Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Another Article on Police Repression at UM; Prof. Babayan Replies

On December 4th the Michigan Daily published an article on the protest and subsequent police repression and brutality that occurred last Thursday at the University of Michigan. Of course, author Kelly Fraser did not characterize the events that way and her article is only slightly better than the misleading and inaccurate article published earlier in the Ann Arbor News. Fraser contacted me by telephone while writing the article and I spoke at length with her about some of the issues discussed below.

According to the Daily article, "The protesters were chanting things like 'Hands off Iran' and 'Tanter is a pig,' Tanter said." This is untrue, at no point were protesters chanting "Tanter is a pig" or anything like that. Furthermore, all of the chanting occurred before Tanter began his presentation, which was long-delayed because the organizers could not get the computer for his Power Point presentation working. I specifically mentioned this to Fraser.

Fraser also reports, "Tanter said he was not advocating that the United States use military force against Iran ..." This is misleading, at best, Tanter is advocating that the US facilitate covert military operations against Iran, conducted by the Mujahedeen-e Khalq with the expectation, as he told Ha'aretz, that this will lead to "civil war" in Iran. I specifically mentioned the Mujahedeen-e Khalq and the Ha'aretz article to Fraser.

Fraser writes, "Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Diane Brown said Michigan League staff made the first call to DPS because protesters were blocking the building's entrances well before the event was scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m." When I arrived at the League the protesters were present outside but at no time in my presence did they block the entrance and stayed I there for several minutes talking to some of them.

To her credit, Fraser does note that "Heckling is accepted under the [University's Standard Practice Guide for Freedom of Speech and Artistic Expression], but the interruptions cannot block the speaker's communication with the crowd." As I told Fraser, the protesters did not violate the guidelines at any time.

The article also states:
Catherine Wikinson [sic], an Ann Arbor resident who said she came to support friends who were protesting, said Coleman was unconscious.

Brown said this could have been part of Coleman's strategy.

"Portraying unconsciousness is part of a protest strategy and up to a medical physician to decide," she said.
It just so happens that Catherine Wilkerson is a medical doctor, something Fraser knew but failed to report. I gave Fraser's phone number to Dr. Wilkerson and that is how she came to interview her. It is interesting that UM spinmeister Brown, presumably not a physician, feels qualified to assert that "Portraying unconsciousness is part of a protest strategy ..."

Finally, the Daily reports:
Tanter has e-mailed members of the University's Board of Regents about Prof. Kathryn Babayan's alleged involvement in the protest.

Babayan is an assistant professor of Iranian history and culture in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. Tanter said that while Babayan has a right to participate in the discussions, she also has an obligation as a faculty member to not assist groups that interfere with free speech.

Tanter suggested the regents and the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, which addresses faculty issues at the University, consider the issue of a faculty member's role in disruptive demonstrations during academic events.

Babayan did not return calls asking for comment yesterday.
This has all the hallmarks of academic intimidation on Tanter's part. First, there was no formal protest group for Professor Babayan to assist but I'll let her speak in her own words, below is her letter to the Daily and the News.
The following constitutes my response to the recent accounts given by the UM student organization The American Movement for Israel (AMI), Guest Speaker Professor Raymond Tanter, and Senior Information Officer Diane Brown, of the Office of the Associate Vice President for Facilities and Operations, as they were reported in the Ann Arbor News (Dec. 2nd, 2006) and the Michigan Daily (Dec. 4th, 2006).

The rights of the speaker Professor Tanter to lecture on Thursday, November 30th, were not abused as has been claimed by him, AMI, and others. Certainly the AMI's own video recording of the event has documented the facts: he gave his ten-minute threadbare speech on the "Islamic fascist ideology of Iran," and then took questions, and comments from audience members, though mockingly and condescendingly.

It was in fact the rights and personal security of dissenting audience members that were egregiously abused that evening. According to the university's policies on the freedom of speech and artistic expression, event organizers, guest speakers, and campus police cannot determine at will or arbitrarily what constitutes "undue interference" at university public events attended by diverse and, at times, contrary political opinions. According to the University of Michigan's standard guidelines (which I encourage all readers to learn at: www.spg.umich.edu), "protesters have rights, just as do speakers and artists. The standard of "undue interference" must not be invoked lightly, merely to avoid brief interruptions, or to remove distractions or embarrassment." But that was exactly what happened: the standard of "undue interference" was abused and wantonly invoked to lead to our removal from the event. AMI organizers "sicked" the campus police on the protesters in the audience and, by force of arrest, silenced our voices, which are institutionally protected within the university community "spectrum of opinion."

As if this weren't enough violation of university policies, what ensued was excessive and abusive use of force by campus police officers against the protesters. Targeting the most vocal, "foreign-looking," and obviously Middle Eastern protester, AMI Chair Josh Berman gave the word and signal to the campus officers to remove her. At that, one Officer [name redacted at author's request] lunged at her, grabbed her out of her seat next to mine, and tried to shove her out of the room. But because of the force behind the pull, she tripped, and fell onto the narrow aisle at my feet. Officer West threw his body onto her and thrust his knee into her shoulder, shouting "Get up! Get up!" though it was clear that, due to his weight and sheer force, she had been rendered unable to move or rise. When I and other audience members objected vocally to the officers' undue and excessive use of force, he and other campus police officers warned us that, if we did not desist from our objections, we too would be arrested. These threats and intimidations represent another flagrant example of campus authorities' suppression of the legitimate exercise of freedom of speech.

Campus police's violence against ordinary citizens was not isolated to this one incident. When a group of us pursued down the hallway the officers who had hauled away the female protester, we saw lying on the floor there, with a bloodied forehead, another protester. He had been removed from the event venue by officers, handcuffed, and kept on his back. Despite the protests by demonstrator and physician Dr. Willkinson [sic] for medically humane treatment of the unconscious man, Officer West ignored her and defiantly repeated, "They are not coming off."

The institutional parties who have acted badly in this affair are numerous. One is Diane Brown, whose statements in the two afore-mentioned newspapers support and protect the police's and AMI's decisions and behavior. In unquestioningly supporting the misactions and misdeeds of both the student organization and the campus police, and in concluding that "what happened" that evening justified their responses, and that, hence, these responses do not constitute abuse of power and negligence of obligations toward all participants, including protesters, Ms. Brown has failed her institutional responsibility and duties.

The one beacon of light in the midst of this dark intolerance was one young man who did the right thing: out of the crowd he appeared and held the hand of the female victim while she was being pinned down by Officer West and a female officer. This young man remained by the protester's side throughout her detainment by the police. He recognized that it behooved everyone to protect the rights of all participatants' [sic] to free expression, particularly when that expression is considered onerous. This young man rose as the sole conscientious citizen in that crowd and I salute him.

Kathryn Babayan
Associate Professor of Iranian History & Culture
Department of Near Eastern Studies
Thanks to M. for the letter from Professor Babayan.

Last revised: 12/09/2006

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