Left and Lefter

Published on March 12, 2015

Orgo Night is always scheduled for 11:59 p.m. the Thursday night of reading week.

Just before midnight, the Columbia University Marching Band bursts into Butler Library to hold its infamously irreverent stand-up comedy show, which typically mocks topics ranging from the football team to national politics.

On Dec. 11, 2014—just four hours before Orgo Night was set to take place—Spectator published an op-ed by Columbia College junior Dunni Oduyemi and senior Tracey Wang, titled “If you go to Orgo night, you’re part of the problem.” The piece urged students not to attend, reflecting requests from students of color to cancel the event altogether as a way for the administration to support black and brown students following the non-indictments in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Oduyemi and Wang wrote, “Attending, enjoying, and celebrating Orgo Night perpetuates the alienation and marginalization of students of color. Your participation is violence, and your laughter complacency.”

The piece became wildly controversial on campus, and students began to align themselves with either the activists, who felt that Orgo Night ridicules marginalized identities, or with those who felt activists were being over-sensitive and limiting campus freedom of speech. To many students, Orgo Night represents one of the only fun events at Columbia, and the activists’ call for its cancellation seemed outrageous.

The administration met with CUMB and requested they cancel the event, but CUMB refused. In an official statement from the band, they wrote, “We understand that this is a really sensitive time in which many of our fellow students are hurting and it is for this reason that we feel, more than ever, students need an outlet for their anger and pain.”

The band then used the hashtag #BoycottOrgoNight to promote the event, making light of Oduyemi and Wang’s op-ed and the administration’s request.

At the performance, the band joked, “Across America, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the phrase ‘we live in a post-racial society’ is as big a lie as ‘we’ll solve it at the next town hall.’” After publicly criticizing police brutality, the band played CeeLo Green’s “Fuck You” and renamed it “Fuck You, Police.” The crowd went wild.

Orgo Night was only one event in a semester full of high-profile campus activism, but it remains a useful microcosm for the way radical activists, mainstream liberal students, and the Columbia administration interact with one another when contentious issues arise. At a university where most students identify as liberals, the vitriol with which students disagree warrants examination.

In this article, I will explore Columbia student political activism in two ways. The first is the relationship between student activists and University administrators. Academic institutions seek to embrace activism as a symbol of student engagement and critical thinking. Yet administrators continually demonstrate that they only feel sympathetic to certain kinds of activism, inhibiting student voices when they aren’t the kind of student voices they like to hear, be they too forceful or destabilizing to the institution.

The second is the relationship between students themselves. What does it mean for there to be solidarity among a variety of radical activist movements? How do the Columbia Democrats relate to the political landscape? This article explores what it means to be a liberal on a campus where being liberal is the mainstream opinion.

Top Left: Students Active For Ending Rape protest in 1999; Bottom Left: Students take over campus buildings in 1968 to protest Vietnam War and University development in Harlem; Right: Columbia College Dean Jack Greenberg addresses student activists occupying Hamilton Hall in 1992 to protest development on the site of Malcolm X's assassination.

Columbia narratives of activism

In April 1968, the Columbia administration invited the NYPD onto campus. The police cleared five campus buildings that student activists had been occupying for a week to protest the construction of a University gym in Morningside Park and University-funded research collaborations with the U.S. government during the Vietnam War. The 1,000 officers arrested 700 students and faculty. Hundreds were injured in the clash. Following the intervention, Columbia’s reputation tanked and alumni donations dramatically decreased.

Yet, some 47 years later, this tense time has become a celebrated piece of Columbia history, the myth of which is often perpetuated and integrated into the larger narrative of the University.

Ben Jealous, a CC graduate of 1994, was suspended for a semester after organizing a blockade of Hamilton Hall in protest of Columbia’s plan to construct a building on the site of Malcolm X’s assassination in Harlem. Following his graduation, he became a Rhodes Scholar and served as president and CEO of the NAACP from 2008 to 2012. In 2009, Columbia College honored Jealous with a John Jay Award for distinguished professional achievement. Jealous was the Columbia College Class Day speaker in 2010.

There is a good chance that current student activists will be featured in Columbia admissions material 10 years down the line. Sejal Singh, a CC senior and vice president for policy of CCSC, says, “It’s so strange that the administration will punish students for protesting and then 10 or 15 years later will put their face on a magazine to raise funds from alums.” She adds, “Many people here are fighting for social change because they have the drive to make the world a better place, and they go on to do that outside of Columbia. The same people who Columbia disciplines they are now using to promote the brand.”

This past February, students from the activist group No Red Tape entered a Columbia admissions information sessions, holding posters and chanting against rape culture on campus. Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, a CC senior and founder of the group, attended the protest and also stayed afterward to see how the information session would progress.

She reports that the admissions officer turned to the startled crowd and said, “As you can see, students at this campus are very politically engaged. Sexual assault is just one of the many issues that students are passionate about. We encourage free speech and political activism.” (These comments are similar to a statement the University released at the time of the Stand with Survivors rally in September.) Just two days before, the same group of activists had received letters from the Office of Judicial Affairs and Community Standards saying that they had broken the rules of conduct and would be disciplined for further protesting. At the time, OJA decline to comment to Spectator on the incident.

Even when administrators express respect for the ideas behind activism, viewing student political engagement as just one part of a college education can come off as patronizing. Suzanne B. Goldberg, executive vice president for University life, said in a New York Times article, “I think that any university students who engage with a disciplinary process on these issues learn a lot.”

In a conversation I had with Barnard President Debora Spar during her office hours, she expressed her respect for activism at Barnard and Columbia, saying, “It can be a really powerful opportunity to get experience with leadership, compromise, how you deal with authority. For students who are drawn to those kinds of experiences, being a college activist is a great opportunity.”

Spar also notes that historically, patterns of college activism are beyond the control of the administration. “Activism goes through waves. There are moments in time when activism across the country and world either picks up or diminishes,” she says. “There’s nothing administrators can do to push it one way or the other. Insofar as there is a moment of activism going on around the world, college campuses are always going to be a focal point.”

Activism and the Administration

If colleges are a focal point for activism, the question becomes how accommodating and responsive administrators will be to activist concerns, instead of paying tribute to that same activism 10 years later when it’s not immediately disruptive to campus life.

The track record between activists and administration this year has been contentious. During the first No Red Tape demonstration on Low Steps in September, one sexual assault survivor said to the crowd, “Dean Valentini, why are you letting my rapist walk around this campus?” The crowd chanted “Fuck you, deans,” accompanied by students who held signs with the same message. Ridolfi-Starr explains that slogan, saying, “Part of our strategy is not having faceless administrators, but focusing on the people who are making bad decisions. ‘Fuck the deans’ is a manifestation of anger, but it’s also us trying to hold the people individually accountable.”

In a statement at the time of the rally, the University said, “Student activism and campus dialogue are a welcome part of building upon the many changes underway at Columbia aimed at preventing gender-based misconduct and better responding to its occurrence.  We expect and welcome students exercising their free speech rights in peaceful ways that continue the campus conversation that began in earnest in the spring semester and continues today.”

One month later, on Oct. 29, No Red Tape organized the Carry that Weight National Day of Action, with hundreds of students demonstrating on Low Steps. After they stacked mattresses in front of Bollinger’s house, the University charged the activists with a $471 cleanup fee.

No Red Tape’s actions are not spontaneous, but rather calculated in order to fulfill its goal of bringing justice for survivors of sexual assault. Ridolfi-Starr explains, “We tried the peaceful version and as anti-violence activists that’s preferable for us.”

But speaking about the administration’s priorities, she says, “They made it clear what they value, and it’s their public image, their alumni donations, and their matriculation rates. So they’re not listening to us. The only time we can get real meetings is when we’re in trouble and we do something that shakes up the system enough that they feel like they have to meet with us.”

Even when administration and students meet, the results of the meeting are often not what students had in mind. When students of color requested that administrators cancel Orgo Night, Dean of Advising Monique Rinere and Associate Dean of Student Engagement Todd Smith-Bergollo did meet with CUMB and ask them to consider not having the event. Following the meeting, the Office of Undergraduate Student Life released a statement saying it could not force CUMB to cancel Orgo Night.

“The decision whether or not to cancel Orgo Night lies with the CUMB student leaders, as this is student event that is not school-sponsored,” the statement said. “In their conversation, band leaders stated that the goal of Orgo Night is community building and that they will strive to be sensitive. We encourage all members of our community, including the members of the Marching Band, to be aware of the impact that their words and actions have on others.”

But did the administration really engage with the activists’ concerns? Orgo Night may not be officially school sanctioned, but the event takes place in one of the largest study spaces in Butler Library. For Orgo Night to not have happened, the administration did not have to officially cancel the event—they simply had to prevent CUMB from entering Butler by placing Columbia Public Safety officers at the library entrance. In fact, later that night Barnard Public Safety did prevent CUMB from entering the Barnard quad, another long-standing marching band tradition.

Perhaps the administration had other reasons not to cancel Orgo Night, such as the outrage that would have arisen from students that a comedy event was being censored by the University. Perhaps it was the inundation of negative press the University would have received in the media. But saying that a cancellation wasn’t possible at all seems to be an indication that the administration wasn’t really engaging with activist concerns. Instead, they were giving excuses.

Activist Ideology

A crucial element to understanding radical activism on campus is the concept of intersectionality, the belief that there are intersections between forms of oppression despite their different particular causes. Where activist culture is today is in part an acknowledgement of where it’s been in the past. For instance, traditional iterations of the feminist movement are now seen as exclusionary or silencing to women of color and trans women, because they do not consider how race or gender identities affect feminism. Along these same lines, many radical activists reject traditional political frameworks, because they include elements of capitalism and colonialism.

For many intersectional activists, it wouldn’t make sense to support the Coalition Against Gentrification without supporting LUCHA, Students for Justice in Palestine without Prison Divest, or feminist issues without economic justice. Student groups are dedicated to particular issues, but the issues themselves don’t stand on their own.

The expression of intersecting ideologies between radical groups has been visible this year, starting with the Disorientation Guide 2014, a zine that was collaboratively produced by activist groups ranging from the International Socialist Organization, No Red Tape, Coalition Against Gentrification, GendeRevolution, and more.

Caleb LoSchiavo, a Barnard senior and trans student, explains that trans activism intersects with a variety of other political issues. “I see trans issues everywhere, because trans people are everywhere, working with students against mass incarceration and Columbia Prison Divest, because trans people are disproportionately affected by the prison system, especially trans people of color, especially trans women of color,” LoSchiavo says. “This all ties into class, and race.”

The idea that all forms of oppression need to be addressed together can be helpful in terms of the solidarity and emotional support it provides to members of activist groups. But it can also complicate feelings for people who want to be allies to certain causes but feel uncomfortable with the package deal that intersectionality would imply.

Dana, a Barnard senior who requested that her last name not be included in this story, is a survivor of rape and has spoken openly at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel about her experience dealing with the emotional trauma that followed her attack.

In October, Dana attended No Red Tape’s Carry That Weight National Day of Action rally, where a member of SJP was invited to address the crowd, connecting the causes of Palestine and campus rape. When the SJP member started his speech, she felt confused. Following the chants of “Free, free Palestine” after the speaker was finished, Dana and her friends left the rally.

“I felt like this was a safe space to talk about campus sexual assault issues. There is so much on this campus that is about Israel and Palestine, but this was finally a place that wasn’t. But then it was,” she says. “My speaking about being a survivor in Hillel would never elicit something about Israel, Palestine, or any other political issue. It would only elicit someone talking to me about being a survivor.”

Students can believe intersectionality is intellectually legitimate while also believing it should be applied selectively and with caution. Two distinct political issues can both relate to oppression, but when one is taking place on a New York City college campus and the other is an ongoing geopolitical issue that is happening 6,000 miles away, some might see the comparison as illegitimate, and even alienating to entire groups of students.

Ridolfi-Starr, who was part of the decision to invite the SJP speaker, says she recognizes the complex implications of intersectionality in her work. “It’s just a reality that there is a tension in saying, ‘We are a safe space for everyone,’ and we’re saying things about big powerful systems that are going to make some people unhappy,” she says.

While No Red Tape is determined to support all survivors regardless of their political beliefs, the groups maintains its own intersectional views. “We would do anything to provide a survivor with direct support, but we are not going to compromise on a belief system that we feel is fundamental to the way we understand violence,” Ridolfi-Starr says. “It’s not anti-rape and pro-Palestine. It’s anti-oppression, and offshoots of that are anti-rape and anti-occupation.”

Ridolfi-Starr emphasizes that No Red Tape would never exclude a sexual assault survivor who held a divergent view on a topic like Israel-Palestine. “But I think they would exclude themselves,” she says.

Top Left: Emma Sulkowicz, CC ’15, addresses a crowd of protestors at Carry That Weight rally; Top Right: Members of Columbia Prison Divest demonstrate on Low Steps; Bottom Right: Students of color stage a #BlackLivesMatter die-in at the tree-lighting ceremony to protest non-indictments in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner; Bottom Left: Members of No Red Tape stage a rally on Low Steps.

Democrats: The pulse of liberal activism?

The issue of exclusion is where many activist groups differ from mainstream political groups such as the Columbia University Democrats, which is a center for liberal political discussion on campus, but is also inviting to students of different political views.

Singh, a former president of CU Dems, says that the group encourages its members to debate and disagree. “We welcome everyone coming to our meetings, including Republicans,” she says. “We’re not going to suddenly stop campaigning for Democratic causes, but everyone is welcome to come.”

As the largest student group at Columbia, CU Dems’ slogan is “The pulse of liberal activism on campus.” But students from within the organization have different views on the accuracy of that claim. Singh believes that CU Dems are certainly an activist group, although their work is primarily directed off campus, working for election campaigns. “This is a different style of activism,” Singh says. “Activism doesn’t belong to any particular group.”

When Singh was president of the Dems, she would have the group engage with on-campus issues, such as inviting Prison Divest for a teach-in at a weekly CU Dems meeting. She also started a petition in October 2014 to raise awareness about the lack of transparency in campus assault statistics and policies. Singh says that CU Dems are to the left of the national Democratic party—“Maybe we have [Elizabeth] Warren fans instead of Hillary [Clinton] fans”—because its members are young and live in New York City.

Jordana Narin, a CC sophomore and media director of CU Dems, acknowledges that CU Dems’ position within the liberal campus community is often a source of disagreement within the group. “I don’t think the left perceives us as left enough,” she says. “There were members of CU Dems that were very mainstream, to the point of they would never want to associate themselves with other movements.”

Cameron Fegers, a CC senior and former lead activist for CU Dems, believes the group can no longer call themselves “the pulse of liberal activism.” He says, “There are groups that are far more deserving of that title than we are,” citing No Red Tape, which is specifically geared towards creating a safer campus.

Describing his own ideological views, Fegers says, “I don’t like to identify as a hard-core liberal. I’m a moderate liberal.” He doesn’t have a problem with CU Dems not living up to their slogan as the pulse of liberal activism on campus. Narin, however, carries different aspirations for the group. “We’ve become a very placated, discussion-based group, and a lot of people are frustrated by that. Activism is not a letter-writing campaign,” she says.

The ideological rift within CU Dems surfaced this past October when Narin and Fegers published contradictory op-eds in Spectator about the town hall regarding the University Senate review of the Rules of Conduct, according to which students can be disciplined for speaking publicly against Columbia.

Narin penned an op-ed on behalf of CU Dems, titled “CU Dems: Rules of Conduct are Flawed.” She urged students, faculty, and administration to attend the town hall, writing that Columbians “must make their voices heard in advocacy of free speech and assembly.” Narin argued that the town hall should not be viewed as a partisan issue. Without revision, the Rules of Conduct could be used to prosecute any student who gathered on campus before attending People’s Climate March or students from No Red Tape who protest on Low Steps.

Just one week later, Spectator published an op-ed written by Fegers, who at the time was serving on the Dems board, and David Kang, the president of the Columbia Political Union. The piece was titled “Support unheard opinions” and doesn’t encourage or discourage students to attend the town hall. Instead, the authors say, “It is especially important to consider the ‘silent majority’ when making policy changes on the University level. The authors ask, “When activists are the only ones who are able to have their views heard, how will the rest of student public opinion be heard when decisions are made?”

While Narin emphasizes that the Rules of Conduct are not a partisan issue, Fegers and Kang reassert a divide between activist and non-activist students when they write, “We need to steer away from accusatory dialogue about administration and remember that these are issues that affect us all, not just the activists.”

When I spoke to Fegers about the op-ed, he said the town hall was flawed because it naturally favored liberal students. “The town hall itself was a form of suppression to conservative voices, voices that don’t give a shit about activism.” He asks, “How can you tell me that it was designed in a way that was best suited for incorporating student opinion?”

CU Dems internal politics aside, the group is committed to working with the existing political system, a fundamental difference between the mainstream left and radical left on campus. “At least within the communities I’m a part of, we definitely don’t identify with Dems,” Oduyemi says. “None of the radical groups that I’m a part of are invested in the American voting system.”

Ridolfi-Starr started her time at Columbia with CU Dems and even served as a lead activist for the group during her freshman year. She eventually chose to leave the group after realizing her priorities were not aligned with the group’s, in terms of “how we use our resources and privileges as Columbia students and whether we were willing to take definitive and bold stances on questions about visions of ending violence.” Ridolfi-Starr decided to leave candidate- or party-specific politics entirely, and instead work on issue-specific activism. In her junior year, she founded No Red Tape Columbia.

Is Columbia particularly liberal?

At the Carry That Weight National Day of Action protest on Low Steps, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James stood in front of hundreds of students and called Columbia’s campus “sacred ground for protest.” Reflecting on Barnard as school with an activist spirit, Spar says, “This is not the kind of college where people come to sit on a hillside and think great thoughts for four years. Political engagement is part of the DNA of this school.”

But according to students within activist and mainstream political groups, the idea of Columbia as particularly activist is a myth. While some students latch on to stories like the occupation of Hamilton Hall of 1968 and the divestment from apartheid South Africa in 1978, Oduyemi points out that those stories arise from historical interpretations that downplay the resistance activists faced at Columbia at those times. “We were actually one of the last schools to divest from South Africa and it took so much strain from the students who were around back then,” she says.

Barnard has both historically and currently lagged behind peer institutions in its progressive politics. Mount Holyoke and Wellesley have already established progressive trans admission policies, allowing for the admission of any student who is female or identifies as a woman. Barnard is engaged in the issue, hosting town halls and online forums to discuss the issue, but we’re certainly not leading the pack.

LoSchiavo, a member of Students for a Trans-Inclusive Barnard, says there is precedent for the college falling behind on progressive policies. Barnard was the last of the Seven Sisters to admit African-American women in 1925, while Mount Holyoke’s first African-American graduate was in the class of 1883. The politics at Barnard, LoSchiavo says, are “super-capital-L liberal white feminism.”

“The idea of the Barnard Woman—what does that mean?,” LoSchiavo says. “‘We’re open if you fit into our standards of what kind of Barnard woman we want.’” In LoSchiavo’s experience, the type of activism that is welcome at Barnard is the kind that “you can walk by at a table and say ‘oh, that’s nice’ and keep walking. The activism that forces you to pay attention, that becomes a little too much, a little too aggressive.”

Even certain conservative students on campus would agree that, while the environment of Columbia is decidedly liberal, it’s not any more liberal than other elite educational institutions. Max Schwartz, a CC junior and director of communications of Columbia University College Republicans, says Columbia is far from being as liberal as it could be. “Compare Columbia to something like the UC system,” he says. “The student body council passed a motion asking the university system to divest from the US government. Columbia isn’t doing that, and we aren’t close to doing that.” Schwartz adds that while he chooses not to participate in campus protests, they are “relatively reasonable.” “It’s not like 1968,” Schwartz says, “Students aren’t taking over buildings.”

* * *

Ongoing conflicts with administrators and peers can can become exhausting for activists. Students on the radical left are perceived as too extreme or too angry, often indicating a misunderstanding of the reasons they are angry in the first place.

Ridolfi-Starr also believes that people don’t understand the experience of being a campus survivor. Responding to potential critics, she says, “I wish I could tell them how it feels to walk around here every day, leaving your dorm room and say, ‘where am I going to see him?’” Speaking about this anxiety, she says, “It’s exhausting and depressing and overwhelming and pervades every aspect of what it means to be a Columbia student for me. People talk about campus pride, and all these things about Columbia, and none of them exist for me separate from rape. I can’t do anything without being ‘rape girl.’ Because everywhere I go there is a rapist, or pain and people who need help.”

After Oduyemi co-authored the Orgo Night op-ed, the piece received hundreds of anonymous comments attacking both the content and the authors. One Barnard student tweeted at Oduyemi, “I’m so white I’m not allowed an opinion?” (the tweet has since been deleted). Another Columbia student tweeted, “I honestly owe you a bucket of ice water on the head to bring you back to reality.”

Oduyemi says of walking around campus during those days of heightened tension, “I felt like I didn’t know who was around me. I would see a person and think that could be commenter 300, saying that I’m racist.” She dismisses that criticism, saying, “I don’t want to go to school with people who think that being critical of white supremacy makes me anti-white and racist.”

In an op-ed published the day after Orgo Night, “How Columbia turned conservative,” Jake Davidson, a CC graduate of 2014, wrote that Oduyemi and Wang’s op-ed “accuses the CUMB of ‘violence’ four separate times, without providing a shred of evidence substantiating its outrageous claim. The language is revealing. Disagreement with Columbia’s endemic form of political correctness has come to be perceived as a violent act.”

This passage reveals that political ideologies at Columbia have become so fragmented that student can’t even engage with each other’s language. Davidson does not see evidence of ‘violence’ in what Oduyemi and Wang have written and assumes they are accusing the band of disagreeing with them. But Oduyemi and Wang understand violence in structural and historical terms. Structural violence is language or action that creates a hostile environment for marginalized people. By this definition, activists perceive Orgo Night’s jokes—such as the Nicki Minaj and Malaysian Airlines posters Oduyemi and Wang cite in their op-ed—as violent toward students of color.

When the mainstream population of a student body identifies as liberal, the differences between students on the left become far more complex. But in order to mitigate the pain and confusion that often results from campus disagreements, we should recognize that arguments between mainstream left and radical left students do not represent two sides of one political coin. Instead, groups aren’t engaging with each other at all, employing different terminology and societal views to inform their opinions. Understanding political discourse on campus should start from here.


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