Let’s Talk About Campus Shout-Downs

Lindsay BeyersteinNovember 8, 2013

Brown University's campus is about as liberal a venue as it gets.

Last week, Brown stu­dents shout­ed down out­go­ing Police Com­mis­sion­er Ray Kel­ly to oppose the racist stop-and-frisk polic­ing that defined Kelly’s term in office. Since the uni­ver­si­ty would not can­cel Kelly’s talk, despite a stu­dent peti­tion urg­ing the school to dis­in­vite him, the activists decid­ed to can­cel it for them,” accord­ing to orga­niz­er Jen­ny Li.

I was dis­ap­point­ed to hear about the shout-down, not because I have any sym­pa­thy for Kel­ly and his racist polic­ing, but because I was dis­mayed to see such a dumb tac­tic used in an attempt to fur­ther the wor­thy cause of dis­cred­it­ing stop-and-frisk. Col­lege activists are peren­ni­al­ly tempt­ed to shout down cam­pus speak­ers, and I’ve nev­er seen it work.

Shout-downs are tac­ti­cal­ly stu­pid. I’ve nev­er seen a shout-down gen­er­ate any pos­i­tive media atten­tion for the shouters. I’ve nev­er seen any unde­cid­ed onlook­er sym­pa­thize with the shouters because they were shout­ing. It’s a tac­tic that appeals only to peo­ple who already agree with you. At best, it will inspire peo­ple who are already on your side.

Nobody’s going to be per­suad­ed that Ray Kel­ly is bad because some strangers shout­ed him down. It’s also a total derail of your own agen­da because what­ev­er you were protest­ing is going to get over­shad­owed by a debate over free speech, even among peo­ple who agree with you on the issue.

If you want to protest a speak­er, get your peo­ple in line to ask point­ed ques­tions, leaflet out­side the the­ater, wear t‑shirts with provoca­tive slo­gans and dare secu­ri­ty to kick you out, film the speech and mine the footage for snarky YouTube videos … Any­thing’s bet­ter than shout­ing the speak­er down.

The Brown Dai­ly Her­ald polled 863 under­grad­u­ates and found that while 78 per­cent of Brown stu­dents oppose stop-and-frisk, only 13 per­cent approved of shut­ting down Kelly’s lec­ture. This was a recep­tive audi­ence for stop-and-frisk protests: 71 per­cent of stu­dents said they agreed with” the peti­tion dri­ve to get Kelly’s lec­ture can­celled, and 78 per­cent agreed with protest­ing the talk out­side the auditorium.

Polls can’t tell us whether the shout-down was right or wrong, but they say a lot about whether it’s like­ly to be effec­tive. You couldn’t ask for a more sym­pa­thet­ic audi­ence for an anti- stop-and-frisk mes­sage than Brown Uni­ver­si­ty. If only 13 per­cent of under­grads at the very lib­er­al school con­done the tac­tic, imag­ine how bad­ly it’s going to play in the larg­er com­mu­ni­ty. Kelly’s talk could have been an oppor­tu­ni­ty to inspire fel­low Brown stu­dents to take up the stop-and-frisk cause. Instead, the tac­tic proved divi­sive even in a com­mu­ni­ty that over­whelm­ing­ly sup­port­ed the sub­stance of the protest. In light of the polling data, the shout-down looks like a missed opportunity.

Lind­say Bey­er­stein is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Not­ed. Her sto­ries have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Mag­a­zine, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Her pho­tographs have been pub­lished in the Wall Street Jour­nal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hill­man Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a pub­li­ca­tion of the Sid­ney Hill­man Foun­da­tion, a non-prof­it that hon­ors jour­nal­ism in the pub­lic interest.
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