The manner in which Brown University students and others shouted down NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly last Tuesday reminded me of an experience from my own college years.
I went to scores of seminars and talks during my four years as an undergraduate at Brown, but the one I will never forget took place on the evening of Nov. 30, 1966. The speaker, a Brown alum, had been invited by the Faunce House Board of Governors to take part in its fall lecture series. But once his name was announced, a storm of objections forced the board to withdraw its invitation. Counterprotests ensued citing academic freedom and arguing that our campus should be open to all views, even -- and perhaps especially -- to those a majority of its members found repugnant.
The speaker was George Lincoln Rockwell '40, leader of the American Nazi Party.
A new campus group called "Open Mind" was formed. Once recognized by the University, it re-invited Rockwell to campus. Rockwell spoke to a packed house in Alumnae Hall. Multiple groups picketed his appearance, including dozens of Holocaust survivors, many of whom were then only in their 30s and 40s. The memories were fresh, and the scars were real. As I walked through the crowd with a few friends, one of the picketers came up to me and asked us why we wanted to hear such a "monster." To underline the point, he rolled up his sleeve and pointed to the numbers tattooed on his forearm. We all knew where those numbers came from.
Once inside, a hushed crowd listened to the full range of Rockwell's charismatic style. He was charming, funny and, frankly, disarming. He knew how to break the tension in the crowd, telling us "the last time I was in Alumnae Hall, come to think of it, I wasn't sitting. I was hanging onto a girl about half-stewed at a dance." Everybody laughed, and I did, too. But as the evening wore on, I learned a lesson. True fascism doesn't begin with the shouting, fist-shaking tyrants we see in newsreels of the 1930s. It enters with charm and wit. Its strategy is to beguile and divide, to offer easy answers to problems like crime and poverty. Blame them on the "others" -- the blacks, the Jews, the Commies who are spoiling our otherwise virtuous society. It then promises to heal those lesions by cutting them out, figuratively at first, and then literally once the masses are firmly under control.
For the first time in my life, I understood the allure of fascism, the reason that "good people" could have supported the likes of Franco, Mussolini and Hitler. I also understood why the notion that "it couldn't happen here" is hopelessly naive. It could happen here, and it most certainly would happen if we forgot the lessons of history, lessons that Rockwell brought to life with a sinister smile that evening in Alumnae Hall. I'm glad I was there. I'm glad the talk was allowed to go on. And I'm glad Brown was an open campus where those lessons could be learned in the most personal way possible.
Tuesday's shout-down of another speaker makes me wonder about that. Ray Kelly, whatever his misdeeds, is no George Lincoln Rockwell. Rockwell's idea of racial profiling wasn't "stop-and-frisk." It was "round up and deport." Kelly has been accused of fascism, but Rockwell actually was a fascist -- and a racist -- and was proud of it on both counts. Yet the Brown community of the 1960s opened its doors to him, to avowed communists, and, at the height of the Vietnam war, to anti-war activists as well as the generals in charge of that war -- like Earl Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was a lively and vibrant place.
The crowd who managed to silence a speaker last week accomplished something, to be sure. But it wasn't a blow against racism, fascism or police oppression. It was a step towards a closed campus where mob rule determines who can speak and who will be shouted down. It was a shameful day. And it deprived every member of our community of the chance to hear Kelly and decide for themselves whether his policing methods are indeed the first steps of a Rockwell-like campaign against minorities and the poor in America's greatest city. To those individuals, let me put it plainly. Yours was an act of cowardice and fear, unworthy of any of the causes you claim to hold dear. I hope President Christina Paxson will show the courage to stand up to you, to invite Kelly back and to give every member of this community the chance to have a "Rockwell moment" of the sort I had in 1966.
Ken Miller is a graduate of Brown University, Class of 1970. This piece first appeared in Brown's Daily Herald.