In February 2016, a small group of progressive students interrupted a faculty meeting at Brooklyn College with a host of demands, including a return to free and open admissions, more full-time faculty members of color, and an end to the presence of undercover cops on campus. The school, which is part of the New York’s public-university system, has nurtured generations of city residents from immigrant and working-class backgrounds, including many young people from the neighboring black and Jewish communities. No one expected the brief “mic check” to reverberate so far from the leafy grounds of Brooklyn College campus.
But it did. Shortly after the interruption, New York City Assemblyman Dov Hikind issued a press release stating that the meeting had left attending faculty member in fear and falsely alleging that one student had called the Faculty Council chair, Professor Yedidyah Langsam, a “Zionist pig.” The press picked up the story. “‘Jew haters’ spread fear at CUNY Colleges,” read a headline at the New York Post.
The Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organization of America, and even the New York State Senate lambasted the young activists and urged Brooklyn College to take action. And the school did. Not long after the action, a handful of the participating students were called in for an investigation. Two of these students were Sarah Aly and Tom DeAngelis. Both insisted that they had not made any anti-Semitic remarks. The school offered them a settlement for the alleged disciplinary infractions, but refused to release a statement clearing Aly and DeAngelis of hateful speech. As a result, Aly and DeAngelis said, they were forced to go before a disciplinary committee and face possible expulsion in order to clear their names.
Aly and DeAngelis were both Brooklyn College seniors with impressive academic records and plans to pursue graduate school. They were also leaders of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and sought to raise awareness on campus about the human-rights violations committed by Israel against the Palestinian people. For about three months before the hearing, the two young activists lived in a kind of limbo, worrying that their futures were at stake.
On May 20, after a grueling full-day hearing, Aly and DeAngelis were “convicted” of only one of the four charges—none of which related to anti-Semitic speech. For failing to comply with “lawful directions issued by representatives of the university/college,” Aly and DeAngelis received merely an admonition. The next month, Brooklyn College issued a press release acknowledging what Aly and DeAngelis had been saying all along, that they had never said the hateful things of which they had been accused.
The students, the press release stated, “faced related charges to the disruption of the Faculty Council meeting, not to the content of their speech, because it was their disruptive conduct that violated University policies and rules.” The statement also acknowledged that, “Contrary to allegations reported to the media, no witness heard the phrase ‘Zionist pig.’”
For Aly and DeAngelis, it was vindication—proof that the stinging denunciation of them by the media and pro-Israel groups had been wrongheaded from the start. But if they weren’t targeted for their allegedly “hateful” views, might Aly and DeAngelis have been swept up in the disciplinary process because of their politics? What truly inspired the action at the faculty meeting, and why did Aly and DeAngelis risk their degrees—and their futures—to clear their names?
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The students, who called themselves the Brooklyn College Student Coalition, said they had only learned that the Faculty Council existed a few days before their action. They were an ad hoc group of undergraduates who had organized together for years on a variety of issues, and felt strongly that Brooklyn College wasn’t doing enough to make the school accessible to the people it was supposed to serve, such as poor students, students of color, and working parents. They drew up a list of demands and planned to read them out for the faculty in attendance.
One of the more charged demands was the end to the use of undercover cops on campus. In April 2015, Aly, DeAngelis, and other current and former Brooklyn College students say they discovered that a woman who called herself Mel—and had “converted” to Islam on campus at an Islamic Society event several years prior—was actually an undercover NYPD detective. Aly and DeAngelis say that they met “Mel” in 2014, when they believe she infiltrated a unity group of students of color on campus. After they learned that Mel was an undercover agent, students and faculty reached out to the Brooklyn College and CUNY leadership to ask for a condemnation of the NYPD intrusion on their educational lives and personal safety. Despite a widely circulated petition and what they described as meetings with high-level leadership inside Brooklyn College and CUNY, no condemnation ever came.
According to interviews with students and faculty, the nine or so student activists arrived at the meeting and sat quietly listening until Brooklyn College President Karen Gould asked if anyone had something to say. Then one of the other students stood up and shouted, “Mic check,” and the group started chanting from the list of demands.
DeAngelis recalled that faculty at first seemed excited about what was happening. They were clapping and even cheering.
The room was getting noisy—Faculty Council chair Langsam hit his gavel and declared the students out of order, before eventually adjourning the meeting altogether. According to the results of a Brooklyn College investigation, after the meeting adjourned one of the student activists, who was not a member of Brooklyn College SJP, veered woefully off message and shouted “Zionists out of CUNY!” or a similar phrase. Several witnesses also reported hearing one student call Langsam, who wears a yarmulke, a “Zionist” while, one witness, according to the investigation by Brooklyn College, heard the student call him a “Zionist Jew” (a troubling statement, to be sure, if the student did say it). Another witness told investigators that the student said “Zionist” followed by another word that he or she didn’t hear.
Even though some faculty had called security, the students didn’t think that their mic check was a big deal—the entire interruption had lasted less than 10 minutes, Aly said. Afterwards, some faculty lingered around to talk to the students, both to commend them and give them feedback on how to engage with the Brooklyn College administration more effectively, students and faculty said.
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It was the very next day that the fallout from the action started to spiral out of control. Assemblyman Hikind issued the press release alleging that the chairman had been called a “Zionist pig” and that a faculty member had described the applause by other faculty members for the students’ action as being “reminiscent of 1930s Nazi Germany.”
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency and other outlets picked up the story, repeating Hikind’s unsubstantiated allegations, without presenting any other views. Jewish-American organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), also joined in the fray.
“Such abhorrent comments only serve to divide CUNY, which prides itself on values of inclusivity,” ADL New York Regional Director Evan Bernstein told The Jerusalem Post.
“We urge Brooklyn College leadership and all academic institutions across New York State to make clear that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism that denigrates Jews has no place on campus,” he added.
Bernstein had no reason to worry. The day after the interruption, President Gould sent out a school-wide e-mail condemning the “disruptive behavior” and “hateful comments,” even though there had been insufficient time for the school to fully investigate what had occurred.
Things were “getting bigger in a way that seem[ed] so bizarre,” recalled Aly. About a week later, the right-wing lobby group the Zionist Organization of America issued a 14-page letter listing numerous examples of alleged anti-Semitic incidents that had occurred on CUNY campus, including the faculty-meeting disruption. The letter, which was sent to CUNY Chancellor Milliken as well as members of United States Senate, offered vague and unsubstantiated claims of harm—but its impact was real, and immediate. The New York State Senate threatened to withhold CUNY funding, and the school quickly convened a “Task Force on anti-Semitism.”
Pressure was growing for Brooklyn College to show it was taking the incident seriously. Shortly after the interruption, Aly, DeAngelis, and two other students received notice that they would be called in and interviewed as part of an investigation.
Out of the nine students involved, the school called only these four to be interviewed, even though a photo of the entire group had been published in the student paper. As the president and secretary of SJP, respectively, Aly and DeAngelis were visible on campus and known to the administration, which may explain why they were singled out for investigation. The two say that Brooklyn College asked them to name the other students in the photograph, but they refused to do so.
The other two students, who were not closely involved with SJP, settled with the school rather than risk a serious punishment. One of these students, who admitted to shouting at Langsam, accepted a penalty of disciplinary probation. But Aly and DeAngelis refused to settle after Brooklyn College told them the school was unwilling to release a statement clearing them of making hateful remarks. They were charged with violating four rules of the City University of New York’s (CUNY) code of conduct, known as the Henderson Rules, including intentional obstruction and failure to comply with lawful directions.
On the morning of the hearing, a long line of barricades was placed outside of the Brooklyn College Student Center where the disciplinary panel was set to occur, and several security guards stood around eying the crowd. Some 30 supportive students and faculty members stood outside waiting to find out if they would be allowed into the hearing.
They were not; it was announced the disciplinary hearing would be a closed affair. Still, the supportive students refused to leave. Bearing signs that read “Drop the charges!” and “Injustice at CUNY,” the activists spent the day in the lobby of the Brooklyn College Student Center, waiting for the results of Aly and DeAngelis’ hearing.
Several students told The Nation they believed Aly and DeAngelis—both working-class students of color—were easy targets for an administration under a great deal of political pressure and anxious to appease their critics. In recent years the Brooklyn College SJP, like similar Palestine groups across the country, has come under frequent attack from some pro-Zionist groups. At a time when anti-Zionism is often conflated with anti-Semitism, simply engaging in pro-Palestine solidarity can leave activists vulnerable to accusations of hate.
“The fact of the matter is—is it really the disruption that’s been punished, or is the punishment because the pro-Palestine movement is so unpopular that it can be vilified?” wondered one African-American doctoral student at Brooklyn College who had come to the hearing to show her support.
None of the faculty, students or Brooklyn College alumni interviewed by The Nation could remember another time when the Henderson Rules had been used to punish campus activists who engaged in an act of civil disobedience.
The disciplinary hearing functioned much like a trial, with one of the attorneys from CUNY’s Office of Legal Affairs as the prosecution; attorneys from Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights representing the “defendants”; a professor brought in to chair the meeting; a “jury” committee composed of two faculty members, one student, and one staff member from Brooklyn College; and witnesses called to testify for either side.
Brooklyn College Sociology Professor Carolina Bank Muñoz testified on behalf of Aly and DeAngelis. Because the charges related to the disruptive nature of the action—and not the allegedly anti-Semitic comments made during the action—CUNY’s lawyer prevailed in arguing that neither side was permitted to bring up the purported hate speech, or the broader context, including the media coverage, Gould’s e-mail, the ZOA letter.
“The truth is this wasn’t about disruption. It was like a proxy war,” Bank Muñoz told The Nation several days later.
This “proxy war,” supporters of Aly and DeAngelis believe, was part of a national crackdown on Palestine organizers and organizing documented by Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights in a September 2015 report, “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech.”
“Over the last decade, a dynamic movement in support of Palestinian human rights, particularly active in US colleges and universities, has helped raise public awareness regarding the Israeli government’s violations of international law, as well as the role of corporations and the US government in facilitating these abuses,” the report reads.
“Rather than engage such criticism on its merits,” the report continues, “[pro-Israel groups] leverage their significant resources and lobbying power to pressure universities, government actors, and other institutions to censor or punish advocacy in support of Palestinian rights.”
Distinguished Professor of Political Science Jeanne Theoharis, who testified at the hearing and also taught both Aly and DeAngelis, told The Nation that what unfolded at Brooklyn College was deeply troubling.
“The rush to judgment by the [Brooklyn College] administration and semester-long disciplinary process spurred by outside pressure—along with a growing targeting of SJP activists nationwide—resembles a new kind of McCarthyism,” she said. “Brooklyn College had a picture of all the students who engaged in the [faculty council] protest but chose to pursue disciplinary charges against a few—those active in SJP.”
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But, as CUNY’s silence on the question of undercover policing revealed, the disciplinary hearing exposed the college’s priorities regarding what is threatening and what is not. In the weeks after President Gould sent her e-mail describing the “anti-Semitic” interruption at the February faculty meeting, Aly received a barrage of hateful and violent e-mails, tweets and Facebook messages calling her “Muslim trash” and “scum” for her “heinous acts.” In March, an advertisement for a Brooklyn College study-abroad program featuring Aly’s face—she wears a hijab—was vandalized, with an upside-down cross drawn on her forehead and her eyes blacked out.
It was proof for Aly and DeAngelis that their safety and security was a secondary or tertiary priority for Brooklyn College. Shortly after the poster was vandalized, President Gould sent out a school-wide e-mail condemning the incident. But there was no investigation into what had occurred, no disciplinary hearing to ensure accountability for an act of hate, and no “Task Force on Undercover Policing and Islamophobia” commissioned to take student concerns on board. Nor is what Aly endured an exception; Islamaphobia has been growing across the country, including on college campuses.
For the students, even the notion that faculty members could have felt “unsafe” during the interruption was a reflection of how they were perceived by those who taught their classes and graded their papers.
“People feeling scared and threatened—we weren’t screaming, we weren’t shouting,” Aly told The Nation. “The only thing that I can think…is that they felt threatened by a group of mostly black, and also Muslim students.”
Rather than back down to an administration that had smeared their names, Aly and DeAngelis decided to risk their degrees to fight for what they believed was right.
In an e-mail to The Nation, Palestine Legal attorney Radhika Sainath lambasted Brooklyn College for how it had treated her clients. “This was a politically-motivated disciplinary process that should never have happened.”
When asked for a response to these and other claims, Brooklyn College shared the press release it had issued to the media after Aly and DeAngelis’s trial had been concluded.
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In a sense, Aly and DeAngelis had stood up not only to Brooklyn College and CUNY but also to the array of forces that had called them to be punished for acts they didn’t commit—from city assemblymen to state senators to the Anti-Defamation League to the Zionist Organization of America. Yet both students told The Nation that the most meaningful result of the entire ordeal was the visible and powerful support they received from their fellow students along the way.
As they came downstairs from the hearing, the student activists who had spent the day waiting greeted Aly and DeAngelis with hugs and cheers.
“Some of the students I didn’t even know,” recalled Aly. “It made it feel worth it—that this is the reason we went in the first place, this is who we’re fighting for,” she added.
It was a moment of celebration, a moment of imagining how things could be different at a university that was supposed to be a “college of the whole people.”
“These students deserve a much better CUNY,” Aly told The Nation. “A liberated CUNY.”