There is too much old in New Haven. Inefficiency and obscurity have dethroned care and transparency. The marginalized have suffered from our complacency. We lament the “Yale bubble,” when for many of our fellow Elis, such vocabulary diverges more and more each day from reality far more dire. These times call for a new language. It is time to entomb the “I” and resurrect the “we,” to cast off old animosities and make possible real, actual, structural change, to take up the urgency (and agency) of a previous age so that our cause does not recede with this recession. And without the presence of chaos-inducing crises, the job of student activists to get people excited about the issues may now be harder than ever.
But what are the impediments that today’s community of Yale activists face, and are cues from the past enough to guide them toward a united student movement?
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”720″ ]
The story of May Day 1970 is one that illuminates the component forces of that collective power: the tie between Yale and New Haven, passionate student groups whose primary objective was and still is change through practical means and an administration that, if not always amenable to change, is often willing to listen.
Yale’s one major scrape with radical-incited instability began in the spring of 1969, when three members of the Black Panthers in New Haven killed a teenager named Alex Rackley, a suspected informant. The Panthers rallied supporters throughout the country to protest the ensuing trials on May Day of the following year, and by March 1970, tensions were high. David Hilliard, national chief of staff of the Panthers, spoke at the University of Connecticut and encouraged people to “move against the symbols of oppression” by killing police and setting fire to courthouses.
He gave another speech at Ingalls Rink on April 23, to similar effect, although Yale students booed his suggestion of killing the “pigs.” Two days later, then-University President Kingman Brewster ’41 presided over a meeting of faculty at which it was agreed that class attendance would be voluntary for the remainder of the semester. Kurt Schmoke ’71, now the dean of Howard University Law School, was the only undergraduate to speak at the meeting, having been invited in after persuading a group of marchers to nail a list of demands to a nearby tree rather than on the door of Brewster’s house.
“We had a [U.S.] President in office whose politics many of the students at that time did not agree with,” Schmoke said in a telephone interview last Friday. “[Students] also didn’t have the right to vote, because the 26th amendment to the constitution wasn’t ratified until 1971. So you had people worried about an unpopular war, angry with basically two presidents, Johnson and Nixon, and not being able to exercise or participate in politics through voting. It made for a pretty tense environment.”
Despite the unease of the situation, however, Schmoke said that for much of the time preceding the events of May Day 1970, campus life was normal.
“There were exchanges in the Yale Daily News basically saying, ‘Why don’t you guys go to the library?’ but the overwhelming reaction was one of silent tolerance [of protestors on campus],” he explained.
The everyday signs of conflict rarely elevated beyond debate in various campus forums until a few days before the protest on the New Haven Green, when the National Guard was deployed to Connecticut.
“When you have tear gas around your campus, everyone is involved,” he added. “For those few days in May, the whole campus was engaged with one another in conversation, then it passed.”
Due to peacekeeping efforts on the part of Yale administration (Schmoke hailed Brewster as “a master politician and diplomat”), students and local community groups, the protest went off with only relatively minor scuffles. The crisis passed, and soon after, Nixon instituted a lottery to replace the draft. Many of those with high lottery numbers lost interest in activist causes, and by 1971, Brewster would refer to campus as existing in a state of “eerie tranquility.”
The events of May Day 1970 also coincided with the term of William Sloane Coffin ’49, who served as Yale chaplain from 1958 to 1976. In addition to speaking regularly at Vietnam War protests, he provided students the service of collecting their draft cards and mailing them back to the Pentagon. He and Brewster had the challenge of being “simultaneously lovers of tradition and avatars of change,” as put by Yale Journalism Initiative coordinator Mark Oppenheimer ’96 GRD ’03 in his 2006 obituary of Coffin on slate.com. To the chagrin of those who advocated violence or hostility as a means of protest, they walked the line well — Yale’s infrastructure and administration-student relations often ruled out radicalism as an appropriate form of protest.
It’s no wonder, then, that representatives of today’s campus activism groups, such as the Undergraduate Organizing Committee (UOC), are quick to rebut any allegations of radicalism since the most effective action at Yale has often been achieved through collaboration with the administration rather than rebellion against it.
“I think we’ve been very misunderstood in the past,” Anna Robinson-Sweet ’11, an active member of the UOC, said. “We see part of our job as pushing the administration on issues they don’t necessarily want to get pushed on.”
The UOC began as a group of student advocates for various labor groups in the New Haven area, but its action campaigns have expanded to include representing student issues as well. Most recently, the committee collected more than 1,000 undergraduate signatures in response to the administration’s unilateral decision to increase the student contribution portion of financial aid packages by $400. The UOC is also putting pressure on Yale to exercise its position as an investor in the hotel chain HEI to get the company to improve its treatment of its workforce. In addition to staging a sit-in at the Yale Investments Office headquarters in 2008, members of the UOC have spoken repeatedly with the Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility.
But campaigns with as much widespread support as the UOC’s push for financial reform are rare. It’s fair to say that a large part of the Eli population is relatively liberal, but given the size and diversity of the undergraduate population specifically, that liberalism is open to nuance that makes its specific identity hard to define or express.
In the words of Amalia Skilton ’13, a coordinator of Fierce Advocates (an activist group involved in the promotion of LGBTQ rights) and a board member of the left-leaning Students for a New American Politics (among other causes): “One of the real difficulties campus progressives have is that it’s hard to talk about our values because almost everyone shares them.”
Which is to say, the problem may be that everyone is talking about the same thing but in different languages.
“Sarah Palin said the fundamental commitments to the right were a commitment to life, lower taxes and a strong defense. There is really no corresponding set of values that unites people on the liberal side of the spectrum,” she added.
And so, on a campus with so much diversity concentrated within a generally limited set of political principles, you run into people like Matt Shafer ’13.
In addition to participating in the Party of the Left in the Yale Political Union and attending meetings of the Yale College Democrats, Shafer, is a member of Salt of the Earth, a group of social activists who wanted a space where they could talk about social justice as it relates to the message of Jesus. Obviously, there are many issues under that heading that are relatively clear-cut. For example, the group has participated in campaigns centered around poverty, homelessness and race issues. But they also actively discuss and take part in campaigns for more LGBTQ rights, and even hold study sessions in which they talk about issues such as transgenderism in a Biblical context.
“Often, when people speak about religion in political terms, they mean something like the religious right, but the religious right gets it very wrong,” Shafer said. “The religious right wants to use government as a tool of dogma, not as a tool for justice.”
He doesn’t view Christianity as a political doctrine as much as he perceives it as a call to action.
“It’s a message that goes beyond Christianity,” he said.
Similarly, there are activists such as Aaron Podolny ’12, who played an instrumental part in the founding of the Responsible Endowment Project, a group of students that keeps tabs on the Investment Office’s activity and formulate suggestions for improved sustainability and transparency. He even drafted a report last year to present to Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility that laid out goals for future investment transparency. And while he had done some environmental activism in high school, he hadn’t considered the possibilities in finance for social change until he came to Yale.
“On one side you had finance and on the other you had progressive activism, and they were coming together with this project,” Podolny said. “No one had tried to look at [the endowment] from a holistic perspective, where it’s more like, ‘Let’s start with the endowment and see what impact it has,’ as opposed to starting with an issue and saying, ‘What are all the factors that impact my issue?’ ”
The project’s primary aims are more public disclosure of the Yale Corporation’s investments, which has decreased from more than 90 percent disclosed in the 1970s to less than 1 percent today according to Podolny., sustainability and a sense of social responsibility that more accurately reflect the interests of the Yale and New Haven communities.
TOWARD A MOVEMENT
Of course, it would be naïve to suggest that these are anything but political causes. Shafer and Podolny both use terminology typically associated with the left, even if we can’t verbalize as cleanly what that means as some conservative pundits might: Talking about “social justice” and “community action” are red flags for liberalism. But in the greater Yale progressive community, people like Podolny and Shafer have found a way of communicating effectively about political ideology by discussing it in seemingly apolitical terms.
Film Studies and Slavic Languages and Literatures Professor John MacKay GRD ’98, one of the coordinators of the Working Group on Marxism and Cultural Theory, a reading group with a focus on Marxist texts that meets biweekly at the Whitney Humanities Center, considers the shape of activism on campus to be a combination of activists’ dual role as students (or professors) and advocates.
“[Activism] is time-consuming, and then, of course, there’s the dispersed character of today’s progressive movements — there are groups affiliated with queer issues or women’s issues,” he said. “It’s not like some earlier moments, for instance, in Western or Eastern Europe when you had mass working class parties that created a vortex around themselves.”
But that situation may be changing, MacKay added.
“Increasingly, one sees proposals for change,” he said. “We’re in the midst of the most serious ideological crises capitalism has experienced for at least 30 years.”
In many ways, Yale is an ideal institution from which to launch a student activist campaign. Unlike similarly sized universities in larger cities, Yale has a tremendous impact on the surrounding New Haven area, and given the personal economic strain caused by the recession, students in particular (i.e. young people who know a lot about the issues and don’t have a lot of money) should be chomping at the bit to make change happen, both because many need it, as in the case of financial aid reform, and because students are in the rare position of contributing to the daily function of an institution that has enough weight to throw around to make substantive changes to the status quo. Brewster knew it, and even supported students in their protests, drawing criticism from Nixon, William F. Buckley ’50 and many other figures on the right.
And it seems change is happening slowly, at least on a local level. Community causes have experienced broad success. For example, numerous Yalies do continuous work with the Connecticut Center for a New Economy (CCNE) and their Community Voter Project. Similarly, the Shelter Now fundraising project, organized by the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, raised upwards of $50,000 in their campaign to keep the Cedar Street overflow shelter open. Moreover, the Yale administration in general and the Office of New Haven and State Affairs particularly have repeatedly lent a helping hand in these campaigns, recently increasing the university’s already multimillion dollar voluntary contribution to the city.
And while’s Yale’s helping hand has certainly been recognized by the activist community, many believe that larger ideological problems persist.
For example, Katie Harrison ’11, another member of the UOC, wants to see more of an integration of Yale into New Haven, actions that reflect the sense that Yale is a constituent of New Haven, “instead of just someone with a lot of money.”
Yet tactics like the sit-in staged by the UOC last academic year have been met largely either with indifference or hostility, and the reputation of grassroots organizing groups often aren’t tenable enough to withstand even minor slip-ups. In addition, mobilizing effective campaigns on a student’s schedule can be difficult because, as American Studies professor Michael Denning GRD ’84, a coordinator of the Initiative for Labor and Culture, a research group that investigates the social, cultural and historical environments surrounding labor movements, said, “I’m always surprised by the issues that gain popularity each year [because] you often can’t predict changes in the cultural climate.”
And of course, there’s always the classic problem of activist recruitment.
“A lot of people tend to see taking action … as being the domain of those ‘involved in politics,’ ” Skilton said.
On top of those issues, New Haven still remains only a backdrop for many students. In Denning’s words, “people come to Yale for Yale, not for New Haven.”
UOC member Sarah Eidelson ’12 said that a limited community vision is mirrored in subtle ways by the limited access students have to the city. The shuttle service, for example, is restricted solely to campus. In other words, even if there is the potential for a larger activist base, those people may simply not be conscious of the fact that there’s a larger city out there and that it faces serious problems.
But overcoming big problems with bigger ideas is the domain of the activist. Take James Cersonsky ’11, a former staff columnist for the News. In addition to working with the CCNE, the UOC, Shelter Now and a handful of other campaigns, his goal for this year is to revitalize the activist community. Cersonsky sees the financial aid campaign as a potential impetus for the kind of united student movement he sees as vital to structural change.
“While we’re still coming off the energy of last semester, now is the moment when we can step back and really think about building a broader progressive social movement on campus,” he said. “I’m excited about seeing people come together while using … campus organizations as a means of organizing people, and the creation of a new relational culture.”
But optimism may not be enough. Despite the UOC’s petition, Woodbridge Hall has yet to take visible action on changing financial aid policy. Likewise, HEI has not changed its treatment of labor and the Yale administration has not demonstrated serious consideration of reevaluating its investment with the hotel chain. And unlike activists that operate outside of college campuses, student organizers are susceptible to the perpetually ticking term-time clock. As their potential support base hits the road, momentum evaporates in the summer heat. For these causes and the leaders with the passion to mobilize them, the time is quite literally NOW.
Correction: Sept. 25, 2010
An earlier version of this article misreported the first name of Aaron Podolny ’12.