December 2, 2020

SAMILOW | How Cornell Progressive Activists React to Losing

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The problems plaguing the Student Assembly are well documented. Members are routinely bullied and intimidated and rules and procedures are constantly disregarded and ignored. This column has devoted significant attention to these unfortunate episodes and, as a result, has exceedingly low expectations for the S.A. Nevertheless, two Thursdays ago, the Assembly, and the activists who sit on it, managed to hit a new low as it considered Resolution 11 – Calling For the Disarmament of the Cornell University Police Department. The entire Cornell community now sees what happens when you disagree with the activist left – you are insulted, harassed and threatened by a remorseless mob.

The trouble began with the invitation of Cornell Police Chief David Honan to address the Assembly. Some members of the S.A., reasonably believing it would be helpful to hear from a CUPD representative before voting on a resolution to disarm CUPD, invited Chief Honan to address the Assembly and answer student questions. Obviously, even if the resolution passed, CUPD would not be disarmed, but they thought it was nevertheless worthwhile to explain to the S.A. and the student body how wrongheaded this recommendation was.

Despite a chilly reception from the Student Assembly president, who was apparently upset that Chief Honan didn’t go through her to secure the invitation, Chief Honan was unfailingly polite and patient. He calmly and methodically described the work his department does on campus and explained that the nature of a call can change in an instant and, as a result, officers need to be prepared for any situation that might arise. He noted that in the event CUPD were disarmed, the University would be required to enter into a memorandum of understanding with another police department to handle violent felonies and missing persons. Thus, defunding CUPD would not remove an armed presence from campus, it would merely transfer that armed presence to another force less connected and accountable to Cornell. None of these reasonable and cogent arguments had the slightest impact on the resolution’s proponents. 

Rather than engage in good faith with Chief Honan, they chose to badger him with insults and absurd questions. It started with the LGBTQIA+ Liaison asking Chief Honan why he needed a weapon if in twenty-five years on the job he has never discharged one in the line of duty. As Chief Honan began to explain, he interjected that it was a “rhetorical question.” After that, one of the outgoing Directors of Elections pressed on in a similar vein, asking incredulously how Chief Honan could possibly have use for a firearm if he hasn’t used one in the past. She may as well have asked why cyclists continue to wear helmets even if they’ve never fallen off their bikes before. Not to be outdone by his elected representatives, a member of the community referred to Chief Honan with the epithet “Hog” and proceeded to insult and psychoanalyze the police chief, claiming that he only carries a weapon to “feel powerful.”

Notably, the proponents of this resolution were unable to point to any instances of wrongful use of force by CUPD. None of their questions to Chief Honan concerned any alleged misconduct by CUPD. Instead, the resolution’s supporters insisted that they as college students knew best what tools police officers need to safely do their jobs. The arrogance was breathtaking and dangerous. 

Even the resolution itself lacks any specific grievance with CUPD, instead focusing on incidents at other universities, inaccurate historical analogies and cherrypicked research studies. The simple fact of the matter is that CUPD is exceptionally well-trained and skilled at de-escalating difficult situations. Cornell may be relatively safe, but policing is still a dangerous job, and every day officers take their lives into their own hands when they go to work. As Chief Honan said, it is “impossible to predict human behavior,” and it’s therefore sensible to give officers the means to protect themselves and the community in the event of a dangerous situation. 

CUPD, and police generally, are, of course, not perfect. Chief Honan readily conceded that. The police make mistakes and sometimes do the wrong thing. And when that happens there must be accountability and remedial action. But if the overall goal is to prevent police misconduct, that requires good faith engagement with law enforcement, not writing off an entire profession as irredeemably racist. 

Fortunately, Resolution 11 eventually failed by a 14-15-1 vote. But after the meeting was adjourned, many of the resolution’s proponents remained on the call to malign those who voted no as racist and plot an online harassment campaign. The Vice President of Finance promised that he would soon publish a list of everyone who voted no online and begin a campaign to recall half of the S.A. simply because he didn’t like the way they voted. He also threatened to contact the Disability Representative’s sorority after learning that she is its diversity and inclusion chair. Most concerningly, a proponent of disarmament said she would “beat [the] ass” of one the resolution’s vocal opponents. It’s worth noting that the executive vice president of the S.A. was present as this unfolded. Instead of being concerned by these threats, his only worry was that there were Sun reporters present to hear them. (His unease turned out to be unwarranted, as The Sun glossed over these facts in its coverage.

In the hours after the vote, those who voted no received threats, intimidating messages, and a barrage of insults. The account of the Cornellians for Black Lives fundraiser, to which President Martha E. Pollack, Vice President Ryan Lombardi and the University all contributed, also joined in, telling its followers to “vote these clowns out.” You read that correctly: The president of Cornell University donated to a group that is now demeaning students and taking sides in student electoral politics.

In response to these tactics, one S.A. member has announced that he will change his vote and vote yes if the resolution comes before the S.A. again. This, and likely a few other yes votes, were motivated by fear, not sincere belief. Is this really how our shared governance institutions are to operate, with members changing their votes out of fear? Students would hope that their representatives have the fortitude and integrity not to cave to such forces, but the S.A. should be embarrassed that its members do not feel as if they can safely vote their conscience.

Now, the proponents of the resolution claim that their abuse and threats are merely what “accountability” looks like. Let’s be clear: Subjecting people you disagree with to online abuse and threats of harm is not accountability. It’s malicious, repulsive behavior unbecoming of any Cornell student. Those who have engaged in it have forfeited any moral high ground they purported to hold. (This, of course, is equally true for those who have been attacking and threatening disarmament supporters of the resolution on Greekrank and elsewhere.)

Frankly, it is up to President Pollack to intervene and put an end to this madness. Pollack has repeatedly made clear her commitment to free speech and a healthy campus culture, and yet, she and the Cornell administration have for years indulged the far left’s antics, whether it was disrupting speakers, burning event tickets or launching sustained and organized attacks on students with heterodox views. At some point, enough is enough. It’s time for President Pollack to live up to her rhetoric – Cornellians deserve to attend a university where they can disagree with disarming the police without facing a torrent of vitriol and abuse.

Most importantly, to the members of the S.A. who faced tremendous pressure, withering criticism and abuse, know that many Cornellians thank you for your courage.

Matthew Samilow is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]. On Malott’s Front Steps runs every other Friday this semester