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On Freedom of Expression and Safety

Dear Faculty,

Because the Union is not a homogenous entity, I have been encouraged to write to you regarding current events in the world from my personal perspective. I am happy to offer it, should you find it or some part of it valuable, and I hope it complements the personal letter and contractual clarification on academic freedom sent out this week by our treasurer, Robert Ausch. My perspective is anchored in part by the following:

  • We live in the center of empire.

  • We live in a violent society where firearms are easier to obtain than healthcare.

  • This week, the official spokesperson for the White House compared protestors calling for a ceasefire (many of them Jewish) to the murderous neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville in 2017.

Given these realities, it is understandable that many of us do not feel safe. And we very often do not feel we can safely speak our minds for fear of retaliation. In response to current events, the chancellor of my alma mater, CUNY, has warned faculty and staff they are prohibited from using university computers, email addresses, or even wifi connections, to discuss political events. Elsewhere, people have lost their jobs for speaking up. At Pratt we have been mercifully spared such crude, Orwellian forms of intimidation. Today, the administration also issued a statement on freedom of expression, which I greatly appreciate as faculty as well as a representative of the Union. This statement was issued in part because members of our community have been harassed and threatened. Harassed and threatened for calling for peace, understanding, and care.

While Pratt and other academic institutions can feel like peaceful oases within our otherwise violent society, the hallowed halls of academe are not exceptional. In 2014, during an organizing meeting with CUNY comrades, I received news that a visibly Muslim, Palestinian CUNY undergraduate student had been physically assaulted by a faculty member in the middle of a protest. We were not far from the protest, which at that point had already dispersed, and a friend and I left the meeting to accompany her to a train because she did not feel safe walking alone. That semester I also distinctly remember feeling too precarious, as a graduate student and adjunct faculty, to speak about Israel/Palestine in front of my students at CUNY. I did not feel safe, but the way in which I felt unsafe was very different from how this student activist felt unsafe. And the way the residents of Gaza feel unsafe as bombs rain down on them is far beyond what most of us can imagine.

There are moments that define the course of our lives. What this student experienced at that particular 2014 protest only strengthened her determination to fight for justice for her people. Today she is a prominent spokesperson for the Palestine movement, who remains undeterred by threats, harassment, and hate speech hurled in her direction. When I feel scared or hesitant to express my convictions, I look to people like her for inspiration and guidance. The events of 2014, specifically the summer of 2014 in Gaza, had an immediate effect on my political organizing as a graduate student, and the fear I felt in my own classroom planted a seed for my later involvement in labor organizing.

We are in the center of empire, and yes, consent is manufactured on a daily and hourly basis by extremely powerful political interests. Our corporate media outlets either ignore or minimize the massive protest and civil disobedience actions taking place in this country and around the world every day. When they do not ignore them, they perversely liken peace activists to white supremacists. But we know better, and labor in the US can take inspiration from mass mobilizations worldwide.

Words often fail us in these situations, and yet, here I have written perhaps too many words to simply say: Do not be afraid to stand on the side of justice and peace. Do not be afraid to advocate for your students and colleagues. Your Union has your back.

In solidarity,

Velina Manolova, Secretary, UFCT 1460

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