Protesters from the University of Massachusetts labor studies department and the Occupy UMass movement came out in droves to demonstrate at the lecture “Global Capitalism and a Solution for World Oppression and Poverty” presented by SUNY Purchase and Marist College professor of philosophy Andrew Bernstein.
Protesters interrupted the lecture repeatedly over the course of the first hour, hindering the speaker’s ability to present the full breadth of his presentation, and testing the restraint of attendees on both sides of the issue.
Event host the New England Objectivist Society and the UMass Republican Club were prepared for the interruptions. Two off-duty police officers were hired as security stood by the doors in the hallway outside Bartlett 65 prior to the presentation. The officers would later be joined by two other officers.
Bernstein, author of “The Capitalist Manifesto” and “Capitalism Unbound,” explained that under capitalism, one maintains total control of his or her own life, instead of handing that privilege over to the state or even God. Throughout the lecture he used the success of Hong Kong’s capitalistic economy following Japan’s occupation of the region during World War II as a model for third-world development under the auspices of free-trade and self-regulating markets.
Bernstein explained in the 40 years following Japan’s occupation, Hong Kong’s “economic progress was one of the greatest success stories of history. Hong Kong developed successful industries in textiles, electronics, plastics, watches and clocks. It became one of the leading financial centers of East Asia. By 1996, its per capita income was 137 percent that of its former mother-country, Great Britain.”
Five minutes into the lecture multiple protesters rose from their seats, in unison declaring, “This is a mic check.”
The rest of the protesters, who remained seated during this portion of the presentation called back, “This is a mic check,” amplifying the message in volume and in repetition. The call and response technique was used to orate the contents of a small pamphlet distributed by the protesters prior to the presentation.
Bernstein seemed prepared for and initially unphased by the interruption, casually stepping back from the podium and seating himself on the edge of the stage. His patience would later reach a threshold in the question and answer session following the lecture, when remaining opponents of his position on capitalism filled the allotted time with longwinded soliloquys as opposed to time he felt should be used for questions directed towards him.
Members of the UMass Republican Club found their restraint tested throughout the night as well.
One member screamed obscenities across the aisle, telling the protesters to quiet down and berated them for the disrespect he felt on behalf of the organization. Others took to the microphone and the pulpit without hesitation.
Harrison Searles, a senior studying economics and philosophy and also a Daily Collegian columnist, took the microphone in an attempt to lecture and derail the protesters simultaneously. The attempt was quickly quieted as the sheer volume and solidarity of the outnumbering protesters proved insurmountable for Searles.
The first round of protesters, who were led by student labor studies leaders, was allowed by security to read their pamphlet in its entirety, before they vacated the lecture hall on their own volition in a coordinated demonstration of disapproval.
Shortly afterwards, Bernstein continued his presentation in a lecture hall that’s attendance had shrunk approximately in half. Another protester declared a new mic check minutes after that, but was allowed considerably less leeway by security before she was escorted out by police officers.
In a pattern that persisted for 60 minutes of the 90-minute presentation, protesters allowed the speaker to shortly return to his presentation before abruptly declaring the next “mic check.” Some reiterated the pamphlet’s message verbatim while others led protesters in call-and-response counter-points to the lecturer’s subject matter.
Protesters peacefully complied with security forces who escorted them out of the hall with increasing swiftness.
Tensions rose among the contesting ideologues as the protests continued. On the way out of the auditorium, one of the protesters appeared to kneel down in the aisle on her way out and engage in an argument with Searles.
The protester shrieked for security as she stormed out of the auditorium declaring that he had placed his hands on her. Security escorted Searles out of the auditorium. Shaking with frustration, he punched the brick-and-mortar hall wall outside the auditorium before stepping out of the building with an off-duty officer to calm down.
Searles returned to the lecture soon after. No charges were pressed.
The confrontation characterized the air of frustration that mounted in the auditorium hinged on the fulcrum of a disparity of beliefs as to one’s responsibility to one’s livelihood in an increasingly competitive global world.
Protesters lambasted the far-reaching moral implications of buying into a system that allows one country to prosper while less developed ones struggle for the most basic means of sustenance. Supporters of Bernstein’s lecture, as well as Bernstein himself, argued for a not yet seen perfect capitalist system that preserves individual liberties in a free market system as a solution to the woes of underdeveloped nations backed by the examples of Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.
“Emotion is good,” said Bernstein. “I believe in robust spontaneous emotion, even anger. But what they should have done was say Dr. Bernstein, come back in the spring and challenge me to a debate.”
Defending his position on capitalism further Bernstein explained in an interview following the lecture, “I believe in the moral perfectibility of the human race, but I think individual rights are required for individual perfectibility. Individual rights liberate you to pursue whatever your values, including non-commercial ones.”
Bernstein said he wasn’t surprised by the protests, and said he had been informed prior to taking the podium of rumors of protest. He said occurrences like this are not uncommon in the lectures he gives around the country. Bernstein described a similar occurrence where a youth movement “sang beautifully” for 40 minutes in 2006 during a lecture he gave at the University of California at Los Angeles on behalf of the Ayn Rand Institute.
Protesters who gathered at the Occupy UMass encampment on the concourse outside Bartlett and Goodell Halls near the south side of the W.E.B. Dubois Library following the protest said they felt the protest had been successful.
“Our tactics were controversial,” said Nelson Klein, a senior Bachelor’s Degree in Individual Concentration [BDIC] student who compared his studies to the social thought in political economy major. “I think there’s an obligation to a common justice and fairness in this community. I really truly think the ideas we support are in the interest of the majority.”
Junior Jared Schy, also a BDIC student, said the profit motive is the biggest concern to him.
“The bottom line is always profit and that will always come into conflict with any other goal,” Schy said.
Klein continued, questioning what kind of subject matter should be allowed to be discussed on the campus of a public university.
“What they were saying was not in the interest of our school. We’re a public school. We’re not in support of the destruction of the public sector,” said Klein.
Searles called the demonstration an “absolute disgrace” and that “the point of the University is the open sharing of ideas.”
Searles said he felt they “weren’t willing to listen to [Bernstein’s] argument.” Asked about his mix-up with one of the protesters, Searles said that “we have to learn to control our passion.”
Issues untouched throughout the protests and lecture was what Searles called the “wedding” of corporations and the government.
“The evils are when companies and government become wedded,” said Searles. “As an example governments should not be there when banks fail.”
Turf wars over the right to spread far-leaning intellectual ideas at UMass’ lecture halls is not unprecedented on this campus.
In 2009, conservative pundit Don Feder was met with similar opposition.
None of the protesters or attendees of the lecture were arrested following the night’s demonstrations.
Brian Canova can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Corrections: A previous version of this article was updated to reflect an inaccuracy. According to Nathan Fatal, two police officers were hired to provide security for the event. An earlier version of the article stated that three officers had been hired, when in fact the hired officers were instead joined by two additional officers.
An earlier version of this article held the word “impromptu” when in reference to the call-and-response counter-points given by protesters. The protesters, had, in fact, circulated a small document with these counter-points that the Collegian had not seen or been notified of by publication. The word has been removed to retain accuracy.
An earlier version of the article held an editing error. Within the article, the UMass Republican Club was referenced twice, and in one of the references, it was inaccurately labeled the “UMass Republican Society.”