By Daniel Bromberg, Cornell University ILR School ‘20, Brooklyn-born
Originally published on www.truthsayers.org
Ithaca, NY— In addition to placing community pressure on county fair boards to prohibit vendors from selling Confederate products, organizers with the Fair for All campaign are demanding that Upstate New York’s wealthiest university take a stand . Cornell’s local Cooperative Extension offices provide crucial programming and logistical support to county fairs, including ones where harmful merchandise is both prominently displayed and put up for sale. Something’s got to budge. As the Spring 2019 term races to a finish, anti-racist student organizers are climbing an uphill battle to achieve concrete change — a hard-fought effort that they very well may win.
Cornell Undergrads Plan Vote on Cornell’s Complicity in the Sale of Confederate Flags
Starting in the summer of 2018, Fair for All began organizing with student activists at Cornell. After months of letters to the editor and other small-scale actions, anti-Confederate student organizing is finally bearing fruit. In mid-April, Cornell University’s shared governance bodies will vote on a resolution that asks university leadership to direct its Cooperative Extensions to take concrete action against hate symbol-profiteering at public events it sponsors. If passed with strong support, many members of the Cornell community hope that university leadership will reverse course on its previously stated ambivalence about taking action. In addition to instructing Cooperative Extensions to lobby for fair boards to ban Confederate products and withdraw from fair participation if the boards don’t comply, the motion directs Cornell to activate anti-racist education efforts in Upstate New York — home to hundreds of communities where decidedly Southern pro-slavery imagery is increasingly hung up for public display. In the view of the campaign organizers, there’s no doubt that resurgent Confederate imagery has become a proxy for expressing white nationalist sentiment in states north of the Mason-Dixon line.
Members of Cornell’s United Students Against Sweatshops chapter have denounced the Cornell administration’s intransigence so far on this issue as an an affront to its cherished land-grant mission. The school’s Cooperative Extensions are meant to empower undeserved communuties, an ethos that appears to be undermined by their association with vendor sales of hateful products.
Labor Organizers Allege Worker Rights Violations
Christopher Hanna, a Cornell senior who serves as the board president of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, has raised concerns about the negative implications for workers at county fairs across NYS.
“Prominently displayed hate symbols foster an unsafe environment not only for community members, but for the fair-workers of color who are left with no choice but to stand in the shadows of traumatizing images,” Hanna said. “It’s an utter shame that President Pollack has used deflective and specious free speech arguments to brush off these grave human consequences.”
Hanna argues that a school that prides itself on being home to one of the nation’s only comprehensive labor studies programs should use all the tools at its disposal to ensure safe and welcoming workplaces for these New Yorkers.
Students Raise Concerns About University Inaction Against Escalating Racism
Concerns have been raised that traumatizing images are popping up at public events attended by students, such as the Trumansburg Fair. This has compounded the outrage of marginalized communities on and near Cornell’s campus, which has been roiled by recurrent racist attacks. Neo-Nazi posterings, anti-immigrant chants directed at Latinx students, and the racially motivated beating of a Black student have placed this rural university square in the center of white nationalism’s poisonous resurgence over the past few years.
Adam Khatib, a leader of the Palestine solidarity movement on campus, asked what message Pollack is sending to students of color on her campus by refraining from taking a hardline stance against Confederate imagery.
“If administrators allow our cooperative extensions to aid and abet this abominable profiteering, what does that say to marginalized students on Cornell’s campus?” Khatib asked. “It says that university leadership doesn’t take the threat of white supremacy seriously, and that it ultimately doesn’t have our backs.”
The complete picture that Khatib paints is grim, to put it lightly. He believes that in 2019, neither campus nor the local community are safe for marginalized students.
“Whether it’s a terroristic battle flag on display in the community, or a Nazi poster hung up on campus that tells students to ‘Say No to Jewish Lies,’ many of us feel constantly surrounded by monuments to our dehumanization,” he said.
In the era of Trump, the constantly shifting crosshairs of racial terror seems wholly inescapable to Adam and many of his peers.
As students navigate this frightening context, some have made it publicly clear that university administrators are no allies of theirs. In a much-circulated letter to the editor that came on the heels of the New Zealand attacks, Muslim student Jamil Rahman didn’t mince words in his biting criticism of Pollack’s “lackluster” responses to Islamophobic terrorism.
“She didn’t urge the community to support one another,” wrote Rahman. “She didn’t identify the killers as ‘white supremacists’ or their anti-Muslim bigotry, as pointed out by the media.”
“Rather, she said to fight ‘in our individual ways,’ and this type of response is unacceptable,” Rahman’s viral piece concludes. Though President Pollack has failed to offer a rebuttal, she has undoubtedly heard these widely-publicized concerns loud and clear.
Activists Stare Down an Imminent Vote by Student Reps, Reflect on What Comes Next
Among student activists paying close attention to these developments, there’s a growing sense that Pollack’s disappointing language speaks to a much larger problem. If the President can’t even properly provide solace to a marginalized community, their thinking goes, how can she possibly take on larger fights against institutional manifestations of racism and oppression?
But when the Fair for All resolution is finally considered by Cornell’s Student Assembly in mid-April, top university leadership is unlikely to be in the room. And while the motion in question could certainly face unexpected hurdles, its co-authors and co-sponsors expect it to pass with unanimous or near-unanimous support. It’s anyone’s guess how Pollack will then respond, but Fair for All’s student organizers hope that she might seize the opportunity to finally take a bolder, more righteous stance on issues of white supremacy.
“Accepting the terms of the forthcoming resolution is her chance to rebuild the rapport she’s lost with the countless student organizers fighting for a more just campus,” said Hanna, one of the resolution’s co-authors. “If she drops the ball, a mutual climate of distrust will only harden.”
Regardless of the outcome of the Student Assembly vote, Fair for All’s Cornell-based student organizers are confident that a Confederate-free New York is well within reach — especially as grassroots victories against the Rebel Battle Flag continue to pile up. In just the past month, two more New York fairs have adopted policies prohibiting Confederate and other racially-charged merchandise: Tioga County Fair and Gouverneur & St. Lawrence County Fair. Moreover, similar motions are being considered everywhere from the Finger Lakes region to the North Country.
“We don’t view Cornell as our ultimate arch-enemy, and we don’t view a student government vote as the end of this fight, ” said Hanna. “There are tons of institutions enabling continued neo-Confederate profiteering at community events, and Cornell just happens to be one of the most powerful in Upstate New York. So the least us students can do is lobby for a change, and then carefully re-organize ourselves in the event that our strategy fails.”
“The real enemy of all peoples is white supremacy at large,” Hanna continued. “The fight against hateful Confederate imagery is just one small way of standing up to that violent power structure,”
The Student Assembly plans to vote at either its April 18th or 25th meetings. Following the vote and regardless of its outcome, the student team plans to go public with related campaigns. It plans to introduce and organize around credible allegations that a locally based cooperative extension violates its own strict anti-discrimination policies at a widely attended public event, among other concerted actions. Their progress can be followed on the Facebook page of its close ally, Fair for All.