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No time for a full treatment of this right now, but can I just point out something?

There wasn’t a Superbowl riot at U Mass last night.

The AP story on last night’s events on campus says there were no hospitalizations, and no property damage. A university spokesperson says there were a few fistfights, but all thirteen of the student arrests were for either disorderly conduct or failure to disperse.

Why the “failure to disperse” arrests? Because fifteen minutes after students gathered in a main residential quad on campus, police told them to go home. They used horses, dogs, and smokebombs, cops to clear the area, and busted folks who wouldn’t leave. From everything I’ve seen the big drama all came from the cops.

Which is part of why I was a bit disappointed to see supporters of the Occupy movement snarking the U Mass students. No, their Superbowl party wasn’t a political act, but since when do any of us only like political parties? Occupy is about (among many other things) reclaiming public spaces, opposing police harassment, and creating community. Isn’t a mass campus gathering like the one that took place last night presumptively a good thing? Isn’t it a good thing even if we call it a riot?

A couple of years ago, Malcolm Harris — then a campus radical at UMD-College Park, now a writer and Occupy activist in New York — was present at a similar “riot” after Maryland’s basketball team beat Duke. His take on that night is well worth remembering now:

I know as an activist I’m supposed to oppose sports riots. I’m supposed to complain that students are willing to take to the streets when the Terrapin mens’ basketball team wins but not when tuition increases or black enrollment drops. Sadly, I can’t play the alienated radical role today because I was there Wednesday night, and I saw more than drunk revelers.

When students took to Route 1 after a hard-fought victory over Duke, it was with joy and celebration. We chanted “Maaarylaaaand,” and we didn’t mean the buildings or the endowment or the logo. We meant one another.

Student activism (as I wrote then) has always straddled the line between politics and play, between organizing for social change and acting up for the hell of it. Either impulse can be creative or destructive, either can be deployed for positive or negative ends, but both impulses are inherent to student identity, and both are worth celebrating.

Go Terps.

Update | Aaron Bady passes along a fascinating piece on the role of Egyptian soccer fans in that country’s popular uprising. Here’s a taste:

I believe we are witnessing a natural development in an inevitable conflict between two parties that have found themselves following two different paradigms of life: the paradigm of the depression, control, and normalization of apathy versus the paradigm of joyful liberation from the shackles of social and institutional norms to create gratifying chaos.

The latter is what I call “the politics of fun”.

And another:

The key to understanding the Ultras phenomenon is to imagine it as a way of life for these youth. For them, becoming a football fan became a symbolic action that was both joyful and a means of self-expression. But the broader social, psychological, and cultural contexts were unable to adapt to the groups’ activities, in part by virtue of their rebellious nature and their defiance of norms.

Go read.

The New Yorker has published a major new article by Ian Parker on the September 2010 death of Rutgers first-year Tyler Clementi. Clementi, targeted by his roommate in a campaign of webcam spying and harassment, killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, will face trial next month on a long list of charges arising from the incident.

The article provides the fullest and clearest account to date of the circumstances that led to Clementi’s suicide, and it’s well worth reading. But it bungles some important elements of the story, and bungles them in ways that serve to obscure important questions.

Here’s a crucial passage debunking the received wisdom about the incident:

“It became widely understood that a closeted student at Rutgers had committed suicide after video of him having sex with a man was secretly shot and posted online. In fact, there was no posting, no observed sex, and no closet.”

Well, sort of.

I wrote about the Clementi suicide on the day it broke, and on a number of occasions afterward, and I don’t particularly recognize this “widely understood” narrative. In fact, each of the three supposed debunkings muddies the waters on complex issues.

First there is the question of whether Clementi was “closeted.” Clearly he was openly gay in some circles. But as Parker himself reports, he had come out to his parents less than a month before he died, just three days before he started school at Rutgers. He had not been out in high school, and Ravi only learned he was gay by uncovering anonymous message board posts associated with Clementi’s email address. “Out” is not a binary concept, and it’s not at all unreasonable to describe Davi’s actions — telling his friends Clementi was gay and posting the news on a public Twitter account — as “outing.”

Second, there’s the question of whether Ravi saw Clementi having sex while he was spying via webcam. Ravi says he didn’t, and there’s no evidence to refute his claim. At the time Ravi boasted on Twitter of having seen Clementi “making out,” and from Parker’s account that does seem like the most accurate description. But to say there was “no observed sex” remains problematic. Setting aside the possibility that Ravi saw more than he claims, the fact is he attempted to spy on Clementi having sex and tweeted that he had caught him in the act.

Immediately after the first incident, Ravi’s friend Molly Wei, who had spied on Clementi with him, IM’ed a friend “OH MY FKING GOD … he’s kissing a guy right now … like THEY WERE GROPING EACH OTHER EWW.” Given that context, the question of how much skin the two saw, and in what exact configuration, seems somewhat beside the point.

Finally, there is the issue of whether the video was “posted online.” Here Parker is on stronger ground, as initial reporting did suggest that the webcam footage was broadcast, when in fact it was not. On the one occasion in which Ravi was successful in spying on Clementi, the stream only went as far as Wei’s dorm room, and was neither distributed nor archived.

But — again, as Parker himself reports — when Clementi asked for the dorm room again days later, Ravi announced on Twitter that he would share the stream with “anyone with iChat” who was reading his feed. Ravi described the event as “a viewing party,” and solicited friends to watch both in person and online. It’s only because Clementi was surreptitiously monitoring Ravi’s Twitter account that he knew to turn off Ravi’s computer before anything could be broadcast that night.

So no, Ravi didn’t share the stream. But he did try to, and he tried to share it widely.

Parker isn’t wrong about any of these things, not exactly. But in each case his rush to correct the record winds up understating Ravi’s bad acts. Even if Clementi wasn’t “closeted,” Ravi still outed him inappropriately, multiple times. Even if Ravi didn’t spy on Clementi having sex, he still violated his privacy by snooping on intimate sexual acts. And if he didn’t broadcast those acts to a wide audience, it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

And Parker’s habit of obscuring through nitpicking extends to the more basic issue of what the hell Ravi was up to in the first place. Parker returns again and again to the question of whether Ravi’s act rises to the level of the bias crime of anti-gay intimidation with which he has been charged, at one point suggesting that the charge represents an “attempt to criminalize teen-age odiousness by using statutes aimed at people more easily recognizable as hate-mongers and perverts.”

But this is a false dichotomy, and a bizarre one. There is no question as to whether Ravi was anti-gay — he expressed his revulsion at Clementi’s orientation repeatedly and gleefully. That this wasn’t the vicious bigotry of the “hate-monger” is hardly a defense of his actions.

What’s obvious from Parker’s reporting, but which seems to have escaped Parker himself, is the particular kind of asshole Ravi is. No, he’s not a hate-fueled homophobe. He’s not a basher or a zealot. He’s just a garden-variety douchebag. He’s the kind of guy who, on learning that his assigned college roommate is gay, posts about it on Twitter along with a link to that roommate’s postings on a gay message board. He’s the kind of guy who tries to trick his friends into installing monitoring software so he can turn their bedroom computers into spycams. He’s the kind of guy who texts his friends to say that he hates poor people and that January is “a gay month.”

Parker thinks his portrayal of Ravi raises hard questions about the government’s prosecution, but I have to admit that I fail to see what those questions are. The qualified defenses he offers for Ravi’s character are ones I addressed in a blogpost the day after this story first broke in 2010, and the lessons I gleaned then are the ones I glean now:

Dharun Ravi acted like a jackass in the first month of his first year of college. He behaved with casual cruelty and lack of concern for Clementi’s well-being. He gave no thought to the consequences of his actions for himself or others. And now Clementi is dead and Ravi’s life is ruined, and there’s no question at all that Ravi set those two calamities in motion.

Dharun Ravi acted like a jackass in the first month of his first year in college, and it ruined his life.

Last night at Penn State thousands of students took to the streets. They tore down light poles. They vandalized cars. They overturned a news van. They lit a fire. They threw rocks at police and at least one bystander.

Why? Because their football coach, Joe Paterno, was fired.

And why was he fired? Because nine years ago, one of his staff witnessed Jerry Sandusky, one of Paterno’s former top assistants, anally rape a ten-year-old boy in the team’s showers. And because when that staffer reported what he had seen to Joe Paterno, he did nothing. No police were called. No investigation was undertaken. Paterno didn’t even revoke Sandusky’s access to the team’s locker rooms.

Sandusky was indicted on forty counts of sexual abuse last week. Two top administration officials were indicted for covering up his crimes. And yesterday Joe Paterno and the university’s president were fired.

Some Penn State students supported the Paterno firing. Others — many others — attended a vigil last night for Sandusky’s victims.

But thousands took to the streets around the campus chanting “fuck the trustees” and “we want Joe” and breaking things and hurting people.

And I honestly have nothing more to say about that.

UC Berkeley’s chapter of the College Republicans plan to host a bake sale on campus this morning as a commentary on affirmative action policies under consideration in the state legislature. (The idea is to critique affirmative action by offering food for sale to some groups for less than others.)

The “affirmative action bake sale” is a bit of a relic in conservative organizing — it had its heyday in the early 2000s. But it always provokes, and Berkeley  is no exception. Some of the institutional reactions, however, have been fascinating.

Sunday, a group calling itself the Multicultural Coalition for Affirmative Action released a list of demands in response to the planned sale, calling on the Berkeley administration to — among other things — add clear anti-discrimination statements to the university’s Principles of Community, and to add those principles to the Berkeley code of student conduct.

On Sunday night ASUC — Berkeley’s student government — unanimously passed a resolution that, after a page of careful laying out of the various jurisdictional issues and imperatives involved, “condemn[ed] the use of discrimination whether it is in satire or seriousness by any student group.”

And yesterday Berkeley’s chancellor sent out an open letter on the sale. The event, he said, was “hurtful or offensive to many” at Berkeley, though he didn’t say why. It was not the politics of the sale, he implied, that were problematic, but the form of their expression: “Regardless what policies or practices one advocates, careful consideration is needed on how to express those opinions.”

Absent from each of these formal statements was any explicit statement of what exactly was wrong with the Republicans’ sale. (ASUC indicated that actually selling treats to certain students at reduced prices might violate anti-discrimination regulations, but of course actually selling stuff was never the point of the event.)

I wrote yesterday about the hundreds of non-violent protesters who have been arrested at UC campuses in the last three years, and I’ll be writing more about those events as this week rolls on. Seen in that light, the failure of ASUC and Chancellor Birgenau to do more than merely place themselves on the side of sensitivity and civility rings hollow.

As an act of political theater, the affirmative action bake sale is a pretty paltry one. It offers a weak and overplayed analogy to the admissions debate, rehashing claims that have been batted around for ages. What makes it provocative isn’t its form but its message: that affirmative action is an immoral act of discrimination.

That’s what the College Republicans of Berkeley believe, and that is the message they are attempting to convey with their sale. They believe that affirmative action is racist and sexist against against whites and men, and there’s no polite way to call someone a bigot.

Birgenau wants to make the debate about the bake sale a debate about how polite the Berkeley community should be. But that’s not what it’s about, on either side. It’s about who should be allowed to enroll in the university, and on what terms.

That’s what’s under discussion. That’s what’s at stake.

Update | Zunguzungu has provided a report from the scene in comments, and there’s a lot more info to be had at the Twitter hashtag #theaffirmation. All in all, it sounds like student supporters of affirmative action responded cogently and soberly to the bake sale. And it’s worth noting that a list of demands released today by “The Coalition,” an anti-bakesale group, pretty much ignores the bake sale, and the College Republicans, altogether.

The coalition demand the passage and implementation of California’s Senate Bill 185, which would allow race and ethnicity to be taken into consideration in UC admissions, and Assembly Bill 540, which addresses admissions and tuition issues for undocumented students. They demand new funding and staffing for support services for students of color at Berkeley. They demand a restructuring of the school’s American culture course requirement to center scholarship on race, ethnicity, and gender, and the inclusion of the university’s “Principles of Community” on course syllabi. They demand representation of underrepresented campus communities in admissions hiring.

Each of these demands is addressed to the functioning of the University of California as an institution. None of them have the College Republicans or those who share their views as their target. Crucially absent from the list are demands that appeared in a draft version that appeared on Friday, calling on the university to bolster its code of conduct with new restrictions on bigoted student behavior.

As I said above, Berkeley’s chancellor Birgenau is seeking to frame this conflict as a dispute between students over standards of civility. Berkeley’s campus activists have rejected that framing, and are properly centering the government and the university itself in their response.

The 2011 National Student Congress of the United States Student Association is winding down today — as I type this, the group’s newly elected 2011-12 Board of Directors is meeting for the first time. It’s been a whirlwind of a conference, so I haven’t had the chance to update as much as I’d have liked, but I’ll be compiling a full report here over the next few days.

The conference began with a couple of days of speeches and workshops and meetings. The Congress site was Florida A&M University, the first historically black college or university (HBCU) ever to host a USSA annual meeting, and they were wonderful hosts — it’s a hell of a campus, and a hell of a student body. If you’re ever down here, be sure to stop by their archives — it’s one of the best-curated university galleries I’ve ever visited, as well as being a gem of a small museum of the history of race and racism in the United States.

Nothing huge broke in the first few days of the Congress. No huge drama, no dramatic developments. The association’s sitting vice president, Victor Sanchez, drew one competitor in his race for USSA President, while National People of Color Student Coalition chair Tiffany Dena Loftin was unopposed for the vice presidency.

The Congress was looking like a quiet one as Monday broke, but Monday — plenary day — turned out to be a doozy.

The plenary was scheduled to begin at nine in the morning in the FAMU basketball stadium. Students entered down a long stairway past row after row of deeply raked seats, taking their positions on the parquet of the stadium’s center court. Technical glitches delayed the start of the session for a couple of hours, but spirits remained good as the group started work, held a brief session, and then boarded buses for a barbeque lunch, step show, and rousing speech by a Wisconsin union leader on that state’s recent student-labor uprising.

The group reconvened early in the afternoon, making its way through the agenda to the first contentious issue — a constitutional amendment altering the makeup of the USSA Board of Directors.

USSA’s board is based on a hybrid structure combining regional representatives and identity-based caucuses representing various student constituencies. Monday’s amendment proposed adding a designated seat for each member State Student Association, giving those organizations — which, along with USSA’s campus chapters, make up the Association’s membership — a direct role in the group’s governance for the first time.

In the eyes of the proposal’s authors, the change was intended to strengthen USSA’s relationship with its member SSAs, to encourage non-member SSAs to join, to foster the development of SSAs in states where none exist. To some opponents, though, it represented a power grab by already powerful factions within the Association.

The proposal was brought up Monday afternoon, and passed by a comfortable margin. After the vote was completed, but before it was announced, the body went into recess for fifteen minutes. During that time some simmering frustrations bubbled over, and several delegations who had opposed the amendment walked out of the meeting.

…and my flight has just been called. More soon.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

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