Campus Tolerance for Violence

The post-Ferguson and post-Garner racial agitation has led to a wave of violent rhetoric and actual violence in the United States. Street protesters have called for “pigs in blankets,” declaring, “Arms up, shoot back,” and asking, “What do want? Dead cops.  When do we want it? Now.” This rhetoric has campus amplifiers.

Is the infatuation with violence among some professors connected to the violence in the streets?  At some level, the two are certainly linked.  Let’s start with some of the immediate connections.

Since the 1960s, American higher education has played host to a small segment of faculty members and students who advocate for violent resistance to the rule of law.

Gordon Barnes, editor-in-chief of The Advocate, the CUNY graduate student newspaper, published an editorial in fall 2014 “In Support of Violence.”  It is accompanied by the newspaper’s logo, a giant “A” in a circle, the symbol of the international anarchy movement.  Barnes attacks “the anti-democratic nature of the grand jury process” and declares, “The time for peace has passed; indeed it never existed in this country.”  Barnes’ prescription is for the protesters to shift from violence against property to violence against the police:  “Violence directed towards state representatives is not only warranted, it is necessary.”

Eric Linsker, an adjunct professor of English composition at CUNY was arrested on December 13, after he had carried a large garbage can onto a walkway on the Brooklyn Bridge, apparently in an effort to drop it on the heads of police officers below.  Linsker was ordered by the police to put it down but fled the scene, dropping his backpack, with two hammers inside, and, among others things, his CUNY ID.

Cindy Gorn and Zachary Campbell were among the academics arrested for assaulting police on the Brooklyn Bridge in an effort to help Linkser escape. Gorn is a graduate student at Columbia University where she is also a lecturer in environmental health sciences in the Mailman School of Public Health. Her “areas of work” are “geography from the perspective of Marxist philosophy, social movements, autonomous labor movements, health, and the environment.” Campbell is a Spanish instructor at Rutgers. In the melee, one police officer had his nose broken. The police posted photographs of the suspects and offered a $12,000 reward.

Ismaaiyl Brinsley on December 20 shot and killed police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos while they sat in their marked police car in Brooklyn. Brinsley, as we now know, had declared his intent to murder police as an act of retaliation for the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Brinsley was a career criminal: 15 arrests in Georgia ranging from assault to grand larceny; four arrests in Ohio, including robbery; and multiple jail sentences, including two years for criminal possession of a weapon. Brinsley’s Instagram postings declaring his determination to kill police did not require Gordon Barnes or Eric Linsker for inspiration.

“I’m going to put wings on pigs today. They take 1 of ours…Let’s take 2 of theirs #ShootThePolice #RIPErivGardner [sic] #RIPMikeBrown This may be my final post.”

The idea of killing police—any police—as retaliation for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner was reverberating so loudly in street protests, on the internet, and in conversations that Brinsley would have heard it many times from many people.  How and exactly when Brinsley decided to act on the exhortation we will probably never know.

The Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee (TMOC), however, has played an especially large role in the protests that call for violence. Whether TMOC itself has incited violence against police seems doubtful. The organizers probably know better, and TMOC’s webpages, though adorned with images of street fires, masked men throwing Molotov cocktails, and flaming American flags, steer clear of specific instructions.  The “About” page for TMOC simply declares, “There is no justice here, only us and the future we seize.”   Individuals who post to the TMOC Facebook page are less inhibited and frequently express their relish for violence.  And TMOC has at least some academic support.

George Ciccariello-Maher, a professor of political theory, has called for people to donate to TMOC. He is also the author of an essay, “The Dialectics of Standing One’s Ground,” in which he draws on the work of radical philosopher Frantz Fanon to argue that the proper response to “white supremacy” is “a voluntarism of sorts to push history into motion.” That’s opaque, but in context Ciccariello-Maher clearly means to endorse the use of violence, as in Trayvon Martin’s violent attack on George Zimmerman.

Aaron Samuel Breslow, a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, was an active participant in at least one TMOC event—judging by his on-scene photographs and his tweet asking his friends to join him in the protests.  Breslow has recently been tweeting frequently on “Black Lives Matter” themes and “Justice for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and All Victims of Killer Cops!” He self-identifies as gay, has spent “ten years” in HIV prevention and care, and professes “a fierce passion for social justice grounded in queer theory, feminism, and anti-racist ally activism.”

His doctoral work at Teachers College has led to his being part of “Dr. Brewster’s Marginalization, Mental Health, and Empowerment Team.” None of this suggests that Breslow is complicit in calls to violence.  Rather, he appears to be the sort of fellow caught up in ideological efflorescence.  As of this writing, he hasn’t posted his thoughts on whether the protests that he previously extolled bear any moral responsibility for the murders of officers Liu and Ramos.

TMOC isn’t alone in staking extreme and pro-violent positions. Noel Jackson is an MIT professor of literature with no connection to TMOC who unleashed a steady barrage of rage on his Twitter account after the shooting of Michael Brown in August. Among his declarations were his hope to slice the “weak guts of white supremacy” with a “[Expletive deleted] SCALPEL.” The university, concerned for his mental health, “forcibly hospitalized” Jackson for his unhinged response.

This list by no means exhausts the connections between campus supporters of violent protest and the actual protests, but it is enough to show the links don’t have to be guessed at. They are there to be seen.  Some of the connections are in the form of forceful declarations, such as Barnes’ front-page “In Support of Violence” editorial.  Some of the connections are in the form of heedless enthusiasm from individuals who have no sense of where this goes.  The harder questions are finding out what these connections really mean and how deep they are.

Professing Violence

It would be comforting to think of campus figures who profess violence as an inconsequential fringe who have no real influence over education. That might account for figures such as Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado Boulder ethnic studies professor who rose to infamy for his applauding the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and who was subsequently fired for academic misconduct. But it probably misses the mark on figures such as Bill Ayers who have had undeniably successful academic careers.

Which raises questions.  How does it happen that American higher education provides cosseted professional careers to so many who disdain the basic conditions of free inquiry on which colleges and universities depend?  Those conditions surely include settling disputes through reason and peaceful political process.  Why does the academic world so often turn a blind eye to advocates of unlawful violence?

Part of the answer, of course, is that most academics regard it as none of their business.  They are in their labs, writing their articles and teaching their classes, which have nothing to do with the radical politics of a few of their colleagues.  It might also be true that ignoring the antics of some proponents of crazy ideologies is a way of marginalizing those ideologies.

But such comforting thoughts seem increasingly ill-founded. Those who condone or actually encourage violence of various sorts are more common on campus than many realize.

Violence against Property

Instead it appears that the established authorities on the nation’s campuses help to sustain the conditions under which advocates of violence promote their views.  We should distinguish, of course, between advocacy per se—the use of words, ideas, and images—and actual acts of violence. The latter are rare enough that they stand out.  At the University of Virginia, five men and three women incited by the Rolling Stone article about an alleged gang rape, and by the university’s apparent endorsement of the article’s claims, vandalized the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house.

No one was injured, but the attack, which included throwing bricks through the windows, was sufficiently violent that residents could have been.  The perpetrators are known to many in the community.  One even granted an interview. There were witnesses.  It wouldn’t take Philip Marlowe to track them down.   But so far the University of Virginia has not filed charges or, apparently, taken any action at all to identify the perpetrators.

Let’s get this into perspective. Teresa Sullivan, the president of the University of Virginia, felt compelled by the publication of an unsubstantiated article in Rolling Stone to suspend all fraternities until January 9.  When it emerged that the magazine story was false and that, in all likelihood, no rape had taken place, President Sullivan left the collective punishment for a fictitious crime in place. But faced with the real crime of serious vandalism against a fraternity that had been falsely accused, and having the opportunity at hand to charge the culprits, President Sullivan decided to take no action.

Passivity in the face of attacks on property that are made in the name of some progressive cause appears all too often at colleges and universities. Oberlin knew the names of the real perpetrators (Dylan Bleier and Matt Alden) who had scrawled racist graffiti on public walls in February and March 2013.  Bleier and Alden had gone on their month-long spree not out of racism but as a consciousness-raising exercise for the college, which they hoped would react forcefully.  Even though Oberlin caught them and understood their motives (and quietly expelled them), the college went ahead with what my colleague Ashley Thorne has called a “staged emergency” involving cancelled classes and a day-long teach-in by the Africana Studies Department.  Only five months later, when the Daily Caller broke the story, did Oberlin admit that the racist provocation was a hoax—though the vandalism was real.

Campus “hoax crimes” can get perpetrators in trouble, but usually not very much. Colleges do sometimes rouse themselves to action in the face of politically motivated vandalism. For example, on September 11, 2013, protestors at Middlebury College vandalized a memorial to victims of 9/11, removing 3,000 small American flags. The protestors said they were protesting “American imperialism.” The president of Middlebury condemned the act, and the one protester identified as a Middlebury student was suspended for a year.

These stories, however, do not always play out so neatly. When students at DePaul University in 2013 put up a flag display on the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the flags were torn down by vandals and thrown in trash cans. The university investigated and identified the perpetrators. Young Americans for Freedom obtained the report and posted it. DePaul then charged and convicted the student head of Young Americans for Freedom with “disorderly, violent, intimidating or dangerous behavior to self or others” for releasing the names of the vandals.

College authorities may decide not to react too strongly to low-level lawlessness on campus for fear of inflaming a situation. Such an approach contrasts rather strongly to “broken-windows” theory of keeping public order. Instead of heading off escalations of lawlessness by responding swiftly to relatively minor transgressions, this approach offers a kind amnesty.


Bill Ayers gave up calling for mayhem when he transitioned from Weatherman Underground terrorist to University of Illinois professor of education, but in his memoirs, Fugitive Days (published September 10, 2001), Ayers offered a generally unapologetic account of his prior commitment to political violence.  His oft-quoted remarks to a New York Times reporter on the book’s publication were that he “would do it all again,” “I don’t regret setting bombs,” and that “we didn’t do enough.”

Ayers, unlike Churchill, had a long and substantial career in higher education, and is a now a professor emeritus.  He partnered with the young Barack Obama for the Chicago Annenberg Challenge and the Woods Fund of Chicago, where they collaborated to help fund ACORN. We don’t spend much time these days remembering President Obama’s ideological roots, but for those who want to refresh themselves on the details, Stanley Kurtz’s Radical-in-Chief (2010) is the indispensable scholarly source.  Kurtz’s excavation of the archives, however, is only one of many strands of evidence that Ayers has to be reckoned as a fairly influential figure in modern American higher education.

And if we go looking for influential campus figures who saw practical and legitimate uses for political violence, Ayers is far from alone. The list includes Noam Chomsky and the late Edward Said, both of whom have served as apologists for international terrorism.  Generally they reserve the word “violence” for the activities of states attempting to resist the terrorists. Chomsky’s 2013 “Edward Said Lecture” was titled “Violence and Dignity:  Reflections on the Middle East.” Said’s own contributions included essays such as “Identity, Negation and Violence,” (1988). Chomsky’s and Said’s writings have spurred a whole industry of academic writing that might be called rationalizations for anti-state violence. The flavor of this scholarship is suggested by Jeffrey Guhin’s and Jonathan Wyrtzen’s “The Violences of Knowledge:  Edward Said, Sociology, and Post-Orientalist Reflexivity,” (2013).  Guhin and Wyrtzen do not position themselves as advocates for violence. They simply call for sociologists to produce work “that does not consolidate state power but rather works within civil society to lessen suffering, increase freedom, and make lives more meaningful.” But the effect of treating the state as the only significant perpetrator of violence is to minimize all the other forms of non-state violence.

For decades schools of education, along with some other parts of the academy, have made Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) a central required text.  Freire famously exculpated the violence employed by the left as a proper response to the “institutional” violence of the state: “Violence is initiated by those who oppress, who exploit, who fail to recognize others as persons—not by those who are oppressed, exploited, and unrecognized” (Chapter 1).  Where there is Freire, Fanon—whom Wikipedia describes as “an existentialist humanist concerning the psychopathology of colonization”—is often not far behind.  Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (1961) no less famously called for violence in “decolonization,” both as a practical tool and as a form of “rehabilitation” for the oppressed:  “violence alone, violence committed by the people, violence organized and educated by its leaders, makes it possible for the masses to understand social truths and gives the key to them” (p. 96).

“At the level of the individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude. It emboldens them, and restores their self-confidence” (p. 51). It should be no surprise that Fanon shows up frequently in the postings of the Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee, and that one of the original organizers of the committee, Taryn Jordan, wrote her Women’s Studies thesis at George State University (The Politics of Impossibility: CeCe McDonald and Trayvon Martin—The Bursting of Black Rage”) as an application of Fanon’s theories.  “Bursting” in rage is one of Fanon’s key concepts.

The sub-culture of the university that has been awash in these radical exhortations to and justifications for violence has created a context in which the theme can flourish and at least a few can be moved to go beyond theory to practice.

Owning It

We pay a large price as a society for the politicization of our colleges and universities.  One part of that price is that far too many institutions have lost sight of basic principles. Academic freedom permits many things but it is not a legitimate pretext for advocating violent lawlessness.  Colleges and universities exist within a civil order.  They have an obligation to foster the basic conditions of a free society.

These days, colleges seem eager to impose on themselves onerous sets of rules meant to govern in fine detail how people can talk with one another, how sexual interactions should proceed, what kind of container can be used to drink water, and how often a toilet may be flushed.  No function of life in the community is too small to be regulated and no personal freedom is so important that it can be exempt from collective control.  Yet these campuses that are in the midst of embracing total social control over their members are also places where people extol racial violence and other forms of extreme lawlessness to be imposed on the rest of society.  It is one of the great ironies of contemporary academe that the same phrase is employed to justify the regime of petty tyranny on campus and murderous anarchy off-campus.  Both are pursued in the name of “social justice.”

Indulging in murderous fantasies à la Frantz Fanon and Bill Ayers may seem harmless when the killing was long ago or far away, but when we have mobs in the street with professors mingling among them or grad students inciting them, we need to pause. Higher education needs to own its share of responsibility for fostering both the bitter divisions we are witnessing and the resort to violence that has become part of that division.


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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3 thoughts on “Campus Tolerance for Violence

  1. In the late sixties/early seventies, did student protestors advocate ‘violence’? No. Physically destroying draft records during the Vietnam war was not violence, it was an attempt to undermine mass murder. Similarly with resistance to segregation, the Ku Klux Klan, and so on.

    I don’t just include left-wing ‘violence’ as not-really-violence. The resistance of the Koresh people at Waco in 1993 was also not really violence, since it was against something orders of magnitude worse. Similarly, it’s ridiculous to categorize current resistance to the wave of police killings as ‘violence’.

  2. Especially after November 2014, a lot more states have their senate, legislature and governor’s office in conservative hands. Many colleges in these states have left-wing departments that at least de facto censor or misrepresent conservative scholarship. Why do these conservative law makers routinely fund such departments when a majority of these lawmakers’ constituents would not want them to be funded if conservative scholarship is censored or given short shrift??

  3. These campus radical appear to lack the intellectual intelligence and discipline it takes to achieve real change through non-violent actions. This places them in the position of throwing an intellectual tantrum when they cannot effect change and when their words do not move the masses as they had hoped they pick up something and throw it. They are the weak minded children made of the mindset that everyone should get a trophy. They should not be teaching others when they can not support the argument they wish to defend.

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