Preempting Protest


by Joshua Leifer ’17

Two university deans at the head of a DREAM-organized rally in support of undocumented students and community members

Two university deans at the head of a DREAM-organized rally in support of undocumented students and community members

Over the past week and a half, various University administrators and their student government subordinates have sent out emails addressing the election of Donald Trump.

At best, these emails infantilize Princeton students and obscure the ugly and violent side of politics. The day after the election, the Class of 2017 government held a “cookies and milk study break,” which they advertised as “an opportunity to reflect, to be with others in community, and to share thoughts and feelings”—as if some kind of apolitical, non-partisan hand-holding is the right response to the victory of a candidate who has explicitly promised to make millions of people’s lives miserable. As they say, there’s nothing like a little chocolate—potentially in the company of a Trump supporter or even just your run-of-the-mill, ghoulish centrist technocrat—to make things better.

At their worst, these emails intend to preempt political protest, to channel dissent and anger into respectable, “civil” channels and limit the potential for disruption and disorder. Think of it as the law and order response to “the law and order candidate.”

None of this should be surprising. After all, the University is a billion-dollar company, funded by many of the same people who supported the Trump campaign. There’s an obvious financial interest in making sure things stay calm and “constructive,” lest people like Carl Icahn, “a close ally of Trump,” begin to wonder about where their money is going. That Princeton students cast their votes inside the Icahn Center symbolized, with particular clarity, the country’s slide into oligarchy.

The administration’s appeals for quiet usually come in the form of boilerplate rhetoric about openness and pluralism. For example, on November 11, President Eisgruber wrote in an email addressed to the entire university, “it is essential that we work together to promote a culture of open discussion where all voices are heard and respected.” And on November 16, Vice President Calhoun wrote to remind the campus of our “commitment to civil discourse.” Princeton, Calhoun wrote, “embraces intellectual, political, and ideological differences, which we cherish and defend.” All of this abstract, non-committal language (seriously, go back and take a good look at the words in these emails) functions, intentionally or not, to distract from what is actually at stake under a Trump presidency.

“A culture of open discussion” at Princeton will not mean anything to the twenty-two million people who will lose their health insurance when the House and Senate Republicans repeal the Affordable Care Act (however heterodox his ideas might appear, Trump seems unlikely to veto a bill overwhelmingly supported by the Republican rank-and-file). Embracing “intellectual, political, and ideological differences” will not do anything to prevent millions of immigrants from being torn from their families and deported (not that Democrats put up much protest to this before, when Obama was busy deporting 2.5 million people). No amount of civil discourse will stop the police from murdering unarmed black people, or stop the drones from blowing up weddings in Yemen.

Protest—and that necessarily means incivility—will be imperative during the next four years, not because Trump is uniquely evil, but because he is a uniquely clear embodiment of the evilness of the status quo. The stewards of American empire, many of them trained at places like Princeton, have grown rich destroying the lives of people at home and abroad. A Clinton presidency would have given the vast American carceral state and killing machine a kinder face, but it would not have changed it all that much. Before there were memes, Joe Biden pushed the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act through the Senate, which authorized multi-billion-dollar spending on new prisons and hundreds of thousands more police; Bill Clinton signed it, Hillary Clinton campaigned for it. Even Clinton’s staffers admitted, “the Clinton policies from the 90s contributed to mass incarceration” and “she helped lobby/advocate for them.” And it should be no surprise that so many people rejected attempts to portray the Clintons as humble public servants, given that they made $230 million dollars after leaving the White House, largely by whispering reassurances to corporate executives.

A scene from the DREAM organized rally in support of undocumented students and community members last Thursday, November 17.

A scene from the DREAM organized rally in support of undocumented students and community members last Thursday, November 17.

Demonstrations, like the one this past week in support of making Princeton a sanctuary campus, are all we can do, as of now, to resist what a Trump administration might bring. But it would be a mistake to expect Princeton University and its administrators to do anything concrete to protect the people whose lives are stake. Princeton, a university built by slaves, has historically shown little concern for the lives of poor people or people of color. It took almost twenty years of on-and-off protest and mass demonstrations to get Princeton to divest from apartheid South Africa. Even in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, the University refused to divest from arms manufacturing companies. This is a university that could not bring itself to change the name of a building, out of fear of upsetting its donors. Now we expect the University to contravene federal law? Try imagining President Eisgruber standing at the FitzRandolph gate to tell the ICE detention force that they can’t come on campus.

In the meantime, the University will continue to corral protests, to limit their effect, to make them safe for Princeton to proceed with business as usual. The soft restriction of student protest is already happening; the sanctuary campus rally was directed by two deans, who walked at the head of the march. These administrators may have the best intentions at heart, but they are paid to maintain order, to make things run smoothly, to mitigate conflict and confrontation; they must, and will, fulfill the roles they were hired to do. It was only last year, during the sit-in at Nassau Hall, that another dean threatened the protesters with disciplinary action. The administration will do the same thing again when the current wave of protests seems poised to challenge the order of things.

We must continue to march, to sing, to scream in the face of injustice. We must support the groups that have—for years even before Obama’s presidency—been fighting against police brutality, racism, deportation, Islamophobia, war, and economic inequality. But we must not delude ourselves into thinking that an institution like Princeton, which for so much of its history has failed to stand up for human rights and dignity, will suddenly stand up now. In past moments of crisis, men and women have shaken free from the roles assigned to them to defend the lives of those threatened by violence and state power; all we can do is hope that the people of Princeton will find it within themselves to do the same.

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