When a far-Left student group tried to oust Ward Connerly from his position as a Regent in the University of California system, Students for Academic Freedom stepped up to the plate at UCLA and proved that conservatives can get their message heard, even on a P.C. campus.
In the kabuki theater that is university student "activism," there are few more ritualized events than a protest at a University of California Regents meeting. As a new UCLA alumnus and current Los Angeles resident, I have kept a close eye on the political scene on campus, and took an active role in founding a chapter of Students for Academic Freedom. Our chapter's introduction to UCLA came with our formation of a subgroup called "The Coalition to Defend Ward Connerly." Connerly, of course, is the courageous University of California Regent who has made it his life's work to carry forward Martin Luther King Junior's dream of racial color-blindness, doing this successfully with California's Proposition 209 (which ended Affirmative Action) and recently backing the unsuccessful Proposition 54, which would have ended the practice of racial data collection at the state level.
The Coalition to Defend Ward Connerly was in direct response to the radical, violent, leftist Berkeley group BAMN (By Any Means Necessary), which was mounting a "recall" effort against Connerly for his "abuse" of his position. The "recall" would culminate with a day of protest at the November 19 Regents meeting, to be held, of all places, right on the UCLA campus.
We quickly realized, this "recall" had no chance of succeeding. Rather, this was a carefully coordinated media display intended to put Connerly "under fire" in the public arena. For a group supposedly dedicated to authenticity, the hollowness of the approach was rich hypocritical indeed.
Our Coalition resolved to take our fight to two levels: first, to speak out during the public comment period of the Regents meeting, to be convened promptly at that Wednesday morning. But in recognition that the actual substance of the recall request was inevitably doomed, we also resolved to meet BAMN and the "Affirmative Action Coalition" (another UCLA group joining the effort) on the field of public protest, ruining their media stint.
Since generating media scrutiny of Connerly was the real purpose of this futile "recall" in the first place, we focused our efforts on countering their carefully orchestrated protests. Although we had discussed wearing unique costumes, our imaginations could run only as wild as our pocketbooks. After all, UCLA student government doesn't fund UCLA-SAF; it only funds groups like those composing the Affirmative Action Coalition. Instead, we settled on a simple strategy: create two banners, enormous, black-paint-on-white-butcher-paper banners held aloft on 8-foot poles. We considered this tactic to be "in your face" -- which is exactly where we wanted to be.
The messages we displayed for the two banners were certainly in this spirit. The first one read, "BAMN - Braindead A--Holes Mean Nothing"; the other, "This Protest Needs Soap." (And with all apologies to David Horowitz's former graduate school, the scruffy contingent bussed down from Berkeley did indeed convey an aroma that authenticated our second banner. So did their language.)
We had the design of these banners down to a science, thanks to the multiple protests we initiated or responded to last year. The most significant of these is our response to the March 5 student walkout ("Books, Not Bombs!"). For this protest, we created a banner that read, "Saddam Loves Walkouts." Then we stumbled upon something revolutionary: we realized that if we simply got in front of a major march with our banner, we would be seen as the "leaders" of the march. As the "leaders" of the Left's march, we were no longer merely fringe counterprotesters lacking the numbers to put on a show of our own, but instead we essentially destroyed the Left's ability to communicate its message.
It was also at this March 5 walkout that we got our first taste of "student security" -- that is, students drawn directly from the groups involved in the protest, but supposedly set aside and trained to act as "security" for the event. The allusion to a fox guarding the hen house isn't quite strong enough to convey the utter absurdity of expecting angry, partisan students to serve as a neutral buffer between their leftist friends and the counterprotesters they clearly hate. And they did not live up to that neutral calling.
Throughout the frantic hours of the March 5th walkout, the "student security" was constantly physically interdicting counterprotesters' right to move freely throughout the crowd, pressing their bodies up against ours and forcing us away from our intended destinations -- all the while standing idly by as the student Left physically and verbally harassed and intimidated our forces. But the afternoon reached its nadir when at the end of the march, in a mad rush for strategic position at the stairs of the administration building, the "security" line linked hands, charging me and other banner and sign carriers. I was personally knocked to the ground and had my sunglasses broken by the then-president of the UCLA Muslim Student Association. After getting up and continuing to run in front of the now-howling mob, I watched as angry students caught up to us and tore our banner to shreds. The mob literally howled its triumph -- a disturbing sound I hope to never hear again. Yet despite filing formal complaints with the university, the UCLA administration did not hold these "security" forces accountable for physically intimidating their enemies.
With the prospect of a repeat of this day of infamy in mind, the UCLA-SAF wrote a strongly worded letter of warning to Dean Robert Naples (available on UCLA-SAF's site), placing the UCLA administration, the Berkeley Dean's office, the UCPD Chief of Police and the Daily Bruin Editor in Chief on notice that a repeat of the same behavior would not merely be unacceptable but, given the notice provided and previous complaints, would constitute a conscious refusal to protect our rights as citizens and students.
Perhaps chastened by visions of lawsuits, Dean Robert Naples called UCLA-SAF President Kendra Carney within 30 minutes of the time we faxed the notice. Not only was Naples offering an (absolutely unheard of) open invitation to his office -- anytime that day between 2 and 5 pm -- but Naples subsequently explained that the head of Center for Student Programming, Berkey Nelson, would also be participating in the meeting. Regardless of where the administration stood, it was clear they took the notice seriously.
The meeting, while conciliatory, consisted of the usual heavy-handed tactics employed by administrators against conservatives, particularly threats of personal responsibility for Carney should anything happen. What was unusual was the manner in which most of the claims and threats made by the administrators wilted under pressure. Carney came away from the meeting with the promise that our members would be protected, and that anybody using amplified sound, upon the filing of a complaint, would be promptly arrested.
The day of the march turned out to vindicate our new get-tough attitude, and furthermore, to demonstrate that the Dean's office understood that last year's behavior was completely unacceptable. UCPD protection of our counterprotest was strong this year.
The contrast between this and last year's marches -- so similar in format -- could not be more pronounced. This year, the "head of student security" introduced himself to us before the start of the march. Explaining that their first priority was keeping people from out in front of the mass of marching students, I countered that our only intention was to lead the march. I emphasized that we would move when they moved, and stop when they stopped. We flatly refused to be pushed out more than 20 feet in front of their march. It seemed an understanding had been reached, even if it took threats of legal action against UCLA to obtain it.
The march started up and was remarkably civil. Oh sure, on the march down the main campus thoroughfare known as Bruin Walk, the marchers attempted an end run by sending their marches to the left when we went right, while having their "security" stand in our way until they had passed us. But the subterfuge failed: We simply grabbed up both sides of the banners, cut across the grass, and were back in front of the march within a minute. "Security" tried one last gambit, literally linking arms in front of us farther down the Walk, but a UCPD officer on his bicycle barked "Blocking a public walkway is a misdemeanor! Please stand aside!" The courageous line again melted.
As we marched past famous Pauley Pavilion, curious students looked with amazement at this odd, moving counterprotest. Vicious comments floated our way. One voice to my left (literally and figuratively) from the security line slammed a black male who has been one of our strongest members: "They got one token!" This racist chatter continued for at least a minute. Student government president Anica McKesey, herself a black female, chimined in, reading the young man out of the black race. "You should be ashamed of yourself!" she thundered.
As the march continued, the security line again tried to keep us from walking in front of the procession, just as we got sidetracked for a moment. The security line of students stood across one end of the walkway to approach Covel Commons. As I walked up, they linked hands in the clear intent to stop my forward progress. I simply called out to a UCPD officer, who replied, "Go around them. If they try to stop you, that's not acceptable." As I skirted to the left, their line attempted to follow me, at which point the cop snapped, "You're going to have to let him by." I smiled broadly at the security -- many of which dated from last year's protest -- and kept moving.
Looking for high ground, we decided to stand up on the flower beds right in the middle of the area in which students would be gathering, displaying both of our stark banners. Meanwhile at the leftist protest, a few hard luck BAMN protesters (all white) raised "power fists" at us, reminding me of Ward Connerly's description of their group: They always look as though they are "rioting in time warp, somewhere in the 1960s." While event organizers screamed slogans and empty rhetoric at the assembly, others were clearly quite busy inside, as after about half an hour of rallying outside, there was some deal struck. The doors were thrown wide open and the protestors went pouring inside, arranging themselves around two stories of circular stairs, only prevented from reaching the third floor where the meeting was happening by two lone LAPD officers.
We shortly ventured inside occasionally to watch the atmosphere of the building grow more miasmic with every puff of pointless rhetoric from student speakers, then shuffled off. Our work was done here.
This assessment, as it turned out, was premature, because shortly after leaving the front of the building, we received a frantic call from one member who had stayed behind. Speaking loudly to be heard over the shrieking of a women in the background, he explained that the leftists had in fact invaded the Regents' meeting room and were in the process of berating Ward Connerly. Rather than arrest the lot of them, which might have been a physical impossibility, the huge number of police in the meeting focused on keeping the crowd behind the ropes and away from the Regents. As the group of twenty hardcore radicals surged forward, braying invective, the police used the wide sides of their batons to push them back. The women of the group, surrounded by the men who had linked arms, screamed claims about physical injury because the police dared to restrain them in the midst of their intranscigent illegal activity.
After a time, the protesters were herded out of the room, none arrested, and were greeted with universally glowing coverage in the Daily Bruin the next day.
Despite the leftists' last-minute violence, our day on balance was a major success. We had kept the leftist herd off-message, successfully defended Ward Connerly in two speeches during the morning, and mocked BAMN - a group as recently as 2001 directly linked to violence and looting on their home campus - with near impunity. It seemed a tall order at the time of planning the event. But while giving proper credit to the UCLA administration and UCPD for having the guts to defend our basic rights of free assembly and free speech, the real credit goes to the brave members of SAF and the Coalition to Defend Ward Connerly. Being a target of hatred and harassment by 200 angry leftists is not an easy task, but, the patriotic Bruins proved up to it.
And if we can frustrate the left and get our message across at UCLA, surely others are equal to the task on their campuses, as well.