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What Would Daniel Ellsberg Do?

(Repressive State Apparatus in action 5/7/2024, FJP photo)

I have been a history professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst for twenty years. On May 7, I was one of a handful of faculty members arrested for standing in support of hundreds of students who were engaged in nonviolent protest of university complicity in the ongoing slaughter and suffering of Palestinians in Gaza. They want the school to divest from companies profiting from the carnage.

In the hours before UMass Chancellor Javier Reyes called in more than a hundred state police in riot gear to arrest anyone who did not disperse from the area in and around a small encampment, I wrestled with questions of conscience and practicality. Am I willing to be arrested? Is it the right thing to do? Could it make a difference? Would there be negative consequences for my career?

In the end, it was not a hard choice. I simply asked myself, “what would Daniel Ellsberg do?”

In 1971, Ellsberg released to the press and public the Pentagon Papers—a 7000-page classified history of the Vietnam War exposing decades of government lies about its causes and conduct. For that act of moral courage, he sabotaged his career and faced a possible 115-year sentence. Outside a federal court in Boston, Ellsberg was asked if he was worried about going to jail. His response: “Wouldn’t you go to prison to help end this war?”

Ellsberg asked himself that very question in 1969 when he met some of the 3,250 young men who went to prison rather than submit to the Vietnam War draft. “It was the first time that I had come face-to-face with Americans willing to go to prison for refusing to collaborate in an unjust war.” Their bravery inspired his own. As he often said, “courage is contagious.”

I’m very proud that UMass acquired Ellsberg’s papers in 2019, funded many projects to promote his legacy, and in 2023 awarded him an honorary degree. Those commitments are one reason why I was so shocked and grieved by the UMass administration’s decision to crackdown on peaceful antiwar protest at an encampment that had been in place only seven hours. It was a betrayal not only of Ellsberg’s example, but the university’s own bold motto, “Be Revolutionary.”

The police arrest of faculty came first, and we were treated with reasonable restraint. However, as many videos and personal testimonies demonstrate, there was widespread use of excessive force against students. One of my graduate students was thrown face down to the ground, with a knee pressed so hard in his back he struggled to breathe. He was zip-cuffed so tightly his hands soon began to swell. He was then put in the back of a small windowless police van for several hours before being driven to the Mullins Center arena to join many of the 134 arrested protestors. His experience was not exceptional; some arrestees were subjected to greater violence. At the arena, many were held all night (still zip-cuffed), denied food or water, and were only allowed to use the bathroom after hours of pleading, if at all.

The Chancellor and his supporters, including Governor Maura Healey, have defended the mass arrests on the grounds that they were necessary to ensure safety. Yet no one’s security was at risk until the police were ordered onto campus. Nor should we take seriously the Chancellor’s claim that he had negotiated in good faith with a delegation of protestors prior to the arrests. As a detailed report of the meeting makes clear, he told the students repeatedly that he would not even consider discussing their demands until the encampment was taken down. Moreover, although the Chancellor insisted that calling the police was an “absolute last resort,” they were massing on campus even as the “negotiations” were just beginning.

What would Daniel Ellsberg do? We can’t know with complete certainty because he died last June at the age of 92. We do know that in the 50 years after he released the Pentagon Papers, he devoted his life to principled nonviolent activism and was arrested more than 80 times for acts of civil disobedience in the struggle for peace and nuclear disarmament.

And when I wrote his widow, Patricia, to tell her of my arrest she wrote back these words, used with her permission: “I’m sure Dan would have advised you to get arrested. In some ways, I’m glad he is no longer here because he would have been anguished over the horror perpetrated by Israel on Gaza and probably arrested many times in protest.”

I am also quite sure he would have been, as I am, deeply inspired by the passion and commitment of this generation of young activists.

CHRISTIAN APPY is the Director of the Ellsberg Initiative for Peace and Democracy and author of three books about the Vietnam War. He is now writing a biography of Daniel Ellsberg.


A Need for Moral and Ethical Leadership

UMass Faculty for Justice in Palestine

In an emergency meeting of the general faculty on May 20th, nearly 500 UMass Amherst faculty and librarians voted in favor of a motion of no confidence in Chancellor Javier Reyes. This vote occurred less than a month after Chancellor Reyes’s inauguration in April, and less than a year after he assumed the role of Chancellor on the Amherst campus. Yet there was nothing hasty about it.

In order to call the emergency meeting, 10% of the total faculty (approximately 170 people) were required to petition for it. The petition began circulating on the morning of May 16th and in a little over an hour it had the requisite votes. By the time the form closed later that day, the number of signatories had reached nearly 400.

This immediate response shows the urgency of the motion. It also gives a sense of the unease in the Chancellor’s leadership that has been simmering among faculty and librarians since last fall, when 57 people (55 students and two staff members) were arrested just hours after they had peacefully occupied UMass’s main administrative building to demand UMass’s divestment from Raytheon and other companies fueling the war in Palestine. The arrested students have since been put on probation via the Student Code of Conduct process, an unnecessarily harsh sanction that has prevented them from attending study abroad programs, impacted their ability to obtain housing, and potentially affected their future applications to graduate school. As indicated by the nearly 1200 signatories of this petition, delivered to Chancellor Reyes on March 28th, many deem this sanction a disproportionate punishment, particularly when viewed in light of the long history of student activism at UMass.

The resolution of no confidence focused specifically on Chancellor Reyes’ May 7th decision, despite the urging of faculty, to again call in a militarized police force to break up a peaceful encampment. Student protestors built the encampment to amplify their requests that the university disclose and divest financial connections to the genocide in Gaza, drop university sanctions imposed upon the students involved in the October sit-in, and end study-abroad programs in Israel. Chancellor Reyes met with student and faculty representatives to discuss these issues, but even as the negotiations took place, a large police force (the Daily Collegian counted some 117 police vehicles, including 109 State Police vehicles) had begun to amass on campus. By 7:45 pm the arrests had begun.

Regardless of how faculty and librarians felt about the encampment or the politics that motivated it, many were shocked by the violence that ensued. Over the night of the 7th and into the morning of the 8th, over 130 students, faculty, staff, and community members were arrested. As has been well documented, police used excessive force in making arrests: throwing, kneeling on, dogpiling and pushing protestor’s head into the ground and threatening bystanders with pepper spray; grabbing, tackling and kneeing a student who is videorecording them; charging, chasing, kneeling on, and arresting people in the crowd along the perimeter; rushing a crowd of peaceful protestors; and using strobe lights to disorient students. Many students sustained injuries. Those taken into custody were forced to remain in tightly-fastened zip ties for as long as 10 hours, and denied access to bathrooms, water, and medical care.

Still reeling from these events, a standing-room-only crowd attended an Emergency Faculty Senate Meeting on May 14th. Many of us entered the room with open minds, willing to hear the Chancellor’s version of events. Most of us hoped to hear an apology, or at least an expression of remorse or regret for student injuries and the widespread feelings of unsafety on campus expressed by students, staff, and faculty. Instead, we received a description of events that didn’t accord with the reality of what we had seen either in person or via social media. The Chancellor and the UMPD Police Chief Tyrone Parham insisted that protestors suffered “no injuries,” and the Chancellor was apparently so unconcerned about the reports of harm done to students that he checked his phone as Faculty Senator Laura Briggs described some of the injuries students suffered at police hands. Rather than taking such concerns seriously, the Chancellor and members of his administration simply repeated the same set of talking points the Chancellor has been using all year to justify his policies against protesters. Many of us left feeling disgusted and disheartened.

With these events fresh in our minds and hearts, we all gathered in the Student Union Ballroom on May 20th to discuss the motion for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Reyes. As might be expected, a large number of faculty and librarians attended the meeting in person and on Zoom –at its height, the meeting boasted more than 1000 attendees.

While the hybrid format was chosen to ensure that as many faculty could attend as possible, it created its own set of problems. There were issues with the new hybrid voting system put in place for this meeting, and frustration about various barriers to voting was both felt and voiced during the course of the meeting.

The meeting had endured for over four hours by the time we voted to end discussion and proceed to a vote on the main motion. By this point, a number of faculty had left either the Student Union Ballroom or the Zoom room. As is the case in any meeting of the Faculty Senate, only those who are present at the time of the vote can vote. The administrative staff worked tirelessly and patiently to make sure the votes of all who were still in attendance were counted. Of those that remained, 473 voted for the motion, 332 against, and 20 abstained. The will of the faculty is clear.

Those of us who voted for the motion of no confidence in Chancellor Javier Reyes did not do so to divide our campus. Rather, our vote of no confidence in the Chancellor is an affirmation of the core values of UMass as a university that values dissent, debate, intellectual rigor, and activism. In contrast to these values, the Chancellor’s reliance on the authority and force of the police sets a dangerous tone for our campus’s future. When a campus administration starts arresting its own students, faculty, and staff in the hundreds, we should fear what might come next.

Chancellor Reyes has willfully and carelessly made decisions that depart from precedents set by past Chancellors, who have understood the crucial role that free speech and the right to assembly play at a public university in a democratic society. This academic year the Chancellor has set a new precedent – of arresting and re-arresting our students, of arresting staff and faculty, and of chilling free speech and a culture of dissent in a time of grief, pain, and devastation for so many. He has created a culture of fear and instability in a time when we need moral and ethical leadership.

(Encampment at UMass Amherst, photo courtesy of JVP Western Mass)


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