Letters to a Young Protester – Todd Gitlin on the way it’s done
Written by Bwog Staff
Columbia journalism and sociology professor Todd Gitlin knows activism. Once president of Students for a Democratic Society, there’s not much he hasn’t seen, and although now he writes from comfortable digs in the Journalism School, Gitlin has some words of wisdom for those still taking it to the streets. After an hour of stories from the 60s and media musings, Bwog walked out feeling just a little smarter. Protesters, take heed!
What did you think when you first heard about the protest?
Initially, one of my thoughts when I saw this event was coming was that the Republican party wants to light a match on some flammable turf. That they want to produce a polarization that may benefit them. That’s the way the present day Republican party operates. They could have invited various more respectable anti-immigration people. The equivalent of Pete Wilson, you know, Tom Tancredo. You invite the Minutemen, you’re on your way to a riot. They want to take their flag into enemy territory, and so they’ve done.
A lot of people say this reminds them of the 60s. How is this different from that?
I don’t know, honestly, what the state of play on the campus is. As I walk around, I don’t hear people talking about this. On the other hand, I saw the video that somebody had put up, in which the woman who had shot the video said “everybody’s talking about this.” I didn’t dispute it, it’s just that it wasn’t my experience. Anyway, you have to remember that The ‘60s took 10 years to happen. There were times in the ‘60s when there were tiny groups creating events, and there were times when there were tiny groups who were mobilizing larger groups who were triggering events, there were times when larger groups were involved in producing larger events, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes cheek to jowl with each other, and it’s very hard to say this is like or unlike the ‘60s. There certainly were such events. At the beginning of a movement, were people rushing stages? No, I’m not aware of it. It would have been more likely to be something like people standing up and turning their backs.
I was thinking about this yesterday. The American Nazi party was a visible weird force in the early 60s. They were headed by a guy named George Lincoln Rockwell, who looked the part. He had some sort of theatrical quality. He would give a lot of talks at universities, and this was in the early period of the civil rights movement, so he was much hated. People would go to his events and picket, I think there probably also catcalls. Students were generally better behaved then than now. But I don’t remember anyone assaulting the stage or anything. Malcolm X was another very popular campus speaker around the same time. He had a large following, but he also had opposition, I don’t remember anyone rushing the stage when he spoke.
During the times in the ‘60s that were not the electric, photogenic moments that you think of as the iconic ‘60s moments, whether it’s the riots in Chicago or Kent State or the Columbia building occupation, there were always small groups, sometimes sectarian groups, who were trying to organize events and or acting to promote their own line within the larger pool of people who were organizing. So there were equivalents of the ISO. The way those groups organized is with a very disciplined cadre of people who, because they were very disciplined and clear about what they wanted to do, got a lot done. Like the International ANSWER people. How many are they? They’re few. But they were in a position to start the anti-Iraq war demonstrations. Their views are horrendous. They like Saddam Hussein, they like Milosevic. They’re unreconstructed Marxist-Leninists. They’re a classic sectarian group. Not in Our Name is also a front for a sectarian group. So these people, few in number, very disciplined, very clear, are often able to get something done at a time when opinion hasn’t really crystallized, when there’s not a larger movement. When you have a diffuse meeting of 50 people, and ten of them or even 5 of them belong to a disciplined group and they know what they’re doing, they can move the whole meeting.
What do you do, then, if you don’t like the Minutemen, but you’re not part of an extreme political group, and you want to present a more moderate image?
Factual question here: is it the case, as a student told me this morning, that the people who went up on stage were not intending to stop Gilchrist, they were intending to stand there holding their signs?
Insofar as that’s true, you could say that that’s naïve, to think they could get away with doing that without a violent collision. But, if that was their intention, that should be known. On the other hand, if you produce a situation in a charged moment, it’s not astonishing that a confrontation erupts and becomes a media event. So if the people who were planning to go up on the stage, if they didn’t intend what happened, if they didn’t like the outcome, they hadn’t sized up the situation, because to the degree that there was any confrontation, it would of course become a media event. It would have been true even before YouTube and digital video. It’s how these things work. So, the people who take initiative, however small in number, who produce the most photogenic event, have the initiative.
That poses a challenge to people who want to deplore the Minutemen and make some sort of statement about immigration but don’t want to be implicated either in the larger politics of either ISO or International ANSWER or whoever, or implicated in the confrontational tactics that some people are producing. This is always a challenge. There are a couple of moves that I think are classic, Top speak for a moment as a sociologist of crowds. One is you seek directly to differentiate yourself from the confrontationists. You have monitors at your demonstration who try to control the crowd. You try to seal the confrontationists away. That’s one thing you can do. The second thing you can do is take the position that ‘we don’t advocate such tactics, but we’re not going to discourage anyone from doing them.’ That was the position taken by the protest organizers, for example, in August ’04, during the demonstrations at the Republican convention. The people who want to take a position against the Minutemen but don’t want to see the event taken over by the confrontation have to either create a means for sealing off the confrontation or find a way of both stating their own opinion and denouncing the tactic, which is difficult. It’s difficult considering what media are looking for, which is the video. The confrontation became the event. Now people are trying to walk it back and reframe it. I suspect it’s going to be extremely difficult to reframe. Not impossible, but difficult. Bloomberg was apparently sufficiently impressed by the uproar that he stuck his nose into it.
Yeah, why did he do that and what does it mean for Bollinger?
I don’t know why he did it. I don’t really know what his scene is. I have a fear, for which I have no evidence, that he’s been influenced by a view that Columbia is a hotbed of political lunacy. You weren’t here during the MEALAC year, 2004-05, but there were, I was told, 70 articles in the New York Sun that year, under some sort of general running head, “Crisis at Columbia.” I think if one were mindful of the views represented in the New York Sun, that is rather conservative Jews, one might easily have absorbed this notion that things are melting down up at Columbia. I hope Bloomberg hasn’t invested in that scenario, which I think is outlandish, flatly wrong. Columbia’s not a seedbed of anti-Semitism, I don’t know that it’s a seedbed of anything in particular these days, but certainly not that. I don’t know why Bloomberg thought he had to pop off about Columbia at all. What took place in Lerner Auditorium was a single incident. This is more media hype, and if Bloomberg didn’t have political reasons for joining it, then he’s naïve to the point of ignorance, and I’m not sure which hypothesis I’d prefer, that he’s foolish or tricky. But neither of them is very appealing.
Do you think what the protesters did is a legitimate form of speech?
Is it legitimate philosophically is one question. I don’t think it’s legitimate to invade somebody’s personal space or hover over them with a sign. I’m not a lawyer and don’t know civil liberties law, but on the face of it, I wouldn’t rule out holding signs near a speaker. But even if such an action were defensible—and I’m not sure it would be—that doesn’t make it wise as a tactic. From what I understand, I think it was unwise. The Minutemen are goons. And if you couldn’t conclusively anticipate that they were going to kick and produce a violent incident, it’s not astonishing that it would go that way. Even if actions are defensible, ethical, and legal, there’s still a question of wisdom. Now, as is generally the case, instead of debating the rights and wrongs of immigration people are debating the rights and wrongs of a confrontation in Lerner Hall. And I think that’s not helpful.
How do you protest in such a way that you get to the actual substantive issue?
Condi Rice was being given an honorary degree last year at some university, and there was a lot of anger at that, I think there was an event where the protesters stood and turned their backs on her.
That was part of it, actually.
That happened here? You know that, I think, is dandy…Heckling is an interesting technique for civil disobedience. Is there a right to heckle? Honestly I feel ambivalent about it. I think there’s heckling that is speech and there’s heckling that aims to curtail speech. And maybe a line can be drawn. I prefer action in which the moral upper hand belongs to the protest, as distinctly as possible, recognizing that that’s a difficult thing to sustain. Is it easy? No.
When you were organizing protests, how did you try to go about doing that?
I tended to be anti-heckling. I never organized a heckle. When I was teaching at Berkeley, I remember stopping a heckle. De facto, I have never been a heckler, but I don’t want to say that there’s never a place for it. I tend to think that it’s not efficacious. But I wouldn’t say it’s never efficacious; I don’t think it’s a cardinal sin. I don’t know what Lee Bollinger would say about that.
We’re in the middle of a capital campaign. Do you think this will affect fundraising?
I don’t know. When I asked a comparable question a couple years ago about whether the whole to-do about MEALAC had affected fundraising, I was told no. I haven’t heard anyone say, oh my god, somebody’s decided to sit on his millions.
Is there a way to go about correcting the impression the nation’s gotten of Columbia and activism?
I could think of a number of things that would help. Having the press conference, I’m sure, was a help. It’s certainly not gonna hurt. Producing events that create a different impression, that the anti-Minutemen are the forces of reason, and the Minutemen are forces of unreason, such events could be imagined and produced, and that would help alter the impression. Traditionally, logically, the problem that’s presented for the ‘moderates’—and I’m not sure I’m crazy about that term—is that in general they’re reluctant to condemn the confrontatioNists. But it’s not impossible to state a principled position about the issue, which is, after all, immigration, and at the same time to disagree about the use of a tactic. That doesn’t mean you think that anyone caught onstage that night should be tarred and feathered. But at the same time I don’t’ think it helps any cause to toss some more red meat in Bill O’Reilly’s cage. And O’Reilly will use this for a month before the next thing comes along. If he can find someway to link the protest with Kim Jung Il, he’ll do that.
Generically speaking, what you need to do is mobilize some other force. Right now, you have the right wing that’s inflamed, and they’ve been able to use the media as a national amplification system. And then, unfortunately, you have the unconstructive contribution of the mayor, So I think categorically what you want to do is summon up another player, some group that can, while defending civil liberties and free speech–which I certainly think need to be defended, including even the right of Nazis to speak—denounce the Minutemen for who they are, and also the inflammatory tactics of the Republicans for bringing them to the campus. It’s possible and necessary to defend the right to unpopular speech, which is precisely the speech that needs to be protected because popular speech is not in trouble while at the same time defending your right to denounce racists. If I were the organizers of the back turning, I’d go seek a meeting with the editorial board of the New York Times.
Can we go off the record?
Wouldn’t you like to know what happened after that…
– Interview by Lydia DePillis