This article was originally published by The Brown Daily Herald.
In 2012, 55 percent of those stopped and frisked were black, 32 percent were Hispanic and only 10 percent were white. In the same year, 89 percent of stop-and-frisks involved citizens not guilty of any crime. It would take significant convincing to demonstrate to me that this type of policy does not do social harm.
That said, stop-and-frisk has supporters—not only among political extremities but among mainstream voices. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is an outspoken advocate for the policy. Bloomberg and others argue the policy has reduced crime, though the causal link between stop-and-frisk and crime reduction is tenuous, as crime rates were dropping prior to Bloomberg’s tenure.
Revulsion among Brown students does not reflect the political landscape at large, and preventing New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly from speaking on campus exacerbated the problem it aimed to solve. Debates are more productive than echo chambers.
In academic writing, weak concession paragraphs often draw into question the strength of the thesis, sometimes likened to “dueling a straw man.” Kelly is no straw man, and his “defeat” would have been a more powerful gesture than his exclusion.
I hope to offer several arguments on behalf of allowing speakers like Ray Kelly to come to Brown’s campus, not to encourage their policies, but to most effectively oppose them.
Inversion Scenario: Imagine we were on a campus that believed unanimously that stop-and-frisk is a good policy. Would it be advisable to prohibit someone to speak against stop-and-frisk? The fact that people have the ability to be convinced that they know with certainty that something is the correct answer even when it may not be underscores the idea that the world’s complexity renders everything debatable.
Morality of Intention vs. Morality of Outcome: If we ask Ray Kelly whether his agenda is racist, he will likely say he is only trying to do what is best for NYC. Immoral outcome does not prove immoral intent.
Stop-and-Frisk is Up for Debate: Some have made the claim that Ray Kelly’s bigotry and practices of policing are not up for debate. The obvious pushback is that if this were not a debate, Kelly’s policies would not exist.
The Larger Debate: It should not be surprising that we are not allowed to engage in a direct debate with a speaker as high-profile as Kelly. Instead it is advantageous to consider Kelly’s talk as part of the “larger debate”—that is, the nationwide discussion on stop-and-frisk. In allowing Kelly to speak, we are hearing the other side make its case.
Moral Relativism: The posters depicting Kelly with a Ku Klux Klan member and swastika were disrespectful and lazy symbolism—a simplistic attempt to smear through absurd exaggeration and fabrication. If I called George W. Bush a jabroni, you might not disagree, but my resort to such a childish critique would draw into question the merits of my argument. If students needed to take advantage of the sonic resemblance of Ray to “Ray-cist” in order to make the point that he shouldn’t speak, then I am left to wonder how strong the case for his exclusion really was.
It is also worth acknowledging, and responding to, some of the most prevalent arguments circulating campus as to why Kelly was not entitled to speak:
“Do we draw the line somewhere? Would it be permissible to allow a KKK spokesman?”
Stop-and-frisk has disproportionate racial effects, but this is a laughably unrestrictive criterion for equating Kelly with a KKK member. Kelly’s talk falls in the same category as many others—a universally sought goal, crime reduction, with a polarizing method. An actual member of a hate group might not only have controversial policy suggestions with objectionable goals.
“Giving Kelly a platform suggests that the University condones his behavior.”
Arguing that listening implies agreement undercuts the entire idea of discourse. Part of being an intelligent adult and a basic tenet of liberalism is respecting the right of others to hold views that depart from your own. Giving Kelly a platform does not suggest agreement. It suggests maturity.
“White people have no right to participate in the debate on Kelly.”
Imagine you have two policy options concerning the betterment of a minority community: The first is suggested by an individual who is white, the second by an individual of color. Suspend disbelief and assume that we can say with certainty that the first policy will have a more positive effect than the latter. Which policy do you choose?
Marginalized groups may be closer to several issues and better equipped to make contributions in many cases, but it is unproductive to assume that people from other backgrounds cannot be valuable partners.
So, to those who opposed Kelly’s presence: Did derailing Kelly’s talk on campus advance your goals of opposition to stop-and-frisk? Or, like in the case of the Tea Party in the recent government shutdown, will your demonization of discourse be the lasting echo of your efforts?