Podcast  

AshCast: Civil Disobedience and Democracy on Campus with Archon Fung and Khalil Gibran Muhammad

In a two part episode of AshCast, Archon Fung and Khalil Gibran Muhammad discuss campus protests, civil disobedience, and the role speech and democracy as universities across the country grapple with how to respond to this latest wave of protest activity.

Photo of pro-Palestinian encampment at George Washington University
A pro-Palestinian encampment at George Washington University. Credit: Joe Flood via Flickr/Creative Commons

Episode 1

Episode 2

My view is that university leaders are trying to navigate these enormous cross currents that are pushing in very, very different ways from students, from protesters, from faculty... Headshot of Archon Fung

Archon Fung

Director, Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation;
Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government

About Archon Fung

Archon Fung is the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is the director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at HKS. His research explores policies, practices, and institutional designs that deepen the quality of democratic governance. He focuses upon public participation, deliberation, and transparency.

About Khalil Gibran Muhammad

Khalil Gibran Muhammad is the Ford Foundation Professor of History, Race and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. He directs the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project and is the former Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a division of the New York Public Library and the world’s leading library and archive of global black history. Before leading the Schomburg Center, Khalil was an associate professor at Indiana University.

Transcripts

Episode 1 Transcript

Archon Fung:

Hi. This is Archon Fung. I am the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. And I’m here with my friend and colleague, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, who is the Ford Foundation Professor of History, Race, and Public Policy here also at the Kennedy School.

Khalil, I know you and I, as faculty, I think, faculty across the country are looking at this wave of campus protests and some of the police responses and other responses to them with a gripped intensity because these are institutions that we’ve gone to school in and worked in our whole lives. I feel like the student conversation has been fairly rich in student newspapers, especially in student radio, but I hear less from faculty.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Yes.

Archon Fung:

And I like to hear the sound of my own voice. And I sure know I like to hear you talk. And I know you have lots of thoughts on this. So, I thought we might do this conversation as a way of thinking out loud about at least two faculty perspectives on what’s going on around the country.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Let’s do it, Archon. It’s a pleasure to be in a community with you. And I know you think a lot about the role of the state in advancing democratic values. And so, this is a real key issue at this moment. So, I’m looking forward to this conversation.

Archon Fung:

Great. So, why don’t we start with some of the surprises. So, I’ve been a student or a professor in universities for about 40 years, seeing lots of waves of student protest and civil disobedience from apartheid to sweatshops, to occupy, to the post-George Floyd, and many others.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

And the fossil fuel divestment.

Archon Fung:

And the fossil fuel divestment. Exactly. And one thing that I feel, especially after the Columbia events, is I don’t feel like there’s been this level of police response around the country to any of those prior waves. So, one thing that concerns me is maybe we’re moving the equilibrium on the use of force on campuses up. Now, you’re somebody who’s looked at the carceral state-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Sure.

Archon Fung:

… and the use of police in the United States for over many, many decades. So, I’d love to hear your perspective. You’re probably less surprised than I am, but what do you think?

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

No, I am surprised in that, most historians will say this and many veterans of the social movement protests of the ’60s, but we’ve not seen this level of police activity on college campuses since 1968.

And of course, the great irony is that if 1968 was an election that pitted Johnson, who had come into office as a social justice president, whether he signed up for it initially or not, that’s certainly his lasting legacy as having inherited the civil rights movement and passing that key legislation in ’64 and ’65, pitted against Richard Nixon, who had once been a moderate Republican, but increasingly adopted a law and order mantra as a direct response to much of the social movement energy that was culminated in 1968.

We are surprisingly right back at that moment. And I think, for me, having watched all of the congressional hearings, starting with the December 5th testimony, but more particularly the mid-April one with the Columbia University president, it is shocking that her testimony and the encampment that started that day on that Wednesday-

Archon Fung:

Yes.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… when she was testifying has led to this moment.

Archon Fung:

So, I think it’s probably shocking to her as well perhaps. I’ve never met her. I don’t know her.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

I don’t know. She’s being credited for calling the police, so I’m not sure how shocked she’d be.

Archon Fung:

Maybe at the response. So, I think one interesting thing, many interesting things to talk about, and you mentioned this in a conversation before, but so, say, the Columbia administrators wanted to establish a level of low disruption on campus so that teaching and research activities and commencement could occur later, the actions they took seemed to have exactly the opposite of effect of that.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Absolutely, Archon. Yes. Here we are, teaching students about how to use democratic principles in action to, in fact, study the past, to make sense of the sacrifices people made. Hell, just to put the most obvious point on this, here we are, in Boston, the birthplace of civil disobedience, a place for which this nation’s storied history of delivering liberal democracy starts with revolt and starts with illegal acts against the British crown.

So, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t be the institutions that are preserving these histories that are supposed to help make the world a better place for all people, and then simultaneously, when your students take seriously walking in the footsteps of the legacy of those individuals, be they famous people or less famous people, to then just willy-nilly call the police on them.

And so, your point about backfiring, it makes perfect sense that not only did the initial call to dismantle the encampments, which almost seemed like a vindictive response, which led to a number of very peaceful students, about 100, arrested that day, who literally willingly gave themselves to officers. So much so that, as you know, Archon, you jump in here, officers said, “These guys were super-peaceful.”

Archon Fung:

Were super peaceful. And if you read the Columbia Spectator, which I’ve been reading religiously for the last few weeks, the student newspaper there, they should get a Pulitzer Prize, KWRCR, which is the Columbia student newspaper or student radio station. They’ve just been doing a fantastic job on this.

The Columbia Spectator account is that the students knew that they were going to be arrested. And they formed two rings. And the inner ring, I understand, was the more vulnerable students. And the outer ring was the ones that felt somewhat less vulnerable. And the arrests were, from these reports, incredibly the most peaceful kind of activity.

So, the police would tap a student on the shoulder, the student would stand up, they’d already decided to be arrested, and then they would be arrested. And so, if an arrest occurs, if there’s going to be a mass arrest, it seems like that’s the way to do it. Both sides understand exactly what’s going to go down. And so, you minimize… I’m not saying the arrests were justified-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Right.

Archon Fung:

… but once you’ve decided to arrest, and the student should certainly know that, and everybody should understand what they’re getting into, and how this whole thing is going to go down.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

So, let me just say something about this because I think it’s important to establish what happened that day because the timeline matters. And in this way, your point, your original question about to what extent calling the police on, I think, it was Wednesday, April 18th, it might have, Thursday, the 18th, I think, is the date, which is the day following the hearing. What we’ve seen in response to that was a massive uptick and what is fairly, I think, it’s fair to characterize as solidarity protests-

Archon Fung:

Absolutely.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… that many, many more encampments spread across the country.

Archon Fung:

That’s the part I didn’t see. I would expect students at Columbia seeing their peers being arrested and having a fairly strong response to that. What I didn’t see is that, a week later, it’d be 100 other campuses. So, what do you think about that?

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Well, that’s a good surprise. Well, let me put it in terms of how I remember it and how I felt at the moment. Having watched that hearing, it was so outrageous that members of Congress would not only call for a kind of law and order against faculty because much of the focus of this particular hearing was on faculty surveillance and punishment as compared to the December 5th hearing, which was very much about whether the presidents had made a forceful enough statement against the calls, controversial calls, that could be interpreted as-

Archon Fung:

And whether they were disciplining-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… against Israel.

Archon Fung:

… the students approach-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Correct.

Archon Fung:

… appropriately for…

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

That’s right. So, much more student-focused question. In this instance, members of Congress were not only laying out policies and procedures that would effectively hand over university governance to them under the terms of which they were insisting that Shafik respond.

One example I remember very vividly was a congressperson holding up a piece of paper, a stapled 20 pages, saying, “This orientation document was delivered to students at the school of social work. And there is anti-Semitic language in this document.” And Shafik saying, “Well, with all due respect, I’m not really responsible for every level of activity that happens across the university.”

And well, will you find out who’s responsible for this? Will you ensure that nothing like this ever happens? And she essentially consented. Another really significant flashpoint also included exposing the particulars of a professor on campus who, according to Congress, had been investigated to which we later learned had not even been informed of such an investigation for various, “anti-Semitic activism.”

Archon Fung:

And to reveal a personnel investigation on the floor of Congress-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Totally outrageous.

Archon Fung:

… is a-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

It means one thing.

Archon Fung:

… severe violation of-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

That’s right. So-

Archon Fung:

… confidentiality.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… we know, in this Congress, such rules of civic decorum don’t count as much as they used to, but that doesn’t mean that the people who have been asked to testify before Congress throw out their own policies and procedures. And the last thing I want to say, because I think, for me, watching that and her performance made student protests justifiable.

I have my opinion just like anyone else, plenty of people listening to this conversation can disagree, but as someone who cares deeply about the independence of higher education and the fact that I don’t want governors or federal congresspeople deciding what I teach or anybody else teaches on a campus or deciding what the appropriate punishment is for violations of administrative policy on a university campus, she gave away the entire farm.

She gave it all away. And the moment of which even the very principle of pluralism, the principle of an open society, the principle of a liberal democracy was on full view when Congressman Rick Allen from Georgia quotes Genesis 12:3, which goes something like, “Those who bless Israel shall be blessed. Those who curse Israel shall be cursed,” and then looks at President Shafik and says, “Do you want Colombia to be cursed by God?”

And she says, “No.” She never once offered a defense of pluralism that would also include the rejection of any religious notion guiding a secular institution such as Columbia University.

Archon Fung:

Right.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

And to me, students, thank God, did decide here, evoking a higher order, but did say, “This is not acceptable.” And therefore, the grounds upon which we saw an explosion of student encampments and student protests, which set upon months and months of concern about Gazans and Palestinians in the face of Israel’s war on Gaza, seemed to me to justify much of what students had been engaged in.

Archon Fung:

So, that’s super interesting. And she didn’t stand up and defend a very simple principle, which is separation of church and state in that instance, which one might think would be fairly important since it was a hearing in Congress. I think one of the being sympathetic to the criticisms of Claudine Gay and Liz Magill, and then later on, Shafik…

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

You’re being sympathetic to criticisms.

Archon Fung:

Yeah. For people watching the congressional hearings, I think most people do not work in universities. And so, they don’t really understand our culture and values. And so, if you’re working in a government agency or a private company or even most NGOs, and somebody fairly low on the chain, the equivalent of a student or a professor in the hierarchy, says something really outrageous on social media, and they still have a job, they’re still working there the next week, then everybody looking outside can infer, “Okay. Management must be okay with what they said because they didn’t get fired.”

But, of course, you and I understand, but maybe people who don’t work in universities, part of our job, it’s the opposite job. I feel like my whole job is to create space for students and colleagues to say things that I vehemently disagree with so that we can have a back and forth about that.

And it’s that, sometimes, different versions are academic freedom, which is not the same as freedom of speech, but they both go to the diversity of ideas and viewpoints that we are all about establishing and protecting.

And I feel like that part has been lost in this conversation, that my belief is that it goes all the way up, that the university president and the trustees of any place, their job is just like my job, to preserve maximum space for these views that other colleagues or students or certainly legislators might find very disturbing and objectionable.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Well, I agree with you in the sense that some of the sacrosanct notions of academic speech or academic freedom and freedom of speech have been lost, but I think they’ve only been lost because leadership across universities in this college have been lacking in defending those principles beyond their own navigating the very expansive weaponization of anti-Semitism to discredit student protesters to call for the firing of faculty.

In other words, I’m concerned that we are not hearing more from university leaders across the country in defense of academic freedom and free speech on campus precisely because of these fears, precisely because they’re watching heads fall in the case of Liz Magill and Claudine Gay, the threats of others, the performance of Shafik. And they’re just standing on the sidelines. And I know that I sent you an article in our own magazine, Harvard-

Archon Fung:

Yes.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… Magazine-

Archon Fung:

Right.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… called Raising Voices-

Archon Fung:

About Chris Eisgruber.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… which about Chris Eisgruber. And I don’t know. Share what you thought about it.

Archon Fung:

So, people should look at this. So, it’s an article in Harvard Magazine that Khalil shared with me, and then it links to President Chris Eisgruber’s annual state of the university letter, which I suppose he writes every year. I didn’t know that.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

It’s dated January 18th. So, this year.

Archon Fung:

And it is a very firm defense of university values and university practices in the face of these assaults coming from many, many different directions. And I thought it was a very fine statement. And I agree, Khalil, unusual in that we haven’t seen so many public statements like that. And you probably have a different view.

My view is that university leaders are trying to navigate these enormous cross currents that are pushing in very, very different ways from students, from protesters, from faculty, on many faculty, the communities themselves are divided, but then also a bunch of outsiders, politicians, advocates.

And I don’t know if it’s possible, but no one has displayed the… I think it would take an incredible capacity for statesmanship to be able to navigate those shoals, which I think is very difficult to navigate in this environment.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

I don’t disagree with the difficulty of it, Archon, but knowing that we’ve had conversations around democratic principles and values as a running conversation between us, it seems to me that if you’re in a lose-lose situation, that the only path forward is to hold true to your values. And in this case, they don’t have to speak as individuals. They can speak as institutions. And those values are quite clear. Now, on the same…

Archon Fung:

I think that’s why we took the jobs that we took actually.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

By the same token, let me clarify what I mean by those values quite clear. So, when there are powerful disagreements and even claims of policy differences that some people will perceive as not only offensive, morally abhorrent, or even outright immoral, that universities, for the most part, typically agree that those viewpoints still have a place in a university hierarchy… sorry, still have a place in a university setting except if they are directed towards individuals, if someone actually points to an individual who uses a slur or threatens violence or so. Now…

Archon Fung:

And those are the harassment policies that-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Correct.

Archon Fung:

… we have-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

That’s right.

Archon Fung:

… which everyone should have.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

And just to be clear-

Archon Fung:

Absolutely.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… in this conversation, these things have happened-

Archon Fung:

Yes.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… on this campus and have happened on other campuses-

Archon Fung:

Which is terrible.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… but in the main, much of what is animating student protest activity, questions about the failures of university leadership, and calls for policing on these various campuses are not about targeted language, are not about specific instances of physical violence, are mostly about students’ questioning foreign policy. Period.

And in that regard, to me, it is shameful and shocking that most university leadership have tried to keep their heads below the surface, have tried to stay out of the crosshairs of Congress, which is full of bad faith actors who could care less about truth and viewpoint diversity, in my opinion, and have shown themselves consistently to be for censorship, for book bans, for avoiding controversial subjects or even a full historical accounting of oppression in this very country.

So, I still think, coming back to Eisgruber, and I just want to want to point out a quote just from the piece. In his state of the union, he says, “We know that offensive and immoral speech, whether published in an article or chanted in a demonstration, can cause great pain. We protect it nonetheless.” And he gives two reasons. He says, “One view is that unpopular views may be,” as he says, “ultimately proven meritorious.”

And then he just walks through a number of advances in science that were once discredited and become foundational to how we understand how the world works. And then another is he says, “The mere fact that speech is offensive is never grounds for discipline at Princeton.”

He goes on to say, “We also recognize that speech can sometimes call real injury. Great universities do not trust any official. Their president included to decide which ideas, opinions, or slogans should be suppressed and which should not. Censorship has a lousy track record.”

And I’ll just say, when Claudine Gay was first responding to pro-Palestinian demonstrations on this campus within days of the October 7th attack by Hamas, in one of her communications, it was not the initial one, but maybe the second, third, or fourth, she essentially discouraged, if not subtly suggested, that using the phrase from the river to the sea-

Archon Fung:

I remember that.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… would be in violation of university policy. And I signed a letter among several faculty asking for further clarification because to the point of Eisgruber’s advice there, she had stepped into a moment where she was deciding very specific language that she felt was potentially subjected to disciplinary action here.

Now, just to come back to the big picture, we are now faced with a political crisis of higher education, of democracy at this campus, and hundreds of others, where, essentially, the most powerful political leaders in our country are telling us, not only is that statement anti-Semitic, not only should people be fired for that job, but that, ultimately, people are essentially terrorists and should be subject to state violence as a function of it, which is, in part, what we’re going to talk about when we try to understand what happened at Columbia University with NYPD’s response to the Hamilton Hall takeover or what we saw take place at UCLA with hundreds of arrests of students there.

Archon Fung:

Yes. And so, it’s interesting that many university communications are not focusing on from the river to the sea and those kinds of things. They’re taking a tact, which, I think, is a good one, that the regulations of speech should be content neutral.

So, it shouldn’t matter what the actual message is, but why we’re doing this is time, manner, and place concerns, and concerns that we would be no matter what the content is. Is this speech too disruptive? Are you able to teach a class? Are your students able to study? And one thing that…

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

And this is helpful because you’re walking through levels of protest activity-

Archon Fung:

Yes.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… that a university has to think about.

Archon Fung:

Of course.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

How intense is it? How problematic is it?

Archon Fung:

Yes.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Is safety a concern?

Archon Fung:

Exactly.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Is it not? Okay.

Archon Fung:

Exactly. And one thing that I’ve been struck by is there are almost two different realities that people are moving in. And this is overstating it, but if you read the Columbia Spectator and listened to the student reporting, a lot of it is, “Well, we’ve been at these protests. They’re encampments. People are, by and large, respectful. There’s even some seders going on. And people are experiencing Jewish culture in a different way. And they’re saying these messages.

And yes, some people are yelling things that get out of hand, but there’s just not that much of it. And there’s never really even any talk of graffiti or anything like that.” So, that’s narrative and reality one. And then narrative and reality two is more the grown-up reality. If you read the newspapers or listen to Joe Biden’s speech on March 3rd, then you think of these protests as filled with anti-Semitism.

People either Committing property violence or on the verge of violence. And free speech, of course, is okay, we love that, but this level of disturbance is intolerable. And so, it’s striking to me, people are looking at the very same reality, whether it’s Hamilton Hall or this half acre in the Columbia yard or in Harvard yard or in front of Kresge Circle at MIT or in UCLA, but they’re seeing radically different realities.

And so, it’s hard to move forward together to decide what we should do, whether the student should be disciplined, et cetera, if you’re operating in two different fact spheres. So, what do you think about the reality disconnect?

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

No, there’s totally a reality disconnect, but what is true is that the administrators, who should be ultimately responsible for the safety and well-being of their students, heck, can see with their own eyes what is exactly happening, which brings us back, at least brings me back, to Shafik’s decision to shut down the encampment essentially the day it went up by giving an order that, by the next day, it should come down, which led to the first police activity and which has now led to 25,000 arrests, in my opinion, because so many more students saw that as a violation on so many levels, but most assuredly, they saw it as a violation of people who were participating in the oldest traditions of standing up for the least of these.

And again, here, we’re talking about thousands of innocent Palestinian people who live in Gaza who were not directly responsible for the October 7th attacks. So, I want to answer your question by also pointing out that the notion of safety has become so detached from reality that even in the case of Columbia University’s encampment that led to Hamilton Hall, the only safety really was the broken windows and the strewn furniture that created a barrier. At the end of the day, the calling of NYPD, which amounted to essentially counterterrorism and militarized vehicles, flash grenades, and a siege of a building-

Archon Fung:

And a discharge firearm.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… and a discharge firearm, again, the safety in that instance, which actually included, let’s be crystal clear on this, Jewish students in the building.

Archon Fung:

Absolutely.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

So, in every instance where the claim of protecting Jews on campuses that leads to calls for policing puts Jewish students, who are participating in the protests, in harm’s way. To say nothing of the fact that claims of harmful or offensive speech fail to compare to actual state violence directed towards students who, in this case, in the case of Hamilton Hall in particular, amounted specifically to vandalism of a building.

Archon Fung:

But this… Not but. And this goes to the reality disconnect because Mayor Adams and President Shafik in part-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

New York City Mayor Eric Adams.

Archon Fung:

… New York City Mayor Eric Adams, justify the overwhelming and quite rapid police response on the ground that there were external agitators, and at least Mayor Adams said, “We can’t have these external agitators radicalizing our students.”

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Right.

Archon Fung:

And then I think the students and then the coverage from local student press later and national press doesn’t find much in terms of external agitators or much of an emergency. So, there, again, you have these two quite different realities and the reality that justifies the police response to Hamilton Hall.

The people, many faculty members, and certainly many students, just they’re living in a different reality. That’s not what they’re seeing. And a couple of real ironies on the overwhelming police response in Hamilton Hall. First is, Eric Adams has said this a number of times, the thing that he is really concerned about is the radicalization of our young people, which we can’t have.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Right.

Archon Fung:

I have the strong suspicion that that police action probably radicalized 200 students at Columbia University, just having gone through that, far beyond what the most clever organizer agitator could have done. And then the other on the flat-out goal of minimizing disturbance to important university activities, it’s the police response that created the greatest disturbance of all.

Columbia now has to cancel their commencement and hold sub-commencements in, I understand, four or five different locations. So, neither the goal, even if you thought that the goals of preventing radicalization and minimizing disturbance were the right goals, this doesn’t seem to be a set of strategies that accomplish those goals.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

I agree with that completely. Let’s just sit for a moment longer on Eric Adams’ role in this particular instance, which, I think, has rippled nationally. And that is that he’s essentially taking this as a 9/11 moment.

And by that, I mean, well, 9/11 wasn’t an overplay, but in this instance, overplaying the threat of the Hamilton Hall takeover, the outside agitator trope, as a narrative of radicalization, which leads, you don’t have to say it, but it’s right there, to terrorism.

And then this, essentially, call for an injunction, that any student on any campus, anywhere, with the notion that they might set up a tent, let’s be clear about this, that they might set up a tent on their campuses, will likely experience the full brunt of the New York Police Department. And now, it’s one thing to hear him say this in press conferences and in interviews.

It’s another thing to watch this propaganda video that was released by the NYPD, which has been highly stylized and starts with a command and control meeting, where you’ve got officers, or should I say senior officials sitting around in white shirts looking at the campus. I was drawn back to the moment when Osama bin Laden was killed by the U.S. military. And there’s that famous image of Obama and Biden watching-

Archon Fung:

Oh, in the situation room.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… in the situation room. And so, here they are, not just actually engaging in a kind of, “counterterrorism strike,” air quotes around it, but then making a video about it because they’re so proud of what they accomplished, and then saying, essentially as a warning, “Do not test us.” That’s outrageous. And it’s outrageous that at this point, Columbia University has not distanced itself from this.

Do they want, essentially, to scare their students in such a way that future students will never even think twice about any form of civil disobedience because no university should ever want any student at any time in the future to engage in an act of civil disobedience? Is that Columbia University’s brand? That’s what it’s going to be known for in the 21st century because that’s what it looks like.

And just one last point on this, we are not talking about the trauma, not just to the students who were arrested, but to the students who were there who were not arrested. And there are reported injuries of people who were not arrested. And I’ll just say as a side note, a friend of mine’s daughter goes to Emerson, 108 students arrested there last week. She got a concussion. She wasn’t arrested, but she was thrown aside-

Archon Fung:

Onto the sidewalk.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… onto the sidewalk and in a trapped area that students couldn’t escape once the police showed up. And then, of course, all the hundreds of other students watching in horror that their university would be complicit, and this kind of response to what is, at the end of the day, a bunch of students trying to make sense of an unjust war, my opinion, occurring in the Middle East.

Archon Fung:

So, I hadn’t thought about the situation room image, which is very, very striking. I ended up in the same place. My mind works in weird ways. So, what I thought of was when terrorists took over the embassy in London, the Iranian Embassy in London, Margaret Thatcher was in charge. And there was a special air service commando raid to take back that embassy. And it’s a commando raid, so the first thing that they wanted to do was back the news cameras off.

And reportedly, Thatcher said, “No. I want the cameras there because I want everyone to know what happens when you mess with England.” And so, it was a demonstration of overwhelming force. I just don’t think a university and a city police department should be treating students that way. We should have a different relationship if we believe that we’re in an inclusive learning community rather than a struggle against international terrorism.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Yeah, no, we agree. So, let’s talk a little bit about what happened at UCLA because this is, in some ways, even more revealing of the way in which law and order rhetorics and safety are not just deeply problematic, violent, in and of themselves, but also show a disproportionate response to so-called safety in this instance.

Archon Fung:

So, I don’t know how many people have looked at this, but the New York Times did a fantastic piece on the UCLA protest and counterprotest incident that happened last week. And they pieced together all of the videos. And the amazing thing about it is that the initial violence on this account was definitely started by the counterprotesters’ side.

And in the Times article, they say, “We cannot find any piece of video which shows the actual protesters initiating any sort of violent response.” So, the protesters, the anti-war in Gaza protesters, are just getting beaten on. And many of them have to be hurt for, I don’t know, a couple of hours.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Right. So, projectiles are being thrown at them.

Archon Fung:

And then-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Fireworks-

Archon Fung:

… fireworks.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… are being pointed in their direction.

Archon Fung:

Yeah. So, I grew up in Oklahoma, and we lit off a bunch of fireworks. And so, some of these fireworks have a fair amount of power. The ones that we really liked were an eighth of a stick of dynamite, right?

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Right.

Archon Fung:

And if somebody threw something like that at me, I think it would require a great deal of discipline for me not to respond kinetically.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Sure.

Archon Fung:

And so, that’s…

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

And they charged. They had a makeshift barricade, a plywood, to shield themselves. And people were charging into that. And I think it’s important, just for clarification, you’ve already named the protesters, but many of those on the other side identified as pro-Israeli-

Archon Fung:

Definitely.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… demonstrators-

Archon Fung:

Definitely.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… and certainly identified in the news as such.

Archon Fung:

Definitely. And then the police response. So, my own view is the police definitely should have intervened because a lot of people were getting hurt. It was a melee. The trouble with the actual police response is twofold. One, they didn’t intervene when they should have, but they did intervene much later when the protesters had left, and there was no more present threat at the encampment. And then…

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Let’s just name that because you’re saying it, but I don’t know that it’s clear if you haven’t seen this. So, in the hours before the police intervene, counterdemonstrators, many of whom identify as pro-Israeli, and identified as such in the news, are assaulting-

Archon Fung:

Yes.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… peaceful protesters in an encampment. Now, the controversies here, of course, we collectively, members of our Congress, have tried to strip those protesters of their peacefulness because their so-called language has been considered harmful, and therefore they’re not peaceful. Let’s just unpack that. But I reject that point of view. So, these peaceful protesters finding an appropriate outlet to express their dismay with what they call the university’s-

Archon Fung:

Which is pitching tents-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Right.

Archon Fung:

… and making signs.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… right, complicity with what they call, in many cases, a genocide and an unlawful occupation in Gaza are then attacked by…

Archon Fung:

With projectiles-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… with…

Archon Fung:

… and explosives.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Correct. The police show up and don’t do anything.

Archon Fung:

We weren’t there. It may well be that they felt that they didn’t have sufficient force to muster, but be it as it may, they did not intervene.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

They did not intervene.

Archon Fung:

But then they…

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

When they finally do, so they break up the attack and the response to the attack. And when the dust settles, the folks initiating the physical violence, which put people in physical’s harm’s way, are not arrested,

Archon Fung:

They’re gone. They’re dispersed.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

They’ve gone. And the encampment, the peaceful encampment-

Archon Fung:

Correct.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… then leads to

Archon Fung:

200-plus-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… 200 arrests.

Archon Fung:

… arrests. Right. So, the police acted at the wrong time and, in my view, arrested the wrong people. So, two strikes right there. To me, one of the disturbing things about… the incident, all by itself, is incredibly disturbing, but the ramification strategically is even more so. So, if I were of a mindset that I really wanted these Palestinian, anti-Gaza war demonstrations and encampments to go away, what I would do is recreate the UCLA scene.

And you could have a relatively small number of counterprotesters initiate violence on an encampment that, let’s just say, a peaceful encampment. And then the subsequent lesson is that authorities trying to create peace get leveraged by these counterprotesters because they think, I think, reasonably, in a way, “Oh, we cannot possibly keep this safe 24/7 because there’s going to be these melees. So, we’ll take down the encampments.”

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Right.

Archon Fung:

So, it…

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

That rises to the level of imminent harm. We heard…

Archon Fung:

And it is imminent harm.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

It is imminent harm.

Archon Fung:

It is imminent harm.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Just to circle back to December 5th, we heard that Penn, MIT, and Harvard already had policies in place to interrupt speech, in this case, a peaceful protest, when, in fact, it would lead inevitably or create the conditions for imminent harm.

Archon Fung:

Yes.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

That’s your point.

Archon Fung:

That’s my point. But it makes sense. If I were a school administrator, I would probably act the same way because I can’t have students or anybody else getting hurt, but that logic creates an enormous amount of leverage for a counterprotester who’s willing to use some violence because, by counterprotesting and using a little bit of violence, you can leverage this imperative-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Right.

Archon Fung:

… of authorities-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

That’s right.

Archon Fung:

… to keep this area safe.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

And we don’t know now, and we potentially will never know, whether or not that was the actual intent behind-

Archon Fung:

Who knows?

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… those counterprotests. What we do know is that something called swatting is a form of harassment that can lead to physical trauma and, in some cases, violence by the state. And swatting is essentially when someone, who often has an agenda, means to do harm to another person, instead of doing it themselves, they call in a bomb threat or some other imminent allegation of violence. And the-

Archon Fung:

That’s true. So, similar dynamic.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… SWAT team shows up-

Archon Fung:

Right.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… to put down whatever they’ve been told is about to happen. And instead, an innocent person is now looking down the barrel of weapons and what is happening here and experiences a tremendous amount of trauma, which is that is the whole point of swatting in that instance.

Archon Fung:

Oh, that’s a good… Right. I hadn’t made that connection before, but similarly, it’s a bad actor leveraging-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Correct.

Archon Fung:

… state power, which ought to be deployed in good ways to do a fair amount of harm.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

And so, let’s talk about bad actors leveraging state power. Really well put. So, we haven’t mentioned that before the Hamilton Hall takeover, and then the heavy-handed police response, members of Congress hold an impromptu press rally on the campus of Columbia University, which includes the current speaker of the House, the third most powerful elected official in the United States of America, along with Virginia Foxx, who is the sitting Congress chairperson for the Committee on Education and Workforce, which has held this series of hearings that we’ve been talking about.

And in his remarks, at the time, there were pro-Palestinian demonstrations taking place. And Mike Johnson essentially threatens to call in the National Guard on that campus. Now, because we…

Archon Fung:

Because that always ends so well.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Exactly. And because we live in the wake of what happened in 1970 at Kent State University, or the terrible display of state violence that took place at the Democratic National Convention 1968. And again, make no mistake about it, there are some Americans, even to this day, who think that those anti-war protesters got what they deserve, that they were taking over Chicago, and daily did the right thing.

And while I would imagine many people won’t publicly say that what happened on Kent State was the student’s fault, how they shouldn’t have been doing what they were doing, the weaponization of the capacity of the state to put down any kind of, “unlawful activity,” or any form of dissent that the state determines is terroristic or poses a national security threat.

That’s where we are, Archon. We are at DEFCON 5 when it comes to the willingness of some public officials in this country right now to say that, we will deploy the most extreme forms of law enforcement in this country in order to put down which, again, amount to forms of civil disobedience, which mostly amount to peaceful protests on college campuses.

 

Episode 2 Transcript

Archon Fung:

I want to make a small point, and then go to a bigger one in response. And you probably will say I’m naive. And you’ll be quite right about that. So, one of the things I’ve been thinking about-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

I really admire self-referential, I have to tell you. It’s very endearing, Archon.

Archon Fung:

… oh, I’ve been thinking about the willingness of, and if you look at these survey responses, both people on the left and people on the right to their tolerance for political violence to achieve their ends. And I see that as part of the polarization of society, but what I didn’t anticipate in this round is the tolerance of many, many people for the really tough policing on campuses.

And I see that as almost of a piece as society is getting more coarse. And whatever your point of view, you’re more willing to endorse or support coercion in order to accomplish those ends. And Khalil, at the Ash Center, we have a number of faculty.

And a couple of weeks ago, we did an active threat training. We installed panic buttons for some faculty who have received direct threats. And I’ve been working in a university 20 years. And I never thought we’d… Nothing like that ever occurred to me, but yet, here we are. And now, I wanted to return to the… There’s…

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Can you hold that train of thought?

Archon Fung:

Oh, yeah.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Because I do want to respond to this.

Archon Fung:

Please.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

I won’t call it naivete, but I will say that, as someone who has not only my ancestry ties me back to people whose very existence in this country was framed as property and dehumanization. And no one listening to this conversation needs to be walked through the history of 400 years.

But I just want to own that it’s not just my own scholarly perspective here, but my own lived and personal experience that, in this country, a majority of Americans have consistently made peace with the weaponization of the law to subvert my humanity or my rights or my ability to speak freely when others had those rights.

And again, I think it’s just important to remind people that the Republican presidential nominee has promised to pardon all of the insurrectionists who participated on January 6th, that the Republican Party that, at this point, effectively controls the Supreme Court.

And I know that’s controversial, as a matter of fact, but based on Supreme Court appointments under Trump, as well as the lower house or lower Congress, has itself essentially said that this didn’t happen in the way that some of those same Republican members said it happened on January 7th.

Archon Fung:

This is a version of the two facticities problem.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Yeah, but I personally reject two realities and two facticities. I will accept different perspectives, but on certain facts, what happened on January 6th was an absolute violation of the law, a violation of norms, and amounted to an insurrection based on President Trump’s own rhetoric and calls for people to stop Mike Pence from certifying the election.

And so, there is no moral authority coming from that community when it comes to policing student protesters and upholding some notion of democratic values. It just simply doesn’t hold water. And I just want to add to this mix before we move on from Columbia’s NYPD response to the UCLA police response and to what some people may have seen over the weekend at the University of Mississippi-

Archon Fung:

I did see that.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… which brings us full circle to my history, to my people, who are from Mississippi. And here is a university…

Archon Fung:

It was pretty hard to watch that video.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Oh, my gosh. It’s unbelievable, but what is not unbelievable… It is unbelievable. Let me own that. It is unbelievable to watch the faces of a huge number of counterdemonstrators, overwhelmingly White men, White young men in particular, who were heckling a single Black woman, who had, it seemed from the angle of the footage, crossed a barrier where she was supposed to be on one side-

Archon Fung:

Oh, I didn’t notice that.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… the other demonstrator. It’s not clear from the video coverage, but one assumes that she wasn’t out there completely by herself, but that she had stepped forward from behind a barrier. And you have a marshal, a White man who likely works for the university, who is trying to keep her from moving any further.

And what I saw, Archon, what I saw in the faces of those young men, was the generational transfer of the same commitment to owning this country and all the ways in which White men have historically owned it, whose roots, their own roots, just like I own mine, are deeply steeped in White supremacist ideas in this country, in a state that I believe still contains the Confederate flag in its state emblem.

And if I got that wrong, sorry, folks, I got one thing wrong, but if they got rid of it, it was only a couple of years ago, in a state where the Emmett Till Monument is regularly shot with bullet holes and is bullet written. And I could go on with the state of Mississippi, but here is the news story from this weekend.

When that Black woman positioned herself closer to this, I call, mob of counter-demonstrators yelling White supremacist things and mocking her as a monkey, which was verified by numerous news reports, and saying other things that weren’t a fit to be reported in the news, the governor of Mississippi, Tate Reeves, tweeted back a video where he showed highlights of it, of the counter-demonstrators, with The Star-Spangled Banner played on top of it, along with a Mississippi congressperson, whose name forgotten, basically saying, “This is the appropriate response to these people. This is America standing up.”

So, when we talk about competing realities, we talk about the fair and balance of different viewpoints. It is not a fair fight. And what I mean by that is the weight of the state from Congress to governors to New York City’s finest and its officials, we are still seeing the historical weight of oppression in the United States against people who had to fight for their very existence, let alone the fight for literacy and the fight for representation in this country.

And to come back full circle to a point you made, the surprise of this moment is not this overreaction. The surprise of this moment is that the backlash against Black Lives Matter movement that was embodied in Trumpism has metastasized out of Trumpism into much of America. We often criticized, I should speak for people with bi-political sympathies, all lives matter. I still see such signs in places. They’re not as frequent as they once were.

No one ever called for a definition in Congress for all lives matter as a form of racism, anti-Black racism, as is now the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act is calling for. We can talk about that, too. But my point being that our surprise maybe is that in the wake of George Floyd, there’s not just been retrenchment, but there’s been an embrace and even wider embrace of a law and order ethos.

Now, you mentioned this partisan polling or polling showing that more people would be willing to see the use of violence in support of their views. And that, I’m not questioning what people said to a poll, but in fact, and in reality, what we see consistently is that people who are either moderate and in the center or to the right are completely okay with and indeed are calling for increasing uses of law and order in this moment of political partisanship.

Archon Fung:

So, that’s super interesting. And I certainly agree with the asymmetry of who’s actually committing violence from civil society sources or whatever. But one thing that’s a little surprising is that it’s not the right that’s deploying state force in the campus protests. It is probably left of center administrations. And even it seems like the Democratic-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

That was the point I was making.

Archon Fung:

… delegation of Congress.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

When I say metastasized-

Archon Fung:

Oh, to beyond.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… right-

Archon Fung:

I see.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… I was saying-

Archon Fung:

Yes.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… it has spread outward.

Archon Fung:

Yes. Well, then I completely agree. I wanted to bring the Mississippi case, not to talk about that, but to expand the problem of outside actors. So, if the universities were islands with nobody outside of them, and all we were talking about was whether it’s Israel’s right to self-defense or 30,000 people getting killed in Gaza that is on the side of justice, that itself would be an incredibly difficult conversation-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Yes.

Archon Fung:

… just among us, students, faculties, et cetera, very, very difficult. What makes it nearly an impossible conversation to have on campus is that there are many outside actors who have an interest in making it a more difficult conversation, and some of whom have an interest in the conversation failing altogether.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Right.

Archon Fung:

And so, these are, I think, a number of politicians on the Republican side, but maybe also on the Democratic side. I haven’t really figured out the politics there yet. It’s advocates on different sides. And then interestingly, to me, it’s also I put a little bit of the blame on national journalists, who have… I think, in my view, many of these stories are getting it wrong because of journalistic practices. A couple of them.

One is the sourcing practices. You interview Mayor Adams and President Shafik first, not the student in the Coleman tent. And so, you get different sides of the story there. And then the other is just in order to construct a compelling story for national audiences, it has to be a story of conflict.

It has to be free speech versus anti-Semitism or free speech versus disorder, even if that’s not actually what’s happening. And so, part of what I think one of the real problems for us on campuses is that it’s nearly intractable, even if there was nobody outside, but there’s a lot of people outside who are making it a whole hell of a lot harder.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

One of the most memorable moments on the point of a lot of people outside making it a whole hell of a lot harder was watching Benjamin Netanyahu on Meet the Press. I don’t have the date at the ready, but it was likely before the December 5th hearing.

And I remember it because in hindsight, it just feels so much more meaningful, but he basically said that one of the biggest problems we, as a country, face on Israel is what is happening on university campuses today.

I know there are a lot of people who identify as Jews, some of whom also are completely supportive of Israel’s ongoing military response to the October 7th attacks, and then there are those on the other side, but in both cases, a lot of criticisms of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud party, and what people will call his right-wing authoritarian tendencies.

That being said, I think, again, what has been most remarkable is the degree to which the politics, domestically, which were long attacking social justice as an anti-American project in education more generally, starting in K-12, starting with anti-CRT bans leading to an anti-DEA war that started in Florida and Texas before. We had the congressional hearing that essentially said DEI was a direct contributor to anti-Semitism. And I mentioned this, Archon, because I want to put those two things together.

Archon Fung:

Yes.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

There was already a war on education, a war on true, what I would call, the growing threat of fascism and a threat to democracy more general, where simple facts are discarded for propaganda for the purposes of power and accumulation of that power, of which Netanyahu interestingly represents that in another context.

And then adding to the October 7th attacks, what we’ve seen is a full-blown weaponization of anti-Semitism, which is now circled back, it is boomeranged time and time again, to essentially attack anyone who is committed to a more redistributive fair, more egalitarian United States of America. Period.

Archon Fung:

So…

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

In which case, this explains what you were just talking about-

Archon Fung:

Yes.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… how campuses could then become the center of an international and domestic crisis.

Archon Fung:

Absolutely. I know you have very good reasons not to share such sympathies, but I want to share some sympathies with the Virginia Foxx position, which is part of this is of our own doing as self-selecting faculties and student bodies, especially selective colleges and universities, have become less politically representative, less of a draw geographically and ideologically of the country as a whole. We also occupy part of the partisan space in the United States.

And so, you can see this in opinion polls. If you look at Democrats, two-thirds of them think colleges and universities are a good thing for the country’s future. If you look at Republicans, it’s flipped. Two-thirds think colleges and universities are not a good thing for the country.

And so, I think this is a deep structural problem. And I do absolutely think it’s a problem. I don’t want to work in a university that is 40% of America or half of America. I feel like it needs to be much more inclusive.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

We definitely part ways on that or not.

Archon Fung:

And that’s good.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

And partly because, I use this example a lot, but I think we have to come to terms with it. I haven’t looked at the data you’re describing, but I guess if I have this wrong, or at least the speculation is way off, then correct me, but I’m sure there is a partisan disparity between people on this campus who believe in man-made climate change versus general polling data of people who identify as Republican Party members.

And I would not want to try to solve for more inclusiveness simply because somehow, we have to pretend like climate change isn’t an existential threat to the future of the world because some people are in belief systems or are in political echo chambers, and that inclusiveness means somehow accommodating views that are just flat-out wrong.

Archon Fung:

I don’t favor sacrificing on truth. I would like to find-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

But I think that’s-

Archon Fung:

… some way to be more inclusive.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… what this has-

Archon Fung:

In the short term-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… come down to.

Archon Fung:

… it may well.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

And to just offer a slightly more substantial rebuttal. It is a fact that part of the culture wars that people often refer to when we talk about how people feel on various campuses, which has been subject mostly to how Black and Brown students have been feeling and their discomfort with certain controversial speakers on campus leading to cancel culture, which now, of course, has been turned on its head because much of the infrastructure of the backlash to universities is about putting in place greater forms of censorship, bottom line, to be able to cancel faculty who don’t toe the line on Israel, you name it.

Archon Fung:

How do these conflicts on campuses work themselves out? And one pathway forward is the Columbia pathway. We see that somewhat on USC and UCLA and Emory University and University of Virginia, where it is a police-heavy solution. That’s how the tents go away. And then we don’t know what the other shoe is or if there will be one, but that’s one pathway forward.

The other and other, there may be three and four, but and other pathway forward that just appeared in the last couple of weeks is what Northwestern University and Rutgers and Brown University, and, I believe, UC Irvine or Riverside, I’m sorry, I forget the fourth one, but those administrations have managed to negotiate agreements with students who want different things.

I think most of those agreements involve some transparency of university investments. And then most of them involve some opportunity for the students to present their case to some decision maker, an investment committee and advisory board, in some cases, high university leaders. What do you think about those two pathways forward? Which one’s more likely? Do you accept any of the objections to the negotiated pathways?

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

No. I guess there’s no shortage of surprise in this moment, but the Northwestern case, I’ll speak to in particular, because my daughter was part of a steering committee that helped to advance the students’ demands with the university. And having spoken to her directly about what that process was like, she emphasized two, I think, important models. One, an administration that was willing to take seriously students’ concerns to treat them.

Archon Fung:

So, she felt that the university side was acting in good faith more or less.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Absolutely. And two, a sophisticated appreciation from her perspective and other students that you don’t get everything you want in these negotiations.

Archon Fung:

Many questions.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

And so, the need for being prepared to settle on, say, transparency versus outright divestment would be one good example. And I think I can’t speak for the particular personalities of who were at the negotiating table, but here, at the Kennedy School, we know full well that personalities matter, right?

Archon Fung:

Yes.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

We’re constantly teaching our students-

Archon Fung:

And-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… to solve personalities.

Archon Fung:

… in a negotiation, you never get the whole pie.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

You never get the whole pie.

Archon Fung:

I think we know that.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Right. So, I would say that that is the appropriate response. It validates a fundamental principle at work here. People are dying in the world who had nothing to do with what happened on October 7th.

And while there are people in Israel who feel differently, you cannot tell me, you cannot tell my daughter, and you certainly can’t tell many of the students, who have spoken publicly in the news to describe their points of view, that infant children in the NICU, who will no longer get the care they need because a hospital was destroyed under the allegation and/or fact that Hamas were using the hospital for tunnels, or that any number of five-year-olds or ten-year-olds to fifteen-year-olds have become amputees or who have died premature deaths because of this war, either because of bomb or because of famine, that any of that is okay in the name of justifying the response to Hamas’s attack.

So, if that is the fundamental premise for what led students to build encampments and to take to other forms of protest on these campuses, then I certainly know that I would want to have a conversation with those students to think about what role do we really have in this moment as an institution. And certainly, we know that our market participation, sometimes very minuscule and symbolic, is one way in which we are all connected.

Archon Fung:

Yeah, absolutely. I think one thing that’s been lost a little bit in the conversation, not our conversation, but in the bigger conversation, is that a lot of the frame is about free speech and maybe the right to peaceful protest, which is centered on me respecting your right to say things, which you certainly have. That’s one of the great things about America is we have that.

But I think what it falls short on is the idea that maybe we can learn things from each other if we listen hard. And to me, that’s why I think a much more accurate and appropriate frame is civil disobedience, which hasn’t been talked about as much as protest and free speech, but, of course, what we’re seeing, they’re pitching a tent where the rules say, “Don’t pitch a tent.”

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Right.

Archon Fung:

That’s civil disobedience.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

That’s right.

Archon Fung:

And from Dr. King, to Jack Rawls, to Ronald Dworkin, the logic of civil disobedience is that you, or I, or your daughter, or these students in Harvard Yard feel like there’s a great injustice going on. As you say, it’s these innocents getting killed in Gaza for a war that they didn’t start in very large numbers. And so, that’s number one. They feel like there’s a great injustice going on.

And number two, they feel like the normal channels, the normal democratic channels, of voice to articulate that injustice are blocked up. And that’s why they have to break the rules, but at least in Dr. King’s logic and these other thinkers, the point is to extend the democratic conversation through channels that are illegal. And my view is when people cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

The Selma March, yes-

Archon Fung:

… the Selma March-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… in 1965.

Archon Fung:

… the target wasn’t primarily… they didn’t think they were going to change the minds of too many White segregationists, but maybe some minds of White liberals in the North who, up to that point, had been pretty okay with segregation in the South, maybe they would see what’s going on and change their mind. So, it’s a way to extend the conversation, but that requires that all of us listen pretty hard to what these students are saying.

And the thing about civil disobedience is, if you look at a bunch of the cases, it turns out, I think, in the light of history, they had it more right than wrong in many of these cases, but in the moment, you don’t really know who’s right, or at least I don’t. I exercise a great deal of humility. It might be the democratic system that’s decided that we’re going this way that’s right, or it might be the protesters that are right. You can’t tell in the moment.

But the only way to figure it out, I feel, is to not just allow speech and protest, but to really try to listen hard to what the protesters are saying so that you can try to come to a better answer, which, to come full circle, that’s why I am, right now, in favor of the more negotiated path out because at least it extends the conversation and allows everybody to listen a little bit harder.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

So, listen, I think to close the massive act of civil disobedience on January 6th has led to a partisan divide as to whether or not it was legitimate or not. The-

Archon Fung:

That’s a good point.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… blood of liberty needs to be shed every now and then is a paraphrase, one of the rallying cries for that call. And we have a man who led that insurrection, who may win the presidency again-

Archon Fung:

Yes.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… even if he’s in a jail cell. So, we have to keep in mind that civil disobedience, in the moment, even if I take, at face value, that we can’t always know where history is going to judge.

Archon Fung:

Where history will… how they’ll judge us.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Although in a lot of cases that we are concerned about in terms of the expansion of democracy, generally, people who have fought for that and engaged in forms of civil disobedience have been on the right side of the issue. But even if we take that issue at face value, what we are seeing is an abuse of the discretion to acknowledge the traditions of civil disobedience in one instance versus in another.

And while the Republican Party clearly is essentially equating today’s form of campus civil disobedience as akin to a kind of domestic terrorism and calls for a greater national security in response to it, of which Eric Adams is now in league with that as a matter of a local response to a national, so-called, problem, the reverse is simply not true, meaning that we don’t have a Democratic Party that is trying to hold on to the tradition of civil disobedience.

And the reason why I think this is an important point to finish on here is because we really are not seeing a counterbalancing of the very argument that you just made rooted in our own histories from Vietnam to the Civil Rights Movement to the apartheid movement. We are seeing it among talking heads or hearing it among talking heads like ourselves. But there is not a Democratic Party establishment leader. And Biden just gave a very robust-

Archon Fung:

Argument against it.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… argument against it in his defense of the right for Jews to feel safe here and in Israel. And so, again, I come back to the imbalance of power around this issue. There is something specific about Israel in our political landscape that has made this largely a bipartisan issue of which students are in the crosshairs of two parties competing for the 2024 race. And we have heard from the Republican Party very clearly what their agenda is.

The Democratic Party has either been silent, except for maybe Bernie Sanders to some degree, and a small number of senators, but the House overwhelmingly passed this Anti-Semitic Awareness Act, which enshrines definitions of antisemitism, which, in capture, critiques of Israel, that will essentially create a legal basis for claims of discrimination in higher education that will destroy, to some, degree viewpoint diversity and-

Archon Fung:

On that issue-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

… [inaudible 01:12:50] on that issue alone.

Archon Fung:

… I know a lot of colleagues who are quite worried about that.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

And so, I think we are facing a significant challenge that is catalyzed by our presidential race, which makes it less and less likely that we will see the negotiated settlement option be the favorite choice of a lot of administrators who will continue to feel political pressure if you’re in a public university from red state legislators, and if you’re in a private university from high-net-worth individuals who are alumni and who are donors.

Archon Fung:

And so, that’s the outside actors making the success of the very difficult conversation much more difficult here. But I want to end on the point you began. We are in these universities. So, if the politics make it impossible to square these various circles, then you should act to defend the university’s values.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

That’s right.

Archon Fung:

And that’s, I think, where both of us are. So-

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Yes.

Archon Fung:

… as always, it’s just amazing to be able to talk to you. I always learn an enormous amount. I’m always surprised. So, thank you very much, Khalil.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

And if Congress calls for us to be fired, then we can start our own university somewhere else.

Archon Fung:

At least we’ll be able to say we stood on university values.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

That’s right. All right, Archon. This was a good conversation. Thanks.

Archon Fung:

Okay. Thank you very much.

 

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