Why We Didn’t See Angela Davis Speak

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The lecture that wasn't hopped.

On Thursday, Diana Clarke and Anneke Gronke headed up to the 15th floor of the International Affairs building to see Angela Davis, Mai Masri, Lena Meari, and Judith Butler participate in a panel entitled “Carceral Politics in Palestine and Beyond: Gender, Vulnerability, Prison.” Despite their advance reservations and the open spaces in the room, however, they and most of the students present were denied access to the talk and their intended LectureHop turned into an extended encounter with the ugly side of Columbia’s bureaucracy. Here’s their account of what happened.

By the time we’d gotten out of the elevator in IAB, we couldn’t help feeling excited: seeing Angela Davis, Mai Masri, Lena Meari, and Judith Butler speak on gender and carceral politics in Palestine was the kind of thing we’d come to Columbia to do, after all. The event flyer had recommended reservations, and at 5:30, when the doors were due to open, the lobby was humming with excited murmors.

Most of them, it turned out, were unable to enter IAB 1501; claiming a fire-code maximum occupancy of 100 people, the event organizers were allowing just those people who had not only registered online, but RSVPed through a separate system—made available almost exclusively to professors—to enter. This meant that there was only room for about thirty student standbys—all of whom had been admitted by the time the doors were supposed to open. “There’s a livestream being shown on the fourth floor in Jerome Greene Hall,” the people at the desk told us. IAB 1501 was half empty, with plenty of room to sit or stand, as it was when National Book Award-winning writer Jennifer Egan spoke there in February.

When it became apparent that the unadmitted students weren’t about to leave, the organizers started pushing. They would give no reason why large lobby needed to clear out. We were only told that “anyone without an RSVP must leave the floor immediately,” but the crowd remained stationary. And why shouldn’t they? The lobby’s a public space, the view gorgeous, and if you’re about to miss out on seeing two of the most important modern academics speak on a major issue with a long history of discussion, particularly at Columbia, you at least want to stick around and see what you can.

The event organizers were having none of it, though. Instead, campus security got involved. One officer approached us, telling us we had to go, that the whole floor was reserved for the evening. After Anneke told him we were not about to leave a public area simply for their convenience, he left us, two women, alone. However, the next time we looked over, he was talking to a male graduate student, who was sitting by the window, talking with some friends. The graduate student was also told to leave because the floor had been reserved—never mind the fact that the floor also included offices, that the lobby was public—and when he asked for the bylaw that stated that he needed to leave a purportedly reserved area, the officer demanded his Columbia ID card, photographed it, and told the student that he would be reported to his dean. Though both the public safety officer and the event organizers were pressed for information about the university bylaw that prevented students from occupying a public space at the university they attend, they provided no answers and made no effort to recognize that request as legitimate.

Still, the questions must be asked: What threat do sitting students pose to Angela Davis, or to the event’s success? Why the sudden refusal to pack a room that historically has been stuffed at popular events? Because of the controversial topic matter? Why relegate the (unsanctioned and therefore unknown) non-RSVP invitees to a room eleven floors below? Why did the event organizers need a public safety officer in full uniform to herd the crowd? Why the need to police attendance of its own students at an academic panel?  1501 IAB was filled only to about half capacity at 6:00 pm, the time at which the flyers advertised that the event would “start promptly,” and the speakers were nowhere in sight. But the complex and obfuscated RSVP maneuvering, favoring professorial status, revealed the kind of ugly elitism that’s unavoidable alongside exclusivity. Though the situations are in no way comparable, it’s impossible to ignore the irony of the congruity between this system of arbitrary space regulation and the topic of the event that brought it about.

We recognize that many of these issues could have been caused by system-induced difficulty. The university campus has rules, many of them arbitrary, that may have prevented the booking of a larger room, or the distribution of an email fully explaining the circumstances around the RSVP and registration incongruities. The university, as any other bureaucratic system, has many rules. What the situation demanded was probably simply an apology and an admission of responsibility for misrepresenting the event and its capacities for accessibility.  The lack of available information is not a new issue on this campus. But a university system that claims rights over its students’ actions, and treats a request for information or accessibility as an affront, makes us wonder if the system lacks the structural integrity to be questioned, and if even the simplest examination of its structure would force the entire structure to cave in and crumble.

Update: The graduate student who was harassed by the public safety officer wrote to tell us that “many of us ended up attending after Judith Butler and Lena Meari pledged to let us in, and I solicited a comment from Angela Davis about what this means in terms of policing and securitization.” We are awaiting further comment.

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  1. Anonymous

    I don't know if I'm just reading this too simplistically; but I'm not seeing the issue. The room was full, crowding is a fire hazard, security asked students to leave and directed them to a location where they could view the event. Yeah, they fucked up and should've had one RSVP system, but I'm just not seeing "ugly elitism" and "exclusivity" at play here.

    • Anonymous  

      The problem was that the room wasn't full and they could have fit more people. The problem is that despite not letting people in, they tried to force people to leave the lobby which is a public area and they had no legitimate right to do so.

  2. cc'14

    On the contrary (according to what the article provides, anyway), the room was in fact hardly full; the point, I think, is that despite the clear availability of space for students, they were denied access to the event, one to which professors and faculty were given preference. As for "ugly elitism," I do question how this fits into the article, as it's more like academic exclusivity I'd say--which, in itself, is merely ugly in its effective debasement of students, but hardly the socio-politico-economic elitism the term normally connotes.

    But we must not ignore the affront on students' right to occupy a public university place either; do not downplay this. It's part of a larger issue of systemic marginalization of student opinion on campus; this occurrence is simply more subtle (and perhaps more sinister for it) in its manifestation. You do not surrender seemingly small rights like this: for every inch, a mile.

    (This is another issue, but what we should do is quite frankly define the term "elitism" in our everyday usage, to clarify which of its wide umbrella of meanings we refer to with its use; the term is thrown around far too carelessly on this campus.)

  3. Huh  

    Was this meant to surprise or to shock us? Columbia does *not* treat its students with dignity or respect: it treats us as the "system errors" in what would otherwise be a perfectly functioning bureaucracy; it also treats us as dollar signs. Central to being a student at Columbia is learning that one's happiness is directly related to the degree to which one can avoid interaction with the "deans," with the "councils," and with our hapless friends at "public safety." Hence the black humor to be heard from the many tour guides now roaming campus. . .

    - CC '12

  4. Are you joking?

    Really? Comparing being asked to leave the International Affairs building to a geopolitical issue in the middle east. This is fucking over the top, unnecessary. Just report the news and fucking do your job.

  5. Anonymous

    It wasn't even that the room was only half filled but the facts that they would open registration an overwhelmingly more people than they knew they had seats, the fire capacity of that room is many more than 100, and the organizers who were rude, mean, unhelpful, withholding information, and in fact quite threatening. They did their job well, making students feel unsafe on that floor so that they would leave.

  6. Anonymous  

    Thank you!! This article was far more outrageous than the silly lobby-debacle.

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