The Ray Kelly ‘Shoutdown’: Free-Speech Failure or Democracy in Action?

The Ray Kelly ‘Shoutdown’: Free-Speech Failure or Democracy in Action?

The Ray Kelly ‘Shoutdown’: Free-Speech Failure or Democracy in Action?

Was this “shoutdown” an abrogation of free speech or a necessary moment of speaking truth to power?


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.

Just as Kelly has a right to free expression, so too do the students who pay tuition to the school he was paid to speak at. Brown students had a rare opportunity to confront New York City’s finest bigot, and they took it. Sure, they weren’t polite about it. But as one protester shouted, “Racism is not for debate.”

‘The Problem With Moral Monsters,’ Richard Yeselson

The West German student left of the late ’60s—opposed to the war in Vietnam and fearful that the government’s “emergency” legislation could be the first step leading to a recurrence of fascism—had grown impatient with the elderly professor and his pedantic distinctions between street propaganda and rigorous political analysis. Students heckled and shouted down his lectures, called him a capitalist apologist and despised his weak-willed opposition to their takeover of publishing houses and universities. That this stale academic had publicly called for a general strike of West Germany’s powerful unions in response to the Emergency Act won him no acclaim. Once, several young women even rushed his podium, showered him with rose pedals, exposed their breasts to him and mockingly attempted to kiss him. The old man fled in shame.

By February 1969, the professor was at wit’s end. Theodor Adorno, the Frankfurt School sociologist and philosopher, wrote to his great friend, the modernist genius Samuel Beckett, and mused, “The feeling of suddenly being attacked as a reactionary comes as something of a surprise. But perhaps you too have had the same experience in the meantime.” Beckett, whose nonpolitical plays and novels belied his participation in the French Resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War, remarked about the student militants, “Was ever such rightness joined to such foolishness?” Until he died of a heart attack just a few months later, Adorno was a man who had dedicated his life to the task of imagining an emancipatory left, “one in which people could be different without fear,” as he wrote in 1945, in the shadow of the barbarism of Auschwitz and the Gulag and the destructive dawn of the nuclear age.

This Marxist intellectual wouldn’t, I suppose, seem to have much in common with New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who his antagonists tell us is a racist, and thus needn’t be heard, or, conveniently enough, rebutted either. If you know what you know, why bother to even to argue with those you disagree with? They’re wrong; you’re right—case closed.

As a pragmatic intellectual inquiry, this is an exercise in epistemic closure little better than those that Rush Limbaugh leads every afternoon on your AM dial. If you don’t engage the arguments you really hate, and instead scream them into silence, you can’t refine and improve your own arguments, which make it harder to gain more adherents to your cause. As a political strategy for leftist struggle, feeling victorious after forcing an odious guest speaker to retreat to his hotel room is kind of like thinking that you’re ready for Wimbledon because you just kicked a 9-year-old’s ass, 6-0, 6-0. By contrast, free speech is the friend of leftist dissent, not its enemy. It’s why the very first major campus fight of the ’60s, at Berkeley, was called the Free Speech Movement—the cause and the use of speech was the lever that enabled students to fight the university administration. Leftists may have wiped out Ray Kelly last week, but, over time, suppressing speech is a game that universities, with aid from the state and augmented in the private workplace, play much better than students do.

You might imagine that you could never be in the position of a racist authoritarian purveyor of state violence like Ray Kelly—he’s a top minion of the ruling class, and you permanently fight the power. But that is another way of saying you don’t think you’ll ever have the power and influence to command the podium yourself, that you are permanently a subaltern. Because the hegemonic discourse unequally assigns Kelly many more opportunities than his adversaries, it’s best to throw away one of your own opportunities to expose his ideas as pernicious—as long as you take him down with you. Just desserts.

But then consider Adorno: at the end of his life, he can’t believe that he is being called a “reactionary.” Theodor Adorno, one of the most important leftist thinkers in the history of the twentieth century! In the late sixties, he was regularly shouted down as if he were no better than… Ray Kelly. That’s the trouble with making a group decision to prevent an alleged moral monster from speaking, rather than upholding the democratic norm that speakers—whatever their politics—speak, and then other speakers (that’s you) vigorously respond to their terrible speech with better speech, more convincing and humane speech. Who knows? The next time, or the time after that, another group may decide that you’re the moral monster. And that group might not even come from the right. I understand—how absurd: Who could be more radical, more militant than you?

That’s what Theodor Adorno thought, too. And you’re no Theodor Adorno.

‘No Other Avenues,’ Jesse A. Myerson

The available avenues for redress against a ruthless paramilitary commandant like Ray Kelly are extremely slim in the United States. As is clear from the gaping dearth of prosecutions on Wall Street and many-times-over war criminal Henry Kissinger’s open invitation to advise presidents on foreign policy, this country’s propensity to treat its elites, however nefarious, with polite deference ensures that future villains will develop their programs undeterred by any anxiety.

To be sure, New York’s Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio is likely to replace Commissioner Kelly. But as important as that gesture may be, it has nothing to do with holding Kelly responsible for the abuses of his tenure. To the contrary, Kelly is highly enough regarded in the law-enforcement world right now to be floated as a possible secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. No matter who Bill de Blasio puts in charge of the NYPD, Ray Kelly is poised to go on to another elite position, probably one that offers a superior salary and just as much influence as his current one.

Shouting down a speaker is clearly not the optimal exercise of democracy. In the democratic utopia for which we perennially strive, good faith debate would always carry the day. And if the means existed to impose significant consequences on Ray Kelly for the abuses of his tenure as commissioner of the largest municipal police force in the country, I would gladly advocate those means over shouting.

But those means do not exist. The way things go in this country, Ray Kelly will never be held to account for the un-debatably authoritarian police state he has supervised. No amount of leafleting outside a Ray Kelly speech, or respectfully incisive questioning in the Q&A section thereafter can hold Kelly to account for the millions his regime stopped, frisked, humiliated and spied on. And leafleting or questioning could never garner the amount of media attention that the “shoutdown” at Brown has. Under these circumstances, the only power therefore afforded to these students to enact a modicum of accountability is the power to make it known that Ray Kelly and others like him cannot expect to speak at Brown University and be treated with respect. It’s not much, but it’s something.

In my assessment, more is gained than is lost by the breach in decorum which Rich Yeselson has worked himself into a fury condemning—going so far as to call me and others who smile on the protest “authoritarian” on Twitter (in defense of Ray Kelly!). Yeselson warns of the corrosive effect that this sort of shouting has on “a democratic culture.” The existence of such a culture is dubious to begin with. Furthermore, agreeing to a public speaking engagement necessarily implies bearing the risk of being shouted down. People like Ray Kelly, whose careers consist of the wielding of violent power over an entire population, ought not to have such tender feelings that they can’t cope with this sort of reception.

Bearing in mind and heart every kid from my neighborhood who has ever wanted to shout back at one of New York’s Finest but has contained his frustration for fear of the jail cell his passions would land him in, I applaud the uncouth, impolite, disrespectful Brown students who gave that bigot a moment’s discomfort.

‘Campus Leftists, Use Your Words,’ Katha Pollitt

What did shouting down Ray Kelly achieve? What did it win for campus organizers and the larger movement against aggressive policing in black communities? Why was it a better idea than informational picketing, holding a teach-in or other counter event, campaigning for a speaker of one’s own, letting Kelly speak and questioning him sharply in the Q-and-A portion of the evening? An activist could have asked a question (many questions!) that put him on the spot, that got him off his talking points and led him into a gaffe that would have been great publicity against stop-and-frisk. Shouting him down was brawn over brains—and that was bound to go over poorly on a campus full of people who value discussion, debate and ideas and pride themselves on liberal values of open-mindedness and fairness. Maybe the point was to show strength, but actually it showed weakness: it suggests (wrongly) that leftists didn’t have good arguments, so bluster would have to do.

More important, shouting Kelly down shows lack of respect for the audience and for the larger—much larger—number of people who had never given stop-and-frisk much thought. By shutting down the event, activists successfully threw their weight around—all 100 or so of them—but did they persuade anyone that stop-and-frisk was a bad, racist policy? Did they build support for their larger politics and their movement? I don’t think so. I think the only minds that changed that night were of people who felt bewildered and irritated by being prevented from hearing Kelly speak by a bunch of screamers and now think leftists are cynical bullies who use and abandon free-speech arguments as it suits them.

It’s fashionable on the left to mock liberalism as weak tea—and sometimes it is. But you know what is getting rid of stop-and-frisk? Liberalism. A major force in the campaign against stop-and-frisk was the NYCLU, which carries the banner of free speech for all. And Bill de Blasio, who just won the mayoral election by a landslide, has pledged to get rid of the policy and Ray Kelly too. Those victories were not won by a handful of student radicals who stepped in with last-minute theatrics. They were won by people who spent years building a legal case and mobilizing popular support for change.

Last point: even if you don’t believe in an abstract right to free expression (bourgeois!), it’s the best protection going for the left. How will campus leftists argue for their right to present unpopular speakers if, on some future occasion which will surely come, conservative students shout them down? What goes around comes around, and if it all comes down to who shouts loudest, what makes leftists think their voices won’t be the ones drowned out?

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