Category Archives: Activism

On Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions

Earlier this year, a letter was read aloud to an audience at the University of Pennsylvania as they waited to hear a talk by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. The auditorium was filled to capacity and the mood was grim. UPenn president and political theorist Amy Gutmann was unable to attend the event, so a proxy was called in to read her prepared statement welcoming professor Dershowitz and, more importantly, explaining the university’s position vis-à-vis a particular conference occurring on campus at that very moment:

It is important that you all know that we have been unambiguous in repudiating the positions that are espoused by those sponsoring that conference. They run counter to our principles, our ideals and importantly, our actions.

It was a stern reaction to a controversy that had unfolded at Penn for weeks, provoking heated debates in the pages of the university newspaper and dividing students and faculty alike into opposing camps. Not all responses were quite as diplomatic as Gutmann’s guarded statement. One professor explicitly compared the organizers to Nazis, expressing outrage that a “genocidal” group was allowed to convene at all.

What could have prompted such vitriol? What was this awful conference? Were neo-fascists visiting UPenn?  Continue reading On Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions

On Resistance

Anyone who takes political resistance seriously must eventually confront the timeless question of tactics: which forms of resistance are appropriate to the struggle at hand; and which—if any—are not? A second set of questions necessarily accompanies the first, namely, by what set of criteria are tactics deemed appropriate or inappropriate to begin with and (most importantly) who can legitimately make such a determination? All social movements respond in some way to these questions, but the dilemma is especially complicated for movements seeking to mobilize a broad base of support.

Now that the first “phase” of Occupy has given way to a more dispersed movement, the debate over tactics has intensified. It’s important to remember that the proliferation of ideas and perspectives at work in every movement invariably creates tension. This is part of what makes Occupy, like all democratic movements, so exhilarating. Unfortunately, tension is often misunderstood as disorganization. To those activists for whom uniformity is synonymous with coherence, conformity is paramount. Tactics undertaken on behalf of the movement must be strictly regulated so as not to disrupt a narrow vision of Occupy’s character and aims. One such vision was recently articulated by Chris Hedges in his recent polemic, “Black Bloc: The Cancer in Occupy.” Continue reading On Resistance

Liza Featherstone: Caught in the Web

While labor lags behind other social movements in Internet organizing, some inspiring models are emerging. At the beginning of the year, Kristofer Petersen-Overton—an adjunct—was fired from the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College, just after a right-wing Zionist politician criticized his course on the Middle East for being too sympathetic to Palestinians. In an opinion piece for the CUNY Graduate Center’s newspaper, Petersen-Overton wrote:

In the blink of an eye, I have been denied tuition remission, access to subsidized health care for my family, and financial compensation for the spring semester in a time of serious economic uncertainty. If the college’s decision stands, it should send a chill throughout the entire adjunct community.

CUNY graduate students—led by political science Ph.D. candidate, Michael Busch—mobilized, using what they had: eloquence, access to other scholars, and Internet savvy. They started a blog on the issue and solicited letters from a wide swath of intellectuals, including Noam Chomsky and Mahmood Mamdani. The administrators were bombarded with letters urging them to reconsider their decision, and there was some press about the matter. (Full disclosure: I also wrote a letter.) All the letters went up on the blog, which only inspired more people to write. After just a few days of this epistolary assault, Petersen-Overton was rehired.

* Excerpt from Liza Featherstone, “Caught in the Web: The Teacher Union Counterattack,” New Labor Forum 20, no. 2 (2011): 92-95.

The Freedom Flotilla Can’t Lose

If you haven’t yet noticed, Israel is seriously concerned about the group of international peace activists aiming to break the military blockade of the Gaza Strip. The Israeli government has leveled a wide range of unsubstantiated charges against the activists with the second annual Freedom Flotilla, accusing them of vague ties to Hamas, latent anti-Semitism and warning that sulfuric acid was being stored for malicious use against Israeli soldiers (the latter claim has since been retracted). A Youtube video was also released late last month featuring a gay rights activist named “Marc” who’s newfound interest in pro-Palestinian politics—“I was picturing a cross between Ché Guevara and Mother Teresa with a kufiyeh”—was purportedly rebuffed by groups affiliated with the Flotilla (the video was quickly exposed as a hoax). The general thrust of these messages goes something like this: the Flotilla activists are nothing but a bunch of anti-Semitic Hamas supporters intent on provoking Israel into a violent confrontation—and they’re homophobic to boot! Not since the vilification of Judge Richard Goldstone has so much misinformation and good old-fashioned propaganda been promulgated by official Israeli channels. So why is Israel so concerned? Quite simply, the Freedom Flotilla movement is the best kind of non-violent political activism: it can’t lose. Continue reading The Freedom Flotilla Can’t Lose