August 30, 2021

JOKHAI | The 1969 Willard Straight Hall Takeover Will Never Be “Domestic Terrorism”

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In June, President Joseph Biden released his National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. The statement, released by the United States National Security Council, was said to start “a project that should unite all Americans” in standing against the growing threat of domestic terrorism. 

The strategy is draped in liberal platitudes and rhetoric, addressing the genuine fear of violent hate crimes against American minorities such as Jewish, Muslim, Asian, Latino and Black Americans. Sadly, such crimes have  become somewhat routine in our television news cycle. In order to address this problem, President Biden seeks to institute a nationwide and transnational system that would better share information of domestic terrorism, prevent terrorist recruitment and curb terrorist attempts before they ever become another tragic event, thus protecting all Americans and the American way of life. 

However, a government strategy in the hypothetical is only as effective, or ineffective, as its implementation. In order to understand how a strategy to counter domestic terrorism would play out, one must properly place the National Strategy for Counter Domestic Terrorism in history. By doing so, one discovers that behind Biden’s appeal to fear is a thinly veiled plan to further allow the  government to view all American citizens as suspects, against a backdrop of  the over-criminalization of the minorities Biden supposedly hopes to protect. 

To get this point across, however, we must not only view the national strategy in a national context, but within Cornell’s personal history. Understanding how the strategy for counter terrorism is warped through a gaze at the past allows Cornellians to understand how Biden’s plan could shape our future. Thus, let us visit a tumultuous time that we now understand ultimately bettered Cornell. The year is 1969.

The Willard Straight Hall takeover of April 9th, 1969 is a significant part of Cornell’s history. Following the discovery of a burning cross outside a cooperative for Black Women at Cornell, Black Cornellians occupied Willard Straight Hall in protest. The takeover demonstrated a  stand against what they perceived as Cornell’s racism. In response to a violent attempt by white fraternity students to overpower the protesting students, some of the protesters armed themselves with rifles.  The Students for a Democratic Society lended support by creating a human barrier around Willard Straight. After 36 hours, protestors settled upon  negotiations with Cornell officials and exited the building. 

The shift inspired by this radical event was equally impressive, a push towards progressivism that embodies the principle of “Any person, any study”. The protest hastened the establishment of an autonomous Africana Studies and Research Center. Cornell President, James Perkins, established COSEP, a committee designed to promote the enrollment of African American students. Furthermore, the takeover was influential in the establishment of program houses  like Ujamaa Residential College, Akwe:kon, and the Latino Living Center. This is all to say that the 1969 Willard Straight Takeover pushed Cornell out of a dark age and onto a path of diversity and inclusivity the institution is still trekking today.

Yet, according to Biden’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, the historic protest, that many of us look back on with a sense of pride and solidarity, becomes unrecognizable. If the event took place, it could have warranted state-sanctioned violence. Biden’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism contains within it two points of interest that appear rather quickly and goes unexamined: the vague description of ‘militias’ that ‘assert a baseless right to take the law’, and the association of opposing “capitalism, corporate globalization, and governing institutions” with racism and xenophobia. 

The undefined use of the term ‘militia’ conveys the imagery of white supremacists brandishing weapons in order to threaten the innocent. While this idea of the radical racist is contained within the definition, and for all intents and purposes this may be the main target of Biden’s National Strategy, the ambiguous nature of the designation makes it dangerous to anyone who threatens the government’s monopoly on violence, including those who arm themselves in self defence. This can be seen throughout the United States history, such as the COINTELPRO’s secret war on various Leftist groups, including the Black Panthers of the same decade and whose member, Kwame Ture, spoke at Cornell to commemorate the Takeover. 

This is only furthered by the second point of interest, the association of opposing global capitalism and opposing xenophobia, as if the former idea is as much of a moral issue that must be stomped out as the latter ideas. This interconnection becomes incorrect when considering the idea of racial capitalism, the relationship between racism and capitalism. The ideas that became the concept of racial capitalism were posited early by thinkers amongst the Black Panthers, ideas which were reason enough for the Black Panthers to be violently condemned. By recognizing that the long history of the school of thought contextualizing discrimination with economics, one discovers that Biden’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism blanket response to both violent racism and anti-authoritarian action just serves to threaten all those who dare to draw upon history.

It is no stretch of the imagination that if the events of the Willard Straight Hall Takeover happened today, that the national Administration would treat the protestors as a threat to all citizens. This is unsurprising with  state institutions continuing to  wrongly deem Black Americans as inherently more threatening. This is all without mentioning America’s tendencies of stomping over civil liberties when over-surveilling protests as seen in police infiltration of the recent BLM protests and over-policing the California graduate worker’s strike.

President Biden’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism is not his first attempt at treating all American citizens as threats to one anothers, its merely his most covert.  While senator of Delaware, Biden then proudly took credit for what became the Patriot Act. The Act was to be a temporary set of policies suspending the norm, but is now synonymous with the permanent death of American’s right to privacy. This to say, Biden’s liberalism has, throughout his political career, utilized dehistoricization, the intentional ignoring of history and throughlines in time, to control and surveill. 

Thus, it is up to Cornellians to call upon their own history, politicizing ourselves and giving context where it is left absent. Us Cornellians understand what the Biden Administration would and does fail to see. College students engaged in radical politics like that of the Willard Straight Hall Takeover are not terrorists. Any strategy that fails to understand this is a threat not only to those engaged in politics but all Americans.

Javed Jokhai ’24 is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. J-Punk runs every other Tuesday this semester.