The now-infamous scuffle between protesters and campus police at Georgetown University Prof. Raymond Tanter’s speech on Iran in the Michigan League a week and a half ago left me both shocked and confused. Seated only rows behind the bulk of the action, I watched the woman officers were attempting to remove flail on the ground, while fellow protesters yelled about police brutality and crashed into each other, creating a mini-mosh pit. At one point, a protester turned to me and my roommate and said: “Well, is this what you wanted? Fine, you got it!” All I could think in response was, “What I wanted? From what I can tell, this is exactly what you wanted.” But I guess I should start from the beginning.
I attended the speech as a neutral observer, but it was apparent from the moment the protesters arrived that the situation was going to escalate. Entering a room filled mostly with Jewish students, the protesters carried signs with the Nazi swastika representing the S in “Israel.” Other signs labeled Zionists as murders. As Tanter began his speech, the protesters were advised of the University’s free-speech policy and asked to cease disruptive behavior during the presentation.
When protesters interrupted the lecture with shouts of “shame on you” a few times, I began to think about the difference between constructive and destructive protest. Did the protesters arrive hoping to raise awareness or to earn a police record? I am an avid proponent of free speech, but there is wisdom in balancing a protest’s inflammatory elements against its overall effectiveness.
The presentation focused on possible policy options in Iran. After expressing disagreement with a military approach, Tanter proposed removing Iranian opposition political parties from the United States’s list of terrorist groups. Legitimizing the opposition, Tanter argued, may reduce Iranian confidence, bringing them to the bargaining table on issues such as uranium enrichment. The topic, and Tanter’s view on it, comes at a time when the Iraq Study Group is recommending entering talks with Iran to end the Iraqi sectarian violence – a policy the speaker discouraged.
Tanter’s belief that the Iranian regime has a dangerous ideology designed for export was probably the most inflammatory part of his presentation – but the protests had little to do with that or any other aspect of the lecture. During the question-and-answer session, Tanter called repeatedly on the group of protesters, but it was speeches, not questions, that followed. When urged to contain their remarks to questions, they asked: “How can you explain Israel’s connection to apartheid South Africa?” and “Do you acknowledge Israel’s right to exist?” Tanter quipped that Israel did not need his approval to exist.
Despite Tanter’s requests that questions be pertinent to the subject of Iran, the questions remained the same, and the tension increased. The University’s free-speech policy was read aloud repeatedly along with escalating warnings. When non-protesting members of the audience were called on, cries alleging Zionist preference erupted. One protester left out of anger, advising the speaker to go to hell; another protester repeated the comment. It was at this point that Department of Public Safety officers stepped in. Although the protesters did their best to provoke police brutality, I did not see any instances of it.
I do not want to demean the importance of protest, but I understand the purpose of protest to be more than making headlines. I consider it an avenue for change. Although more radical methods of protest have worked in the past, actions that polarize rather than spread information must be re-examined. The Iran presentation is a perfect example. I doubt the manner in which the protesters conducted themselves gained them any supporters at the presentation, and it certainly strengthened the pro-Israel camp’s resolve.
In addition, I am not sure it was the correct forum for such a debate. It was clear from the shocked look on many audience members’ faces that they viewed the presentation as an academic rather than a political event. It is difficult to avoid politics when dealing with the Middle East, but the incident exposed a campus conflict approaching its boiling point. In the end, what was gained? Press coverage? The reaffirmation of the right to hateful speech? Certainly not a better understanding of policy options in Iran, but this was not Tanter’s fault. Any topic related to Israel will always fill rooms beyond capacity at the University, but hopefully in the future the ideas of the speaker, not the actions of DPS, will make the front page.
Amanda Burns is an LSA senior and a member of the Daily’s editorial board.