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“Civil” Protest?

Alyssa Goldstein
June 25, 2013

NESJPThere’s been some controversy at Northeastern University recently. Yvonne Abraham explains in the Boston Globe:

“It began in April, when the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine staged a walkout at a presentation by Israeli soldiers. At the start of the event, 35 students stood, small signs taped to their shirts. One member called the soldiers war criminals. One or two chanted slogans. They were gone in a minute.

“For this protest, SJP has been placed on probation, and will be suspended indefinitely for further transgressions. They must also create a civility statement, laying down rules for future conduct.”

There are two issues at stake here: the specific issue of Northeastern’s reaction to the SJP walkout, and a wider argument over what constitutes “acceptable” or “civil” protest.

tumblr_mdrnifDPPu1qcge0no1_1280Regarding the first issue, Abraham points out that if the punishment of the SJP is, as the Northeastern administration claims, solely due to their failure to obtain the proper demonstration permit seven days in advance, then requiring them to write a “civility statement” is grossly unfair. Vice President Michael Armini justified this decision by saying, “When conflicts happen on campus they provide . . . a teachable moment. This will help strengthen the leadership of the organization.” Of course, Armini’s statement is condescending, and college administrators shouldn’t get to impose arbitrary punishments on clubs to paternalistically “teach them a lesson.” Abraham is also correct to point out that Northeastern’s rule requiring a permit for all protests seven days in advance is particularly onerous.

When it comes to the issue of whether or not SJP’s action was a “civil” form of protest, I think there’s more than just a touch of hypocrisy at work. Liberals or moderates who complain about protests being uncivil or disruptive usually do so out of a discomfort with acknowledging and confronting injustice. If this had been an anti-South African apartheid protest, or a protest against segregation in the US, the protesters’ behavior would have been seen as justified in retrospect, even if they had behaved far more combatively than the SJP members did.

I was involved in Palestine solidarity activism for several years at Bard, and no one ever cared enough to disrupt one of our events. But if they had, I wouldn’t have been upset that they were rude to us, but that they believed that Palestinians should quietly accept the violence and apartheid to which they are subject. Likewise, I’d have more respect for any Northeastern “Huskies for Israel” member who denounces the SJP protesters for being a bunch of Israel-hating anti-Semitic terrorist-huggers than for someone who complains that a walkout is just so darn impolite and couldn’t they just protest in a way that doesn’t make things so uncomfortable? “Better an honest conservative than a deceptive liberal,” said Edward Said.

As Ulrike Meinhof wrote about the reaction to a Berlin anti-Vietnam war protest: “It is considered rude to pelt politicians with pudding and cream cheese but quite acceptable to host politicians who are having villages eradicated and cities bombed.” Civility is nice at dinner parties, when it’s probably best that the pudding and cream cheese remain on the table. But anyone who complains about decorum when people’s lives and freedom are at stake can be told -- in the politest way possible -- just where to stick their civility.

Alyssa Goldstein is a recent Bard College graduate who was a student intern for our magazine and now writes regularly at Blog-Shmog.