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Student Voices Articulating Themselves at Haverford College: Refocus the Debate to Birgeneau’s Role in Police Brutality

By   /   May 17, 2014  /   13 Comments

In the past few days, national ‘media’ successfully picked up a news story on a small college’s decision not to honor Dr. Birgeneau with a degree at their Commencement Ceremony. Big names such as the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post commented on where Haverford College found itself in the larger “trend” around student protest. Many “conservative” pundits have used this moment as an opportunity to dismiss “liberal” concerns as intolerant and totalitarian. I am compelled to join this conversation as a Haverford College student, a graduating senior, and one of the co-signers of the original letter to Birgeneau. If other news outlets want to represent my peers or myself, instead of grabbing for sound bites, I highly recommend that they publish this perspective.

First, I am disgusted by the way that the national media felt that it had a legitimate authority over our local politics. The distilled and distant nature of these outlets prevented them from engaging in the process that Haverford went through before Birgeneau declined the invitation; the media is failing on several counts. I refer you back to when President Weiss first announced that it would honor Birgeneau with a degree. Considering Birgeneau’s role in generating the violent tension between police and protesters, his dismissal of Occupy as violent, dismissing the protesters’ beatings as unfortunate, his seemingly insecure apology, and his current lack of admission in a lawsuit, we students felt that it was necessary to bring our concerns to light. Biregeneau had the opportunity to engage us, however frustrated we appeared, but chose, once again, to dismiss student protest as violent and unfortunate.

Even after this, students continued to engage in free speech when the college held a two-hour community forum, hearing countless voices both dissenting against Biregeneau, as well as those honoring him. The conversation even went as far as to spill over into the next week, as students continued to meet up and discuss the issue. We very much participated in the free exchange of ideas and encouraged engagement, whereas Robert Birgeneau simply chose not to engage us, thus stifling the conversation with his violent and aggressive words.

But the national media has distilled all of this into “student protesters shut down free speech”. This ought to be a teaching moment demonstrating the limits of the national media we consume: how it destructively objectifies, pacifies, and spins issues intimate to any given community. Let us forever be paranoid of such media-journalism, and let those in journalism forever be responsible for their power. But where is the role for national news outlets?

While it is understandable that newspapers are taking a superficial role (the WSJ won’t send a correspondent to our two-hour long community forum), it does not dismiss their responsibility to resist globalizing urges which themselves stifle the conversation (such as labeling student protests as indicative of the left’s “intolerance”). If this is the example that such media platforms are setting, then it is no surprise why that same poison is used against them. The news has lost its respect to the term “media”, a service that historically has perpetuated stereotypes instead of investigating problems. For example, post-9/11, the appropriate response to global frustration against the US was not “let’s vilify, torture, and go to war with brown bodies for expressing anger,” but instead, “how is US foreign policy generating such extreme responses and how is our jerk reaction perpetuating the initial problem?” Similarly, the WSJ probably should have developed a nuanced understanding of the power politics involved in our student protests. Perhaps the speaker’s crimes were disgusting enough to prompt anger, perhaps certain colleges have a flawed selection process for appointing speakers, or perhaps this was one of many issues related to student frustration with power. These questions come easily, considering the explicit concerns that the student protesters expressed.

In a similar vein to those student protests, I hope that this article brings to light the right way for those in power to play their roles. In the case of journalism in particular, I urge national news outlets to re-examine their role in local politics. Moving forward, instead of distracting themselves with catch-all trend reports that aim to be critical to those without power, perhaps there are more socially constructive ways of doing justice to important local issues (such as in 2011, when some news outlets did justice to Occupy Protests by questioning the role of “the one percent”). Furthermore, in the case of national op-eds, perhaps journalists could have approached our protests by demanding that institutions work towards nomination processes that are considerate and responsive to the student body, so that colleges don’t honor politicians considered war criminals or supporters of police brutality. Furthermore, following our protest, perhaps these journalists should have demanded that student groups rest unsatisfied until those alienated voices in their community are heard and respected.

Moving forward, I ask reporters and outlets to please clarify the following:

We are not trying to shut down free speech. We do not want to be vilified nor glorified. We are trying to articulate ourselves, along with the voices of the marginalized that we are in solidarity with, in order to engage those in power by whatever manner effectively holds them accountable. While we student groups continue to learn and respond, we ask for space, support, and affirmation. We hope that such demands may teach more than they jar. 

I finish by guiding national journalism back to the place that local politics initially wanted to bring them; this is their chance to do justice to the conversation that student protesters began. In what ways are Robert Birgeneau, Linda P.B. Katehi, Ray Kelly, and other officials responsible for brutal police beatings of Occupy Protesters? In what ways are Condoleezza Rice, President Bush, Dick Cheney, and others politicians responsible for war crimes? In what ways are Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Pamela Geller, Sean Hannity, and other talking heads responsible for hate crimes and torture against Muslim Americans?

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  • TheRatiocinator

    You are an idiot. The proper response to 9/11, which took place when you were all of eight years old, was to wonder what _we_ had done wrong? You are the one who needs to learn a bit about politics dearie. (Not to mention verb agreement.). And your final set of rhetoricals simply confirm that you are a fool. Perhaps one day you will grow up and see reality for what it is, rather than through the prism of liberal idiocy. Meanwhile stop telling us all how wonderful you are — it’s nauseating.

    • T. Ahsin

      Hey, I’d love to find out where I lack verb agreement or speak too self indulgently, maybe I can edit it out? Also please share your thoughts in an email about it at tahsin@haverford.edu so that we don’t distract away from the pressing sense of fear, frustration, and caution that I, along with other student protesters, feel as it relates to the current discussion surrounding Birgeneau’s responsibility in police brutality, Condoleezza Rice’s responsibility in war crimes, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s responsibility in islamophobia. But of course I mean this as request and suggestion, not insult or mockery.

      • Manu

        I agree with you for the most part, but did Birgeneau really dismiss this particular protest as violent? Did he even insinuate as such?
        Theratiocinator is likely referring to the beginning of the fifth paragraph where the grammatically correct phrase should be ‘themselves stifle’.

        • http://blog.vandalog.com/ RJ Rushmore

          Yes he did. He called the protesters “not nonviolent” here – http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2011/11/10/message-to-the-campus-community-about-occupy-cal/

          And while he did eventually issue some sort of a hollow apology, he has never said anything else about the protesters being violent or not (although the report he commissioned says that they were nonviolent – http://www.berkeley.edu/news2/2012/06/PRBNov9report.pdf)

          • Manu

            I was referring to the concluding line of Taha’s second paragraph: “but chose, once again, to dismiss student protest as violent and unfortunate.”

            Taha is implying that Birgeneau designated haverford’s protest violent as well. The fact that he has yet to list his source for such a strong assertion makes me significantly less inclined to believe he wrote the article with an impartial mindset.

          • Manu

            Ok, I take my words back. Seems like Birgeneau did call Haverford’s demands violent as well. Strange word to use, clearly shows he’s on the defensive.

  • Chris

    Taha, I’m sure national journalism appreciates your guidance.

    Ball’s in your court, national media/journalism. May you consider the years & depth of experience behind this advice & seize upon the opportunity afforded you.

  • Steven Strong

    Blaming Ayaan Hirsi Ali for violence against Muslims makes me angry at you and sad for you. Ms. Ali is truly heroic. She has suffered both physically and emotionally from Islamic misogyny. Her friend was murdered by an Islamic fundamentalist and she lives under the threat of assassination. Expecting her to be less critical of Islam would be akin to expecting a Holocaust survivor to find something nice to say about the Nazi party.

  • razorfish

    You express a number of sentiments in your piece with which I’m inclined to disagree, but my first impression is that your writing isn’t very good. If you can’t express your thoughts clearly, succinctly, and coherently, and with proper grammar and usage, you may find it difficult to persuade thoughtful people to see your point of view.

  • Publius

    Taha, as a Haverford student who is also a New Yorker, I am deeply offended by your insinuation that 9/11 was somehow the fault of the thousands of innocent victims.The fact that you could even imagine 9/11 as “expressing anger,” rather than the horrific attack it was, shows just how distorted your view of reality has become.

    • T. Ahsin

      “how is US foreign policy generating such extreme responses and how is our jerk reaction perpetuating the initial problem?”

      Do not claim that I am blaming innocent victims; I am asking how war and war mongering has caused and perpetuated the problem.

      And I’m drawing attention to the way that anger is treated specifically towards brown bodies. We will torture brown bodies for ‘getting angry’ or to be associated in the slightest way to this ‘getting angry’, but we will not engage in the same homogenizing force upon the bodies of ‘angry’, ‘depressed’, ‘mentally unstable’ white men. This tells us a lot about the mentality that we breed and who power privileges.

      But I hope not to distract away from the point of the article:

      In what ways is Robert Birgeneau responsible for brutal police beatings of Occupy Protesters, Condoleezza Rice responsible for war crimes, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali responsible for hate crimes and torture against Muslim Americans?

      • Steven Strong

        The question is offensive but I will answer. Ms. Ali is in no way responsible for hate crimes against Muslim Americans. No reasonable argument has ever been made to the contrary. Fair criticism, factual and delivered persuasively, does not equal hate. Any ideology, no matter how revered, is fair game. Again, it is sad that these crucial concepts are neither understood nor respected at Haverford.

        • T. Ahsin

          Haverford College students protested Birgeneau’s role in police brutality. You answered the question that’s more relevant to Brandeis University.

          Also at the end of the day this article is just relaying the questions that these protests are bringing to light, the concerns that protesters hope will be reexamined by journalists and the public.