Supporters set up chairs and flags outside the encampment on April 26, 2024. Nina Davis/Sun Photography Editor

April 29, 2024

RICKFORD | The Encampment as a Beloved Community

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In their ongoing effort to criminalize solidarity with those the western world deems disposable, Cornell administrators have portrayed the encampment on the Arts Quad as a center of aggression and hatred.

What an obscene distortion!

In the few hours I spent at the encampment recently, I witnessed a safe, dynamic, radically inclusive space. Indeed, I saw an expression of what civil rights workers once called “the beloved community” — a society that enshrines the practice of fellowship, mutuality and agape love.  

Within the encampment thrives a disciplined, diverse and well-organized microcivilization. Systems of food distribution and storage, trash disposal, etc. help maintain order. Work shifts are assigned. Resources are shared. Protected space is made available for both Muslim and Jewish religious observances.

The encampment exists to pressure the University to divest from the war machine. Its occupants reject the culture of indifference and the “common sense” of militarism, colonialism, capitalism and white supremacy. They hope to help restore our moral sanity. 

Yet even as they expose the corruption of the prevailing order, the demonstrators are constructing an alternative public. The encampment is a site of teach-ins and mutual aid. It is a place of trust, compassion and empathy. Within its boundaries, patriarchy, homophobia and other oppressive structures are collectively challenged. 

The encampment is a zone of deep democracy. Decisions are made in people’s assemblies. Ordinary people learn to take command of their lives. A purposeful search for new modes of belonging — and more humane ways of being — occurs. Shared recognition of the failure of established authority empowers all participants to devise and implement novel social solutions.

The encampment defies Cornell’s culture of conformity and narrow careerism. If the creed of individualism and the ethics of capitalist accumulation shape official campus life, a politics of caring and camaraderie guides the liberated zone. Its inhabitants rediscover themselves as political actors. They cease to be mere objects on the conveyor belt of professionalization.

The rulers of the modern university wish to appease the donor class. They want the encampment to disappear. They look to police the crisis, to manage optics. They will be relieved when the status quo again appears inevitable. The encampment, however, knows that calls for security and bureaucratic procedure are demands for acquiescence. Administrators may intimidate and punish students; they cannot govern consciousness.

The encampment is a makeshift university. It is a library, a cooperative, a mosque, a synagogue. It is hardly a utopia. Yet it is utopian in the sense that the terms of living that it demands are impossible under existing conditions. 

The encampment is temporary, but it will surely spawn more “counterinstitutions” able to counteract hegemonic values, unmask indecency and prefigure the just society. Prototypes of insurgent democracy will flourish as long as anticolonialism and principled internationalism are heretical and silent complicity in genocide remains the price of normalcy.

Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. 

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