On October 29th, Brown University’s Taubman Center for Public Policy scheduled a talk by New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly about “pro-active policing.” A group of students and residents of the Providence area, organized by the movement Direct Action for Racial Equality, attended the speech and, as Kelly was about to begin his prepared statements, stood up with fists raised, chanting in unison. The protest was effective: Kelly was unable to deliver his speech. In the days following, Brown President Christina Paxson said it was a “dark day for Brown” and organized a committee to punish the students responsible. Fox News commentator Greg Gutfeld described the protesters as “turds,” “cowards” and “whiny rags of privilege who wouldn’t know real achievement if it bit them in the ponytail” whose “parents should have had a vasectomy.” Ray Kelly, presumably, has gotten over any emotional turmoil he might have suffered.
Here are some related facts: Ray Kelly has stated that he wants to “instill fear” in minorities to make them afraid to leave their houses. His stop-and-frisk policy specifically and unashamedly targets minorities because minorities are responsible for more crimes, but 88.8% of minorities stopped in 2012 weren’t charged with any crime. Kelly and his supporters claim these policies are responsible for New York City’s sharply declining crime rate, but this is, of course, correlation being confused for causation. The second quarter of 2013 saw stops decrease drastically as the police department faced judicial scrutiny, and in this time there has been no increase in crime. Between 2001 and 2010, crime in NYC dropped 29% (Kelly became commissioner in 2002). Over the same timeframe, Los Angeles’s crime rate dropped 59% and New Orleans’s dropped 56%, without similar policies. Kelly often claims that this helps to remove guns from the streets, but unlicensed firearms are found in less than 0.2% of stops. Four million people of color have been stopped under these policies since instituted. These statistics are from the New York Civil Liberties Union and a New Yorker article by Jeffrey Toobin, based on publicly released police records.
A federal judge in New York ruled that NYPD’s actions had constituted a violation of citizens’ constitutional rights, but the Second Circuit Court of Appeals removed her from the case and issued a stay on her rulings, before the appeal process had concluded.
Here’s the takeaway: It’s easy for pundits and Brown’s president to criticize the protesters, claiming they violated Kelly’s free speech and acted hypocritically. But by giving Kelly a lecture with no room for debate or other views, the school unfairly privileges a man who represents policies that are designed to take away freedoms from others. His decisions have immediate consequences for many of the students at Brown, but there was no acknowledgement of the controversy of his views; he is a source of authority rather than simply an alternative perspective. There was no space in the talk for those who have been victimized by stop-and-frisk or similar policies. Despite early petitions to the Taubman Center about their opaque selection of lecturers and the student body’s anger with their selection, virtually nothing was done to appeal to the student’s demands. When their opinions went unacknowledged, the only option left was protest.
The protest was exactly representative of the ultimate goal of protesters, which is to vocally and prominently bring national attention to the marginalization of a group. Denied a platform, Brown students and local allies created one of their own. Kelly’s freedom of speech was not violated. He represents the government, and his decisions, if he feels the need to defend them, are carried out every day, even amidst judicial backlash. Meanwhile, minorities in New York are terrorized by the branch of the government that is tasked with the protection of citizens, all while being told it’s for their own good and they should be grateful. Is there anything more Orwellian?
When people protest against the NSA’s abuses of privacy, they’re heroically standing up for liberty and preserving the ideals of our founding fathers. But when they fight against a power-abusing politician who actively seeks to strike fear into his constituents, they’re labeled as privileged nogoodniks who don’t understand the sacrifices necessary for a free state. Fox News can have a six-minute segment on Brown’s protests without once mentioning why they’re protesting, yet the students are the hypocritical free-speech haters. By saying that Kelly’s freedom was violated without even acknowledging the other side (or believing they have a right to protest), they clearly prioritize one party’s free speech over another, and, surprise surprise, it turned out to be the one that already possessed power over the other.
College campuses have long served as epicenters for radical political protest, probably because we’re the only people naive enough to still have ideals. The students who protested should be lauded rather than punished for their efforts to give a voice to those disenfranchised by Kelly’s policies. My only hope is that Stanford students, given the chance, would do the same.