More than 100 students, faculty and community members – about 20 of them protesters – attended controversial academic and activist Ward Churchill’s lecture in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. last night, both to listen and, for some, to attempt debate.
Churchill’s speech was divided between a history of the African American civil rights movement, the American Indian Movement (AIM) and comments on contemporary issues such as the war in Iraq. Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, also allowed questions from the Campbell Hall audience, some of whom questioned his credentials, viewpoints and claim to Native American heritage.
Leading into his discussion on civil rights, Churchill began his lecture – organized by the American Indian Student Association – by questioning the audience’s knowledge of the U.S. Constitution, specifically the content of the 9th Amendment. None of the audience, with the exception of a student who brought a textbook listing the Amendments, could correctly answer what was stated in the section.
“You’ve flunked the Bill O’Reilly taste test,” Churchill said.
Churchill went on to analyze the unique situation Native Americans are confronted with in their search for civil rights, as compared to that of African Americans involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
African Americans, being citizens, were able to fight for their rights through their government – although they endured legal hurdles, public ridicule and the constant fear of violence while doing so, he said. However, because the U.S. government has recognized – according to international law – Native Americans as a sovereign nation with roughly 400 treaties, Churchill said Native Americans do not have “civil rights,” but instead are entitled to the rights of an individual state.
All oppressed groups, including African Americans, Native Americans, queers, women and other ethnic minorities must continue, like their predecessors, to seek avenues in which to reestablish their inalienable rights, Churchill said.
“Rights don’t go away even when you’re being violated,” Churchill said. “Rights do not go away because the rapist says he’s taking it.”
Churchill said he advocates “any means possible” in order to accomplish the goals of equal rights for groups. “Any means” can include the use of violence, which Churchill said pushed the African American Civil Rights movement forward.
As an example, Churchill told the story of an African American community in South Carolina in the early 1960s that used violence to protect itself from oppression. When members of the Ku Klux Klan drove through the area and shot at a house, a single return shot from a community member – an unheard of tactic, at the time – caused the Klan to stop its raid that night and run off in fear.
“Wearing a bed sheet doesn’t make you brave,” Churchill said in reference to the Klan’s traditional garb.
Counter-violence, used by such organizations as the Black Panthers, makes those in power reconsider their actions and policies, he said.
Prior to Churchill’s 7:30 p.m. lecture, protesters organized by the College Republicans held signs outside of Campbell Hall and distributed flyers with quotes attributed to Churchill. One of the quotes came from Churchill’s now infamous essay, “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” in which he referred to victims of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as “little Eichmanns” (referring to high-ranking Nazi official Adolf Eichmann), because of their involvement in America’s “global financial empire.”
College Republicans Chair Sally Marois, a third-year political science major, said she supports Churchill’s right to free speech, but disapproved of various comments he had made – especially those in reference to the victims of 9/11.
Other members of the group said they were angered by the university’s financial support of what they considered an academic fraud. Associated Students Finance Board, A.S. Student Commission On Racial Equality, the Religious Studies Dept., the Educational Opportunity Program, the Office of Student Life and the Office of Academic Preparedness and Equal Opportunity funded the lecture.
Paul Santiago, a fourth-year political science major, said he was distressed that the university – student government in particular – would support such a speaker without knowing much about his background.
Santiago, who is secretary for the College Republicans, said liberal speakers consistently have easier access to university funds, while conservative-sponsored events – such as the Ben Stein lecture sponsored by the College Republicans – almost always run into opposition.
“We were grilled by A.S. Finance Board [about the Ben Stein event],” Santiago said. “Yet any one who espouses left-wing views gets a free pass – gets funding.”
Several protesters questioned Churchill during the audience question and answer session about his background, which is frequently the subject of dispute amongst fellow academics and amongst members of the AIM. One audience member asked Churchill if he was indeed a Native American. Churchill refused to answer and said he felt the question was insulting.
On a phone interview Tuesday evening, AIM Executive Committee Member Vernon Bellecourt said he thought allowing Churchill to speak on Native American affairs was “ridiculous” as he is an academic fraud and misrepresents Native Americans.
Bellecourt also said AIM is in the process of filing a lawsuit against Churchill. A few years ago, Churchill and other activists broke away from AIM to form the American Indian Movement of Colorado. Because Churchill’s organization employs the use of “American Indian Movement” in its title, it is in violation of intellectual property rights, Bellecourt said.
“Obviously it’s outrageous. By now [the event’s organizers] must know this guy is facing seven charges of plagiarism and possible dismissal [from Boulder],” Bellecourt said. “Everyone in the [American] Indian world knows he’s an ethnic fraud. He’s plagiarized his writing and AIM. Why would another university not follow the lead of other colleges that have cancelled him out? I can assure you[[,]] we will get a hold of the [UCSB] Native American program tomorrow and register our complaint.”
-Aria Miran contributed to this story