You read it here first: Today at Yale’s Class Day, Keynote Speaker Ken Burns delivered, to repeated and riotous applause, a clever and moving speech which included an impassioned and poetic condemnation of the dangerous course down which unjustified military aggression abroad and suppression of dissent at home are leading this country. Warning that America’s greatest threats come from within, he blasted a corporate and consumerist media and an ahistorical and extremist political establishment. And the crowd – made up of graduates, students, faculty, administrators, and family and friends of President Bush’s alma mater – loved it. Afterwards, several of us gathered to protest as Bush, who chose not to attend the ceremonies, entered Sage Hall for a meeting with Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead (the topic? Bush-Brodhead 2004? Who knows…). There was one guy one the other side of the street yelling “Four more years!,” but he seemed lonely.
A few personal experiences and impressions of the past 72 hours:
The eight Yale retirees (three of whom had to leave for medical reasons, five of whom held out for the full 24 hours) are real heroes whose perseverance is a model to all of us and whose victory presses the movement forward and raises the bar for everyone within it – and within this community. Their victory demonstrates the combination of strategically savvy and symbolically appropriate tactics, solidarity of workers, clergy, students and community, media scrutiny, organizing strength, sheer numbers, and iron will necessary for a victory like hasn’t been seen here since the ’84 strike. The whole episode, from the moment the eight declared that they weren’t leaving David Swenson’s office without a meeting to the moment that – poised to arrest them – Yale announced that it would instead grant their request, also dramatized both the shameful lengths to which Yale will go to perpetuate injustice and the potential and urgency to save Yale University from the Yale Corporation. The three times I was turned away and/or threatened with arrest by Yale police for trying to enter the Investment Building with hoagies for the retirees – who’d been hold up in the office for hours without food or use of the bathroom for several hours at this point – spoke volumes, as did the necessity for New Haven police to take jurisdiction because my University refused to allow food or bathroom facilities to a few elderly employees who showed up after decades of service to the University to confront the man who’s been quietly investing their pension fund in insider trading rather than in decent pension offers for the next generation of Yale workers. It was the sight of fifteen riot police entering the building to drag out five senior citizens, however, that was most deeply infuriating, and Yale’s last-minute realization that to have them do so would shame Yale’s leadership such that it would become more difficult to carry forward its regressive agenda was small comfort. It’s shameful that when light and truth rear their heads at Yale, Yale tries to lock out the light and starve out the truth.
The TV media did a better-than-usual job of covering the sit-in, in part because it was visual and in part because of Rev. Jackson’s presence. The most salient facts – why the retirees went in, that they won, and that Yale was poised to have riot police drag them out – came across on pretty much all the channels. The print media, including the YDN, was unfortunately dismissive of the drama, giving on average a sentence at the end of an article contextualizing the strike about a successful sit-in calling for a meeting but giving no sense of how or why it happened – or that it lasted 24 hours.
As in the last strike, few experiences are more powerful than walking the lines and talking to workers about why they’re out and what they’re fighting for. There are few ways someone in this city of any political perspective (including, perhaps, readers of this site) could be doing with an hour on a weekday morning than talking to the men and women who, yet again, Yale has forced to the point of challenge and personal sacrifice for lux and veritas. I met a fourth grader who’s walking the picket lines for the fourth time because, he explained, of a very greedy man who isn’t very good at sharing his toys.
Jesse Jackson, Emelio Hernandez, David Lee, and others have brought home over the past few days a point that cannot be emphasized enough: the civil rights movement cannot be separated from the movement for economic justice without destroying the integriy of the movement and insulting the dignity of those who compose it. On day after the anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, this point has a particular urgency. It’s strange how much more easily middle class Americans tend to believe that the liberty of bosses is contingent on their right to private property than that the freedom of workers is contingent on their right to wages. A classmate once accused me of disgracing the memory of MLK by wearing a pin with a photo of him at an SEIU 1199 rally (the union he often described as his “favorite union”). When I asked how it was inappropriate to celebrate a photo of an event that actually happened he suggested that MLK must have been caught by coincidence standing in front of an SEIU podium. To say that where a woman can sit on a bus is a moral issue but whether she can raise enough money to feed her family is merely a political question is a convenient but fundamentally unjust contention.
Today was one of the most intense freshman move-in days Yale has seen. The civil disobedience was of a much more serious and more dramatic character than last September, and the picket lines were some of the thickest and loudest I’ve seen here. The UOC gave out several hundred copies of our new pamphlet to freshmen and families, most of whom came off understandably as mostly overwhelmed, confused, anxious, and eager to get more information. Yale forced our table off of Old Campus on the grounds that, in the words of Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg, we were there “to bias freshmen, not to orient them.” Meanwhile, the Office of New Haven and State Affairs had three tables set up trying to get students on board with their agenda of condescension and division by giving our lollipops and tape measures. And the crew team had a thirty foot boat in the middle of campus. Yale police also stopped us from entering dorms to poster; one man told me I wasn’t allowed to enter with the poster I had and when I asked whether I could go in to put up, say, a capella posters, he referred me to his boss, who told me no one was allowed to enter with any kind of poster and then asked to see my posters. When I confronted Dean Brodhead about this he told me that I wasn’t being forced off of Old Campus myself, and so democracy was intact.
Yale’s last minute decision to postpone tomorrow’s freshman invocation, an event which to my knowledge has never been cancelled in the University’s history (including during, say, World War), on the grounds of “the threat posed by our unions,” represents a resounding acknowledgement by Yale that contrary to their publicity, business is not going on as usual here, and the crisis is not under control. John Wilhelm was right to say, of of Yale’s prior claims that hardly anyone was out on strike and there was no disruption, “That’s exactly the problem – you do all the work here, and Yale can’t see you.” He also added that – as Yale’s contract offer makes clear – Yale can’t count. This was abundantly clear when Yale produced statistics purporting to show that strike turnout was low which left out 800 Yale workers – guess where they were? Perhaps one of them was Associate VP for New Haven and State Affairs Mike Morand’s secretary, who despite getting ample exposure to Yale’s side – which Conroy et al claim the union leadership is blinding the workers to – is out on strike.