the reunion was supposed to engender. Then again, I wasn’t the same person I was as an undergraduate — shy about walking away from drunk sexists or reluctant to confront people about questions of race.


Critical Affiliation (or: The Other Yale)

There absolutely was and is an “other Yale” that opposes this elitist culture and stands for social justice — as you can see from our own organizing, the sit-ins by Yale Law students before and after Kavanaugh’s testimony, and the protests by current Yale undergraduates.

This extends back to my own time at Yale. The first protest I ever really attended, against George H.W. Bush’s Iraq War in 1991, was organized by activists at Yale. The first time I really understood the threat of the Hindu fundamentalist party in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party, was due to South Asian students at Yale.

Queer students at Yale made me question the homophobic ideas I carried with me, and broke me from them well before I ever became an activist myself. The first time I heard of death squads in Nicaragua was from someone tabling on Old Campus — a memory that remains clear as day to me.

Yale workers’ organizing taught me about the power of unions. They know how to take a stand. It was, after all, a Black dining hall worker who shattered a stained-glass window on campus depicting slaves in 2016 — spurring the move to delete Calhoun’s name.

These are Yale experiences, too, and those of us who had them have the right to claim our space within it.

I found that “other Yale” at the reunion, too — in multiple places.

One was at a forum where members of the Yale administration were trying to justify their responses to a recent incident revealing the climate of racism at Yale — when Lolade Siyonbola, a Black graduate student, had the police called on her for sleeping in the common room of her own dorm.

A group of Yale ’93 alums got together and pounded the speakers for their lukewarm response and lack of understanding of the depth of the problem, even as they presented the topic to us. Along with others, I stood up to explain — forcefully — the experiences of alienation we felt as people of color at Yale.

One of the most active members of #YaleKavaNO was a Black classmate of mine who I only reconnected with at the 25th reunion. Our instant camaraderie at the event lasted well beyond it, and joining together against Kavanaugh was completely automatic.

The experience of #YaleKavaNO has made me think more about critical affiliation, and how we organize as the left. We need to grapple with the fact that we are affiliated to the world around us not just ideologically, but through a million threads at the material level.

It is easy to affiliate and blend in; it is also easy to dismiss all complicated histories. If we can grasp the complexities and see that organizing can take place through many different avenues and associations, we might open up possibilities for unified action beyond left-wing circles.

In her 2004 study of Muslim American high school youth in the aftermath of 9/11, Sunaina Maira noted that while some Muslim students reacted to Islamophobia by disaffiliating with any idea of U.S. citizenship, others reacted with what she called “dissenting citizenship” — making a claim to belonging to the U.S., and then using that claim as a basis to launch a critique against Islamophobia. Edward Said explores similar ideas in his book The World, the Text and the Critic.

For many marginalized and minority groups, this sort of critical affiliation — identifying with the mainstream while being critical of it — is crucial in order to even have the space to speak.


Listening to Survivors

In the middle of the week, a member of our group informed us that she had received a note from a classmate in touch with Deborah Ramirez, letting us know that Ramirez was closely following all of our efforts and was very supportive of them. Needless to say, we were all extremely moved to hear this.

But Ramirez’s general statement, apparently circulated through a Yale classmate, uplifted all of our spirits and reminded us why we were part of this struggle against Kavanaugh:

Thirty-five years ago, the other students in the room chose to laugh and look the other way as sexual violence was perpetrated on me by Brett Kavanaugh. As I watch many of the senators speak and vote on the floor of the Senate, I feel like I’m right back at Yale, where half the room is laughing and looking the other way. Only this time, instead of drunk college kids, it is U.S. senators who are deliberately ignoring his behavior. This is how victims are isolated and silenced.

But I do have corroborating witnesses speaking for me, although they were not allowed to speak to the FBI, and I feel extremely grateful for them and for the overwhelming amount of support that I have received and continue to receive during this extremely difficult and painful time. There may be people with power who are looking the other way, but there are millions more who are standing together, speaking up about personal experiences of sexual violence and taking action to support survivors. This is truly a collective moment of survivors and allies standing together.

Thank you for hearing me, seeing me and believing me. I am grateful for each and every one of you. We will not be silenced.

We stand in truth and light.

We — all of us — stand in truth and light when we listen to survivors and to the voices from below, and, from that standpoint, try to figure out how we can bind ourselves into a unified force that can battle sexual assault, oppression and exploitation of all kinds.

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