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The Virtues Of Uncivil Disobedience

Guest Column Erik C. Snowberg

A friend of mine once wrote a paper defending terrorism. Somewhere in the midst of it was the line, “Sometimes you are just so repressed for so long that you have to break down and kick some ass.’ When I think of the state of the MIT community today, I am occasionally reminded of this line.

Since President Vest made his freshmen on campus decision over a year ago, there have been varying levels of distress expressed by members of the MIT community. These feelings have led to letter writing campaigns, long winded proposals and even the occasional “protest.’’

The members of the MIT community who have chosen to engage in these activities have been variously scolded by others, even by some in this very publication, for their lack of vision and not knowing when they are beaten. I must disagree with this sentiment and applaud the protesters and those who have spoken out. That being said, I have to concur with others who say that the protest movement is going nowhere.

The difference is that while many feel that the opponents of the 2001 decision whine and protest about something they can’t change, I don’t think that they are protesting enough.

The history of protest shows that although almost everyone is opposed to the destruction of property and other sorts of mayhem caused by protesters, it often accomplishes a lot more than any other sort of protest. These forms of protest, known collectively as “non-violent direct action’’ have been effective tools used constructively by leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi.

A cursory examination of history -- even history at MIT -- reveals that the greatest and most drastic changes in our society have come about as the result of direct action. In his memoirs, Howard Johnson, President of MIT during the Vietnam War, routinely criticized the tactics of protesters. After reading for a while you began to feel that the only time things at MIT changed, such as divestment from the Instrumentation Laboratory (now Draper Labs) and Lincoln Labs, was after some sort of sustained protest or an instance of direct action.

Even recent history shows that non-violent direct action is an effective tool. Just last week World Trade Organization talks stalled in Seattle amidst massive and sometimes violent protests. Although it is impressive that 35,000 people (by the New York Times estimate) showed up in Seattle to protest, without violent and unnecessary reaction from the police which spurred some protesters to destroy stores and otherwise damage property, the protests would have never received the front page coverage it did. This thrust many issues into the limelight, prodding President Clinton to address the protester’s major concerns in a speech that would eventually cause the WTO talks to collapse.

A couple of months ago I attended a sit-in hosted by MIT Choice. It was nice to see some people yelling and chanting, but when 2:30 rolled around, the organizers announced that the sit-in was over. By doing so they showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of a sit-in. A sit-in is supposed to shut down the facilities of whatever you are protesting until they have to deal with your issues or you are arrested. By dispersing the energy of a crowd, they were bound to leave protesters feeling unfulfilled.

Such techniques have been used successfully since labor strikes in the late 1800s. Even recently, students protesting sweatshops at other university campuses have had a great deal of success with non-violent direct action. In one case protesters at the University of Arizona held their president hostage in his office for over 100 hours until he signed an agreement stipulating that no U of A apparel would be manufactured in sweatshops with provisions to enforce the agreement.

Non-violent direct action would be effective here at MIT since it would scare away donors. Many groups have tried to get their alumni to stop giving to MIT until the 2001 is over-ruled, but alumni donations have actually increased. An article about a protest or even a violent clash at the William R. Gates III building is not the sort of publicity ol’ Bill was looking for when he coughed up $20 million.

According to old professors here, during the Vietnam War, the administration was flooded with letters from alumni who wanted to donate but were concerned that their donations would support a radical campus -- a campus opposed to the Vietnam War. Thus, stopping the protests was important to the administration, and made them a little more willing to give the protesters some ground.

Let me be clear that I do not condone or encourage this sort of action. I am a horrible activist. I would enjoy having my neck bicycle locked to a door to prevent entry about as much as I would like to ... well ... have my neck bicycle locked to a door.

Anyone who engages in this behavior should expect to be ostracized by a large portion of the community and have all the resources of the administration turned against them. They should also realize that negotiating with the administration is like playing poker with someone who is always dealt a royal flush; the only way to win is to knock the table over and punch him in the jaw. In the end, it is important for people to realize the tools they have available, and make an intelligent decision on whether or not to use them.

Erik C. Snowberg is a member of the Class of 1999.