Bannon invitation provokes protest in Chicago

February 2, 2018

Anthony Cappetta reports from Chicago on the issues at stake as students and the community protest an appearance at the University of Chicago by Steve Bannon.

STEVE BANNON, the alt-right media celebrity and former top strategist to Donald Trump, has accepted an invitation to speak on campus at the University of Chicago (UChicago).

But students, staff and the local community aren't letting this right-wing provocation go by without a challenge.

In late January, the Chicago Maroon broke the news that Booth School of Business Professor Luigi Zingales had extended the offer for Bannon to speak in the near future, and Bannon accepted.

The following morning, the university released a statement defending the invitation despite the "debate and disagreement" it would cause, claiming that UChicago is "deeply committed" to freedom of expression for faculty and students, as well as "protesters and invited speakers."

But neither Zingales nor the university should be celebrated as champions of free speech. They are giving a platform to white nationalist ideas and should be called out for their hypocrisy.

Bannon's record is well-known. He's the former executive chairman of Breitbart News--a website that became mouthpiece for the so-called "alt-right" to spout its racist, xenophobic and misogynist ideas. Bannon was catapulted to mainstream fame when he became the architect of the Trump presidential campaign, and then a top White House adviser.

Students and community members protest Bannon at the University of Chicago
Students and community members protest Bannon at the University of Chicago

His crimes are many. After the white supremacist "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, resulted in the murder of anti-racist protester Heather Heyer, Bannon celebrated Donald Trump's statement that there was "violence on both sides" and his refusal to blame the fascists.

If Bannon is allowed to speak unopposed by mass protest, it will continue to normalize the reactionary ideas he espouses and further endanger members of the university community that are already under attack.

We know that ignoring white supremacists is no solution, nor do we think that we should rely on the UChicago administration to revoke the invitation is something we should demand.

Though this might seem like the most straightforward way to keep Bannon off campus--pressure the administration to cancel the event--we shouldn't demand that UChicago disinvite Bannon, because granting the administration such authority means it can and will use such power to silence left voices and restrict our rights in the future.

The only way to defeat white supremacists is through solidarity and building mass demonstrations that show that we are many, and they are few. On February 2, students, staff and the community will hold another protest against Bannon and the school's invitation for him to speak at 3 p.m. outside the Booth School of Business.

ALTHOUGH THE University of Chicago claims to uphold "the free expression of ideas," where all people can be safely heard, this is far from the truth.

Two days before the Maroon revealed the news about Bannon, an op-ed article written on behalf of the Phoenix Survivors Alliance documented the university's role in re-traumatizing survivors of sexual assault and its institutional mishandling of cases.

Unsurprisingly, this isn't first time the university has been exposed for not supporting rape victims. In September 2015, a Chicago Reader article documented UChicago's history of complicity in covering up assault cases.

In addition to silencing survivors, the university has attempted to squelch its graduate students' right to organize a union.

UChicago hired the notorious union-busting legal team at Proskauer Rose, held captive audience meetings in every department, mass e-mailed both undergraduate and graduate students with anti-union propaganda, and tried to file a stay to block the eventual successful vote to unionize back in October.

Since October, UChicago has refused to bargain with graduate employees and is hoping that the Trump administration will reverse a critical National Labor Relations Board decision, so it doesn't have to recognize the graduate student union.

On top of this, current staff members can't openly voice their opinions without fear of disciplinary action.

Two days after the Bannon announcement, Samantha Eyler-Driscoll resigned from her post on the editorial board of the UChicago publication ProMarket over the fact that if she didn't promote the Bannon event, she would face insubordination charges.

Eyler-Driscoll's statement identifies how some people in the campus community, mostly people in power with right-wing ideas, are defended and encouraged to say whatever they wish--while others, mostly people not in power who oppose such ideas, don't have the same rights and priorities.

FOR THE past several years, UChicago has attempted to position itself as a fearless protector of free speech--and gained national acclaim for its efforts.

In January 2015, the report of a Committee on Freedom of Expression established by the administration stated:

[I]t is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive...

Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, the university has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.

Numerous other universities adopted the statement, and Forbes reported that that UChicago was "shaking up the world again" with its plan to combat safe spaces and trigger warnings.

In actuality, the university isn't shaking up anything--quite the opposite.

In practice, UChicago's policy hasn't defended free speech, but will be used to limit the rights of people who wish to struggle for a better society and question UChicago role's in propping up the current one.

Just last year, UChicago rewrote its disciplinary code so that university officials can discipline anyone who impedes or prevents--even by mass protest--any invited speaker on campus. This lays bare the true intention of UChicago's supposed free speech crusade--to silent dissent.

INSTEAD OF a campus where free expression is championed, the University of Chicago has become a place where bigots and right-wing zealots feel comfortable to spew their hate and threaten people who oppose their ideas.

Last school year, multiple Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) activists faced death threats and constant online harassment. The student government passed a resolution calling on the university to hold who committed these attacks responsible and affirm the right of pro-Palestinian voices to be heard.

The university did nothing of the sort, and this year, flyers again appeared on campus that called anyone, professors or students, who wish to speak the truth about Israeli apartheid "terrorists."

Additionally, students arriving on campus this year were exposed to posters put up by the white nationalist group Atomwaffen Division. This is a group that has members accused of five murders over the past year.

If flyers from a white nationalist group weren't enough, a leading university figure essentially extended a lifeline to one of the best-known leaders of the far right, Richard Spencer. In an e-mail exchange published after the Charlottesville violence, UChicago Law School Professor Geoffrey Stone turned down Spencer's request to speak on campus, but added that "I would defend the right of others to invite you to speak."

IN DEFENDING his invitation to Bannon, Professor Zingales made a statement on his Facebook page that concluded: "I firmly believe that the current problems in America cannot be solved by demonizing who think differently, but by addressing the causes of their dissatisfaction. Hate cannot be defeated by hate, but only by reason."

This only betrays Zingales' bias--that people who protest Bannon's ugly racism, sexism and are themselves represent "hate." Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the old claim that hateful ideas should be challenged by some abstract idea of "reason" doesn't acknowledge the reality that hateful reactionaries like Bannon get a hearing not because their ideas stand the test of logic, but because money and power back them.

The University of Chicago--an institution founded on the profit of slave labor with a well-known reputation as an advocate of the neoliberal project of the wealthy--can't be trusted with the powers of banning or disinviting speakers.

As Samantha Eyler-Driscoll experienced, the university could use the same restrictions to silence those who oppose white supremacist ideas and those who seek to build a radical resistance movement on campus.

Our movement celebrates the right to free speech. But we must make it clearly clear that this right is not an exemption for ideas to go unchallenged. Our free speech means organizing hundreds and thousands of people to express their outrage at the racist, sexist and xenophobic rhetoric of Bannon.

If such a groundswell leads Bannon to turn down his invitation, then so be it. Our side would use the momentum from our mobilization to continue organizing against all the other attacks that working class people face.

Instead of relying on UChicago to defend our rights, we call on everyone to use their own right to free speech to show that racists are not welcome here. Join us on February 2 at 3 p.m. outside the Booth School of Business for a protest against Bannon and his planned appearance on campus. After the protest, there will be an organizing meeting to plan next steps.

We need to build a movement for the free expression of ideas of the majority against the white supremacist ideas of the few. This rally is an important next step toward building that movement.

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