In the declining light of this past Monday evening, standing in a semi-circle in front of the war memorial at Beinecke Plaza, approximately 50 students were — they recited each in turn — pissed off.
“At Yale, in America, in society in general, social concerns are increasingly subordinate to economic concerns … The way the University treats its workers and its city … The Global Left’s inability to mobilize around concrete and tangible goals … The CEO of Pepsi will choose [Yale’s] next president … I ran out of bread this morning.”
The grievances voiced ran the gamut: international, local, domestic; psychological, linguistic, desire-based. “I’m pissed off that I find it so hard to talk about why I’m pissed off,” one person present self-critiqued. “I’m pissed off, and I’d like to change that,” another said.
The improvised meeting, called by a non-hierarchical, consensus-based progressive working group calling itself “The Y Syndicate,” had begun with contradictions.
“Everyone go around and say your name.” “No, everyone, say your names all at once.” “Say your name, and one reason you’re pissed off,” the conclusion was reached, sparking the above litany, as well as other claims. (“Ninety percent of campus publications are fascist,” was followed by both laughter and nods of agreement.)
The Syndicate has yet to hold an official organizational meeting (it will today, Friday, September 7th, at 4 p.m. at the war memorial), and so affiliated individuals have so far declined to speak to the press on the record.
But this relatively anonymous collective is only one example of activist efforts currently taking place at Yale and within the city of New Haven, and these somewhat fragmented groups are increasingly coming together to form a more organized and inclusive network.
This coming Monday, an “Activist Bazaar” will be held on Cross Campus, attended by organizations including Students Unite Now, the People’s Arts Collective of New Haven, People Against Police Brutality, the Yale Student Environmental Coalition and Broad Recognition. Organizing material for the event calls attention to a distinction between activism and community service, in that activism seeks to change the current “social or political state of affairs” in a way that community service, while important and valuable in its own right, may not.
Though the Syndicate hasn’t explicitly laid out an agenda for the near future, people present at the event have independently described interests in a set of progressive causes that range in urgency. Among these are multiple concerns with the current methodology of choosing the next president of Yale and versions of disquiet about the university’s presence in Singapore. Individuals present also spoke of a general dissatisfaction with existing platforms for students (such as the Political Union, the Class Council, community service opportunities and involvement in national political parties), because, in their views, these institutions do not themselves challenge or disrupt existing hierarchies and structural problems currently in place.
This article quotes no one individually by name. In doing so, it seeks to respect certain qualities of the still-amorphous, nascent organization it describes.
I attended the first Syndicate meeting primarily as a sympathetic and curious participant, so this article necessarily contains value judgments and a subjective viewpoint. Also a fair amount of jargon. Sorry about that.
On the Place
In June of 1989, a Yale alumnus, visiting campus for an alumni weekend, set fire to a makeshift shantytown, which had been enacted in front of the war memorial in protest of Yale’s refusal to divest from companies in apartheid South Africa.
According to an AP article about the event, the man, a doctor from West Palm Beach, “was apprehended blocks away by another alumnus who said he was jogging when he saw [the man,] dressed in a suit and tie, fleeing the burning shanties.”
The arsonist, a Vietnam veteran, said he started the blaze because of the shanties’ proximity to the war memorial. An intrinsically charged location, the site was also once the locus of protests against the Vietnam War, when then-students were subject to the draft. The Syndicate used one photograph from these events in its first email to potentially interested students.
On Tuesday, when former Republican Pennsylvania senator and 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum spoke in Woolsey Hall, a group of twenty to forty students handed out flyers and staged a walkout, an act partially conceived at the Syndicate’s first assembly this past Monday.
And just a couple of weeks ago, Yale welcomed 21 students who will be participating in the newly-returned ROTC program with an instantly-iconic photograph in Woolsey Hall, adjacent to the memorial.
The space immediately invites students into an existing historical narrative of participation in and protest against military and other institutions. The stone itself is dedicated to the memory of men who “gave their lives that freedom might not perish from the earth,” but the events that have taken place surrounding the cenotaph complicate its physical message.
On the (Yale) Presidency
In the past thirty-odd years, Yale students have also staged protests against for-profit prisons, employers that violate workers’ rights, changes in financial aid structure, police brutality in New Haven, Yale’s refusal to recognize a graduate student union and a culture, both on campus and more broadly, that leads roughly 25 percent of students who graduate with jobs to join the ranks of consulting and I-banking firms.
Some present at the Syndicate’s first meeting stated that they see the search for Yale’s next president as a particular energizing moment, an event that can help focus some of the organizing efforts of various activist groups and call attention the University’s priorities.
One President Past
In the spring of 1970, then-University President Kingman Brewster ’41 oversaw a faculty meeting concerning student protests related to the trials of members of the Black Panthers. For the rest of the semester, class attendance was voluntary.
Brewster served as president from 1963 to 1977, and in May of 1972, when Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State William Rogers was invited to speak at the YPU, Brewster published a statement on the front page of the News saying that he would understand and “expect” demonstration and picketing. He urged students who opposed the government’s policy to wear black armbands.
Among his other quotations, both obtuse and pithy, are, “Universities should be safe havens where ruthless examination of realities will not be distorted by the aim to please or inhibited by the risk of displeasure,” “we all live in a televised goldfish bowl,” and “incomprehensible jargon is the hallmark of a profession.” Make of these what you will.