If Bill de Blasio’s landslide win is any indication, it’s clear that liberals—and New Yorkers in general—deplore Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and his controversial stop-and-frisk policy. So it was no surprise that when he went to Brown University on October 29, his appearance generated a certain amount of buzz. What was unusual was that, after about half an hour of booing and heckling from the audience of students and members of the public, Kelly and the Brown administration were forced to cancel the talk. Was this “shoutdown” an abrogation of free speech or a necessary moment of speaking truth to power? The Nation asked writers Rania Khalek, Richard Yeselson, Jesse A. Myerson and Nation columnist Katha Pollitt to weigh in.
‘Racism Is Not For Debate,’ Rania Khalek
During his reign as NYPD police commissioner, Ray Kelly has taken suppression policing of black, brown and Muslim bodies to a whole new, record-setting level. So when Brown University students heckled him off stage as he attempted to give a lecture on “Proactive Policing in America’s Biggest City,” I thought, good riddance! It’s about damn time that bigot face his critics.
After all, this is the same man who said to state officials that his purpose as the overseer of stop and frisk is to “instill fear” in black and Latino men “every time that they [leave] their homes.” Meanwhile, he has the audacity to claim publicly that his racist policies are saving the lives of young men of color. He’s also the architect of a massive spying apparatus on Muslim communities that rivals the FBI at its COINTELPRO finest. Given that Kelly’s policies have long suppressed voices and bodies of color across New York City, it seemed fitting that students from and speaking up for those communities managed to successfully drown him out.
While I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, I was stunned to see several self-proclaimed liberals and progressives express outrage not at Brown’s embrace of a racist public figure but at the students who confronted him.
Peter Beinart of The Daily Beast went so far as to label the student protesters “fascist” for acting in a “totalitarian spirit” that has apparently spread to campuses across the country as part of some vast conspiracy to deny controversial speakers (i.e., powerful figures who happen to be racists and/or war criminals, like Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Beinart specifically references) their right to free speech.
It’s quite revealing that this same rhetoric is almost never applied to the racists and war criminals who are temporarily inconvenienced by protesters. I don’t recall, for example, anyone in the mainstream describing the NYPD’s excessive force against Occupy Wall Street protesters or their seemingly endless killings of unarmed people of color in such stark terms.
There’s also a tendency among critics to promote a false equivalence between the student protesters and Ray Kelly, a warped logic that completely ignores the power imbalance of lecturer versus audience, of influential public official versus proletariat. People in positions of power have huge platforms that typically shield them from their detractors, leaving those impacted by their policies with little recourse for their grievances.