The gags seemed like a good idea at first. During Thursday’s Take Back Affirmative Action Day, a number of well-meaning student groups organized a “day of silence” in which minorities wore black gags around their mouths and did not speak until 5 p.m. that evening. The gags were supposed to symbolize the silencing of the black community that would very likely ensue were Ward Connerly’s Michigan Civil Rights Initiative to pass next November, making affirmative action unconstitutional in the state of Michigan.

Jess Cox

But then, at the noon BAMN rally, the Diag became a locus of chaos and embarrassment. Out-of-control school children raced back and forth across the Diag, waving around militant pro-affirmative action picket signs and screaming unintelligibly into microphones they never should have been given. News reporters caught footage of angry encounters between individuals on both sides of the issue. And the ultimate folly of the gags became clear: The little black pieces of cloth had done exactly what they were intended to do – silence those who most desperately needed to be heard.

BAMN, also known by its extraordinarily long and not-so-catchy official title: The Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary, was the proud sponsor of last Thursday’s midday mayhem.

Though the rally did not drum up support for affirmative action per se, the event was not a complete failure. It did, for example, successfully alienate the militant-wary majority of the student body, whose support is needed most ardently. It did succeed in thoroughly embarrassing significant segments of the campus’s black community, who must fight daily to overcome the very stereotypes BAMN helped to perpetuate at the rally. And it very much made Connerly’s day, perhaps prompting him to send BAMN a fruit basket, or at the least a thank-you card of sorts.

It is not BAMN’s goals that are so polarizing and controversial, but its methods. The organization’s militant ideology – “By Any Means Necessary” – is not the most effective way to build broad-based coalitions and grassroots support for the cause. Its’s decision to bus in middle- and high-school school students to Ann Arbor to participate in Thursday’s rally was a mistake – one that severely undermined BAMN’s worthy and ambitious agenda and worse, wounded the legitimacy of the affirmative-action movement at the University.

Make no mistake – after the Thursday’s pandemonium, the NAACP had no choice but to publicly denounce BAMN’s actions and distance itself from the organization. For the many black students who feel as though their right to attend the University is under constant attack, there is no greater nightmare than the sight of black, largely inarticulate elementary-aged children screaming on behalf of affirmative action. Nor is there any greater embarrassment.

Still, the NAACP made a profound statement: Those who believe most deeply in a better society – a society where equality, opportunity and merit matter – will not allow the fight for affirmative action to be compromised by organizations that threaten to undermine its legitimacy.

But while BAMN may not be the most eloquent or effective proponent of affirmative action on campus, it is by far the loudest, a status reinforced by last Thursday’s gagging of the very individuals who have something important to say. Those who support affirmative action, oppose it vehemently or in any way give a damn about the quality of educational experience at the University must stand up and be heard, and with next year’s election just around the corner, they had better do it now.

The group Students Supporting Affirmative Action helped to sponsor the “day of silence,” as well as the early evening rally on the Diag – one that proved to be more inclusive and ultimately more effective than the midday disaster. But while SSAA uses far less polarizing methods to convey the necessity of affirmative action than BAMN and has the potential to create a broad, grassroots coalition that can effectively advocate for affirmative action, it is – to be frank – not loud enough.

BAMN will not succeed in defeating the professionally run MCRI campaign on its own. SSAA, along with other student groups such as the Michigan Student Assembly and the College Democrats, must be far more outspoken, organized and visible advocates for affirmative action at the University than they are today.

BAMN’s Thursday display might have been embarrassing, but it was made possible by the shameful failure of other student groups to make it known that the fight to save affirmative action is not synonymous with “By Any Means Necessary.”

The chaos and embarrassment that took place in the Diag last Thursday are what happens when legitimate organizations fail to act and students fail to care. They are the ugly face of what is proving to be an insidious and destructive apathy at the University, an apathy that couldn’t make Connerly any happier. The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative is a dastardly named assault on the values of equality and diversity our community has worked so hard to achieve. We cannot remain gagged in silence. Now is the time to speak.

 

Gay can be reached at maracl@umich.edu.

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