Around 9:30 a.m. on April 25, Emory Police Department (EPD) officers warn protestors that they will begin arrests if they do not evacuate the Quadrangle (Jack Rutherford/News Editor).

Two weeks ago, I found out from the Emory Police Department (EPD), which ultimately reports to Emory University President Gregory Fenves, that my court date for a charge of disorderly conduct has been rescheduled from May 23 to July 12. Many have wondered whether the Emory administration would advocate dropping charges against those of us arrested on April 25, that terrible day when EPD, under Fenves’ command, and with the assistance of the Atlanta Police Department (APD) and Georgia State Patrol (GSP), violently attacked a peaceful pro-Palestinian protest, arresting 28 people, some demonstrators and others like myself merely observing. It is clear now that charges are still in place for some parties, including myself.

A little after 10 a.m. on April 25, I came down to the University Quadrangle to check on the demonstration, hoping that the administration would not repeat its mistake of a year earlier when it called in a very militarized APD in response to a student-organized “Stop Cop City” walk-out. This April, our campus was still reeling from that episode, and yet, as soon as I arrived on the Quad, APD was already massed. Then, a line of GSP officers marched down the sidewalk, and, in a flash, all the police launched themselves onto the grass and attacked. I watched in horror as they pummeled a student several feet in front of me. Knowing well how police react to any confrontation, I stood several feet back and, as calmly as possible, tried to film the scene while beseeching the officers to stop. Appalled by the police brutality against peaceful demonstrators, I knew the fault for this entire scene lay with the University administration, led by Fenves, who had brought in outside police, surely knowing how this would go.

An image of me from a police bodycam video that morning shows a woman in a blue dress and jacket standing in calm repose, several feet away from the police who were lifting and throwing this student’s head to the ground. Even when the lead cop stood up and told me he needed me to step back, I stood there calmly. And then, knowing full well that this was not going to go well, I very deliberately replied, “No.” Sure enough, he arrested me, cuffing my hands behind my back and dragging me in for disorderly conduct.

I can’t help but wonder whether the supposed order I disturbed was the business of police brutality. If so, then being commanded to turn away from such a scene seems utterly dystopic. A more apt charge would be “civil disobedience” because I disobeyed an order that I found to be unconscionable.

Two weeks later, in a Zoom meeting of the University Senate Executive Committee with Fenves, I had the opportunity to ask directly, “Would you do anything differently, were this to happen again?” His response was, effectively, that he would have done nothing differently. In a later webinar, I tried to ask the president what he would do if the police asked him to step away from a scene of police brutality against a student, but my question was overridden. He could have responded a moment later during his closing remarks, but he let that opportunity pass. Still, the question resounds.

What would a real leader do differently? To my mind, the president of a leading university, especially one rooted in the home of the Civil Rights Movement, would understand how democracy works. He would understand it ideally as well as practically. Such a president would appreciate the vital role that college students have long carried out in identifying and thematizing issues that the public sphere needs to address. Over the generations, students have proven to be the conscience of our culture, putting uncomfortable issues on the public agenda, often in language that older folks find uncomfortable. From the rowdy margins of the public sphere, students and other public citizens have called on the larger political sphere to attend to massive problems from war in Vietnam to apartheid in South Africa, pressing for them to be addressed more formally.

This is what our students were trying to do on April 25 and in the days after. Whether or not we like or condone their particular chants, this is how democracy works. A visionary university president should understand and appreciate the democratic role of students in the public sphere. University leaders who think students need a more capacious understanding of the politics of the situation should work with the faculty to help create spaces for such learning. A visionary president would help nourish this kind of inquiry — or at the very least tolerate it.

I am left with this question: Does Fenves, along with so many other university presidents around the country, fail to understand how democracy works? Perhaps he is strangely unaware of the role that students have played in a democracy. Either that or Fenves understands democracy full well and is doing everything he can to thwart it. Going even deeper, one wonders whether university governing boards, such as the Board of Trustees, which hire and retain university presidents, are themselves aware of the democratic role that students play — or are also attempting to thwart it. The evidence seems to point to the sad conclusion that instead of trying to foster students’ democratic education, Fenves and other university presidents, backed up, or maybe egged on, by their governing boards, have been doing everything they can to undermine it. They are not educating students for democratic self-governance. They are trying to train them to walk away.

I hope I am wrong. I hope the Board of Trustees cares enough about democracy to find a new president who shares this spirit.

 In the meantime, I will see them all in court, and if not in the Municipal Court of Atlanta, then in the court of public opinion.

Noëlle McAfee is professor and chair of philosophy with a secondary appointment as professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. She is also president-elect of the university senate.

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