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The State of Play

As I see it, there are two options for the protestors — refuse to acknowledge their guilt and fight against the Administration (the Harry Potter Option), or, end the conflict as quickly as possible, and live to fight another day (the Dumbledore Strategy). This post will look at the Harry Potter option, and how activists could take back some of the momentum President Paxson is beginning to accumulate. But before I run through some suggested strategies for minimizing the oncoming backlash, I’d like to make a quick note — I’m no longer a Brown student, and haven’t been for nearly five years. I have no idea what the activist community at Brown today would consider a win in this situation. Regardless, my suggestions are built on the assumption that the student body as a whole is largely against the Stop & Frisk policy, against Ray Kelly being invited to speak at the University, and supported (at least in theory) the petitions and protests that occurred outside the event. I’m also working under the assumption that most of the student body disagrees with the shouting inside the event, and that that’s the point of disunity that the Administration is trying to exploit. “Victory” for the activists will largely depend on how successfully they’re able to unite different factions in their community, in the larger student body, and amongst the faculty. With that in mind, here’s how protestors can survive what comes.

Getting Started

Activists must act before the committee members are announced, and they need to act quickly. At Brown, the Undergraduate Council of Students is tasked with appointing students to university committees, and for decades they’ve had a process in place. Activists need to argue that President Paxson shouldn’t be allowed to appoint students to a committee without student input, since it was the lack of student input that allowed Ray Kelly to receive an invitation to speak in the first place. Activists need to immediately petition the Undergraduate Council of Students to step in and wrestle back that authority from the Administration. Students should frame the debate around the Administration circumventing the established protocols in an effort to disenfranchise activists and make punishing their transgressions easier. If two of the members of the committee are students, then they should be representative of the entire student body — something that going through UCS should achieve.

Quick Note: Appeal to the UCS President and the Student Activities Chair, and make the argument about institutional norms and the slippery slope associated with letting a new President circumvent the students’ elected body. If they refuse to aid the activists, then protestors should take advantage of UCS’s open meeting policy, which means that they can join the council and, after two meetings, are full members that can introduce resolutions of their own. If for some reason they aren’t able to move UCS through the normal channels, then you can exercise the nuclear option: familiarize yourself withRobert’s Rules of Order and the UCS Constitution, and then threaten to impeach members willing to let the Administration ignore the student body. Obviously, that’s a last resort strategy, but the moment it starts looking likely that UCS won’t protect the students that elected them, activists need to begin circulating withdrawal petitions.

Likewise, the Administration has also attempted to appoint the faculty members of the committee — even though there is already a Faculty Executive Committee that could very easily be tasked with appointing their own members. Activists have a real shot to reach out to tenured faculty members, departmental chairs, and the Third World Center — they should try and get the faculty to wrestle that bit of control away from President Paxson, again arguing for fairness in the process. Activists need to line up at least one member of the faculty willing to step up and serve on the committee — I’d nominate Professor Tricia Rose, the Director for the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, but be prepared for some push back since she’d obviously on the protestors’ side. I’d also try and line up Professor James Morone from Political Science, who is not only widely respected but is insanely popular amongst the student body.

Quick Note: President Paxson hasn’t had time to cement alliances amongst the faculty, or — at least not many. Not only is she new, she either neglected or refused to host the traditional faculty/administration mixer at the President’s official residence, something which no doubt alienated some members of the faculty. Activists should be prepared to exploit these divisions by framing the ad hoc committee as a power grab by a new administration with little regard for the faculty. I cannot begin to explain how complicated faculty politics are, but trust me there are professors in play that you can bring to your side by re-framing the debate and doing a bit of outreach.

Lastly, President Paxson’s e-mail doesn’t mention who will be the Chairperson of the Committee, but it’s likely they’ll be a member of University Hall, and it is unlikely they’ll be completely neutral, especially if picked by the Administration. Activists should begin by suggesting the Chairperson should be a nonvoting member of the committee, except in instances where the faculty and the student representatives are tied. They should be a well-known entity to students in the University. I’d suggest Dean Bergeron, who is not only widely known by students, but is also departing the University, giving her a bit of impartiality. She’s also a member of the past Administration, bringing some institutional memory from the Ruth Simmons-era that could work in activists favor. But no matter which official activists prefer, once UCS agrees to join the movement the President of UCS should set up a personal meeting to convince them to join the committee.

Building Your Coalitions

In order to punish the activists, President Paxson needs to isolate them from the rest of the student population in order to avoid a backlash. Activists have already done this for her, as recent polls from the Brown Daily Herald show. However, disapproval for activists’ tactics isn’t the same as wishing to see the students involved punished. Activists need to rehabilitate their image, and they need to cast a wide net when it comes to assembling a broad coalition of supporters. The objective is to make it impossible for the Administration to punish individual activists for their behavior without triggering a wider protest from the student body.

Obviously, there are many ways this could happen, but it starts with getting UCS on your side — since they are the official student advocates to the University.

After cementing an alliance with UCS, activists need to partner with an organization that knows the rules for student conduct and can be their advocates, since President Paxson has made the issue about the University’s Code of Conduct. Activists should use that as a pretense to reach out to groups that maybe weren’t involved during the protests, but could be asset now. Start with the Debate Club, the Brown Pre-Law Society, and Brown ACLU. Negotiate a fee and hire the groups to begin working on a strategy for when the Committee turns its focus towards the students. How have students been punished for protests before? What makes this case unique? What’s the process for adjudicating this? The last time a speaker was interrupted, the student involved was suspended for a semester — but that was because they interrupted the speech physically (by throwing a pie.) You need someone to begin mapping out your defense for when the committee turns its eyes on you.

At all times, activists should be emphasizing the nonviolent aspect of the protest. You need to begin a messaging campaign that rewrites the history of the Ray Kelly protest through the lens of Brown History. Connect this protest with the previous Brown sit-ins and take-overs of University Hall in both the 1960s and 1980s. The message should be simple: punishing students for a nonviolent protest is against Brown’s legacy, and an affront to its ideals. All the multicultural groups and the Third World Center should be front and center in pushing this message. Since allies are important, activists should recruit progressive groups on campus, including the Brown Democrats, who are not only one of the largest groups on campus but one of the best funded. The objective here is to give the impression that students aren’t distancing themselves from the activists, but rallying behind them against the Administration’s prosecutorial overreach.

It’s time to downplay the uniqueness of the protests, and instead make it about Brown’s legacy as a space for activism.

The Investigation

Cooperate fully with the committee’s investigation, so long as your concerns about student representation are addressed and you have someone versed in the rules and procedures alongside you to prevent you from accidentally making things worse. No matter what, activists shouldn’t allow the Administration to portray their legitimate concerns about the process as “obstructionist.” DO NOT LET THEM TEA PARTY YOU!

President Paxson and others are attacking activists for disrupting the free exchange of ideas on campus, and any missteps you make during the investigation — either by not cooperating or by intentionally slowing down the process — will make it easier for them to paint you with that brush again. You need to shift the focus back to Ray Kelly and the policies of Stop & Frisk — and the best way to do that is by pressuring the Committee to investigate all aspects of the protest — including the actions taken by officials and department heads that excluded student opinion over inviting him, and then ignore students again when asked for the invitation to be withdrawn.

The Message

At every juncture, activists should ask their fellow students one question:

Who Does President Paxson Represent?

Activists should frame the past few weeks as a continued attack on student self-governance, and an affront on Brown’s traditions. It’s a simple message, but the evidence to support it is there. It was the Administration that didn’t allow student input when inviting Kelly. It was the Administration that didn’t listen to the student body when they asked for the offer to be rescinded. It was President Paxson that unilaterally stripped the Undergraduate Council of Students of their power to appoint students to University committees, and then did the same thing to the faculty. Now, her committee is coming after students for a non-violent protest instigated only after the Administration refused to adequately address their concerns. If possible, link back to President Paxson’s outright refusal to address students’ concerns about climate change by divesting from coal.

The University has decided to make this about students’ responsibility to each other; activists should make it about the Administration’s responsibility to the students. 

Obviously, this strategy isn’t guaranteed to succeed. But whatever strategy activists have for dealing with the coming onslaught should be implemented immediately. If for some reason the Administration is unbending in the Committee process, or activists begin to fear serious reprisals from President Paxson, then they should implement to Dumbledore Strategy that I wrote about yesterday

Good luck.

By S. Alexander Smith, Contributor

He can be tweeted at @SAlexanderPhD and Tumbles here.

All Images via Google Images

1 Comment
  1. wow. pretty strong strategy. I like this S. Alexander character, the strength with which he writes, and the accurate framing of the scenario.

    I was against the protests inside the lecture hall. but I’m in favor the protesters, and against them being punished. best of luck, all.

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