the Ray Kelly incident
Our story starts in fall 2013 with barely a mention of Ray Kelly. Our story starts with coal. In October 2013, even after massive student opposition, Brown University decided not to divest from “U.S. companies that mine coal or use coal in the generation of electricity.” After this decision, students across campus felt like their voices weren’t being listened to. To make themselves heard, they decided to turn their focus to the upcoming campus talk featuring Ray Kelly: New York’s 37th and 41st Police Commissioner known for his stop and frisk policies that promoted racial profiling.
The first protest occurred October 28, 2013 with a vigil as a reminder of the effects of racial profiling. During the vigil circumstances of racial profiling were read out as well as names of people who had terrible or even fatal outcomes because of it. The vigil incited discussions across campus, but nothing could compare with what was to come.
In the auditorium where Ray Kelly was meant to speak, protesters began to have vocal reactions to mentions of Kelly’s tenure and policies during the introduction to his talk. Kelly took the stage and was met with boos. As he tried to speak, students stood with their fists in the air and began to chat. Administrators tried to regain control of the auditorium, and the talk was eventually canceled.
This incident sparked mass campus dialogue about issues of racism and its relation to free speech. The dialogue enveloped the whole campus to the point in which Christina Paxson, president of the university sent out a letter condemning the actions of the protest and stating that Brown is a place where speech should not be restricted. She said this without referencing student concerns about the possibility of Kelly’s appearance being a trigger for students. As the discussions continue, the majority of the campus seemed to understand, and mostly agree, with students’ disapproval of Kelly’s policies, but not with the protest itself. Supporters of the protest questioned how else their voices would have been heard. A committee was formed and two reports were written on the issue, but to this day it remains unresolved to an extent. The campus remains divided on issues of free speech and speakership on campus just as it is on campuses across the country and in national political dialogue. While there was no clear ending to these events, they were the beginning of a series of protests to hit Brown in the next few years.