Oct. 31, 2013 Providence, RI. The American Friends Service Committee – South East New England Program is proud to stand with the students and community members at Brown University who shut down the scheduled lecture by former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly on October 29.
Brown is a prestigious university. It has the capacity to bring world leaders and academics to the community to enrich the education of its students and the larger community. With that prestige and privilege comes responsibility. When it gives its microphone to someone, indeed even pays that person a hefty sum, it is choosing to privilege that person’s speech, to amplify it, even if it does not officially endorse it.
The university chose to do this with former Commissioner Kelly, whose policy of “Stop and Frisk” has not only humiliated and infuriated communities of color in New York, but it has been judged to be unconstitutional. He also has monitored Muslim mosques and community groups (including those outside the NYPD jurisdiction in Newark New Jersey and college campuses throughout the Northeast).
Brown University chose to privilege his speech in the context of an ongoing struggle in the larger Rhode Island community over racial profiling and “stop and frisk” police activities in the state.
Brown students of color and allies were outraged that the schools resources and microphone were being used in this way. They organized students and faculty to object. They asked the administration to cancel the event. They organized a petition drive to demonstrate the broad support for their position. And they felt rebuffed. Unheard. In their frustration, they invited the larger community to stand with them in their outrage. And many did.
Then the students used their voices to stop business as usual, much as those sitting in at lunch counters years ago used their bodies to stop business as usual in the Jim Crow South. They insisted that their voices be at least equally heard in the Brown community as the privileged voice of a person who was being paid $10,000 to speak in defense of racist, unconstitutional police practices.
The issue is not so much about Mr. Kelly’s free speech. Constitutionally protected speech is about speech in public places, like parks or sidewalks or municipally owned places. The rules are different in a private institution. What this is really about is how Brown University, which is a rather large member of a greater community, uses its wealth and privilege and how that use impacts its students and the larger community. It is about institutional racism that is reflected in actions that say the thoughts (some of them considered by a court of law to be unconstitutional) of a police commissioner from another community are more important that the thoughts/experience/voice of students of its own community who have been on the receiving end of those humiliating and terrifying policies.
The students and members of the Providence community refused to be devalued. They refused to accept business as usual. That act of refusal has forced conversation within Brown and indeed in the larger community, that has the potential of being life changing and profoundly educational for the community. AFSC-SENE is proud to stand with the students and community members who have stopped business as usually and brought about this opportunity to reflect on privilege, speech and what makes a truly safe community.