After leaving the Minuteman Protest, Bwog sat down and e-mailed all the adminstrators it could think of for interviews. Chaplain Jewelnel Davis, who runs Earl Hall, responded via Blackberry at 6:30 AM the next morning. She and SGB program managers Jane Huber and Raquel Whittaker speak about protesting, free speech, and the swinging sixties.
When the idea to have Jim Gilchrist came up, what were your thoughts around that?
Chaplain Davis: We know that Columbia, at its very best, must be a place where free speech is affirmed and central, not only in the classrooms must there be a vigiorous exchange of ideas, but also if they have issues that their groups want to focus on, we are delighted for students to proposed events and propose speakers that will allow students first hand experience of what the issues are that face them as young people, and as citizens not only of Columbia, but of New York, of the region, of the country, of the world.
If you’re going to have a speaker and have a question and answer session. You’re at Columbia. If you want something to have a significant contribution to the Columbia Community, you make sure that there’s a Question and Answer period.
In this case, for example, the speakers were scheduled to speak for 45 minutes, and then followed by a 45 minute question and answer period. Raquel and Jane had worked carefully and well with Chris Kulawik to make sure that the issues the College Republicans wanted to be heard, issues of immigration, were coming out. So it’s not whether you read the newspaper, whether you’ve filtered through the television media, but no, you could say I was actually there with the people who were making the news that other people are reporting on.
At Columbia, you get to say I was there. The Minutemen are part of the national conversation about immigration, especially on the southern border of the United States, and the College Republicans wanted students to hear from them, and to interrogate. There were no bars on what the questions were going to be. There were no questions that were predetermined that could not be asked. The College Republicans made no effort to do that.
That’s what happened with the Ashcroft event.
Right, so there are different ways to do it, but Chris, you know, in this case was very clear that there was no question that couldn’t be asked.
Huber: He was also aware of the potential for protest, and welcomed that challenge, because he thought that students should be able to have the opportunity to express opposing views.
Did you have any thought that it might escalate into violence?
All: No. No one. No idea.
What do you think about that happening? What does that tell about Columbia students?
Chaplain Davis: It’s a sad day. It’s a sad day. This is my 11th year at Columbia, and I have always believed that Columbia University students, they exceed my expectations, in terms of their willingness to be in the discourse that broadly described is the marketplace of ideas. I don’t have any children, and I’ve been in the chaplaincy since 1979, and I think sometimes that sometimes people say, ‘how do you do it? How do you keep doing that thing?’ Because you come to a place like Columbia and every day you learn something. And it may be something that someone old like me might have thought, oh been there, done that, can’t be done. And the student says, oh no, actually…and maybe now you’ve got the technology to do something that may not have been done, or maybe now you have a critical mass of people who believe this can be done in terms of a social policy or a program. I mean, that’s exciting.
I went to Brown as an undergraduate. And when I got that letter, it was exciting to me that on the front page, there was students in the university’s main administration building, they had taken over the building, and they were fighting for increase in the number of students of color to be admitted to the undergraduate level. And from early on, I have known that in higher education, there could be a difference, and those students called us from that building, those of us African Americans, and said we want you to come, and we’re doing this for you. And the people from the admissions office called us and said we want you to know this is a hard time, it’s hard to see and wonder what kind of college you’ll be coming to. And I went because I knew the administration wasn’t like Kent State, when Kent State took a different approach to that. At Brown there was a way to work it out. We disagree about some things, we disagree about strategies and tactics, but this is what we’re gonna do.
And I move forward and I think about all the times, when, how do you negotiate protests? We spend so much time in the Office of the University Chaplain talking about civil disobedience, and how do you get your point that may not be the popular point. When you think about some of the recent elections, sometimes the point that is not the popular point is the majority opinion, what people vote for when they go into these private places called voting booths. And so it’s exciting to be able to think about Columbia students being able to have, whether they’re part of cultural groups, or identity groups, or political groups, or service organizations, that they can say, there’s something you might want to know about. And we can come together and I can listen and I can say, ‘you changed my mind about that.” When you start storming the stage, the game’s different now. It is not appropriate. It is not appropriate to shout down people at somebody else’s event. It’s not appropriate.
You know, this is not gonna sound like a comment that someone who’s part of a central senior administration should say, but it broke my heart. When I saw that, it broke my heart. Because I love Columbia students, I love the University, and we have all been diminished by this.
Whittaker: I believe also that several of the students, I know, especially those with the SGB, there is a certain sadness there for them, and a heaviness, to what happened. And they’re still feeling the effects of it, and it’s still rumbling within them, trying to understand how this happened or why it could have happened, whether there will be effects or ramifications because of it. That night, there was another group on campus, they were having an event. It was much smaller situation, the Columbia Political Union. In the middle of my night, last night, I remembered, you had an event. I never followed up with them, how did it go? Did anyone actually come to that event? They said, we had a fairly good turnout despite what happened. It’s sad, and it saddens me, because there was a lot of effort put into it and a lot of work, and it’s disappointing that the republicans didn’t get the event that they wanted.
Chaplain Davis: There’s a lot of regret about the fact that the protesting groups didn’t have the protest that they wanted either. They didn’t get the protest that they wanted. I think when you have a protest, you want to be able to say, these are our values, these are our issues, these are the things that we want to persuade you about. And nobody is persuaded by violence. That shuts it all down. We still want to make sure that we get to hear what those groups that were protesters, what did you really want to say?
Whittaker: Their message gets washed away, and the sensationalism of the protest becomes the story. And it’s swept under the carpet , and the media isn’t focusing on it, it’s just what happened at Columbia and how terrible it was, nobody’s talking about what led to the protest.
I just talked with one of the protesters who was holding the banner, and they didn’t intend for it to descend into violence. But they do argue that it was free speech.
Chaplain Davis: The way that we talk about free speech at Columbia is that you have to put in a—in that situation, the College Republicans had a reservation for the stage. They had a reservation for the stage. That was their corner of the universe that night. And if the students that had the banner wanted to have their corner two hours beforehand, they could have had that. We had some venues open, we could have had an event. We agree in American society that you can describe your event in the way you want to describe your event, and you should not expect to feel and experience physical threat because someone has entered the zone that you have created, in this instance, that stage. That stage, from 7 to 11, was the ground of the College Republicans, and it could easily have been, the next day, the ground of another student group. Free speech is important. Free speech is important. But there are also rules of engagement. That’s how it goes. Nobody hears anything in a melee. Nobody hears anything. I personally have gotten calls from around the country, from friends I’ve known for 30 years, oh she’s at Columbia, I wonder if she’s ok up there. I’ve said it so many times, I love Columbia, I’m defending Columbia. People from outside the region, they look at something like that, and say, ‘is that what happens at Columbia?’
The first speaker spoke for 45 minutes. Was a decision made to move the event along? Because the crowd was getting angrier.
Whittaker: Several attempts were made to speak with Chris Kulawik, and to inform him that we needed to move the event along, that we needed to get the next speaker up on the stage, and open the floor up for Q & A. That was done several times.
Will there be different considerations that go into event approvals, who’s appropriate to bring to campus?
Chaplain Davis: We believe that student groups should be able to have speakers come to campus that will be presenting issues that students want to hear. It is very important. Freedom of Speech is very important. The University values freedom of speech. The University is not disposed to say that there’s people that have something to say that can’t come to the University. That’s not Columbia University.