Then again, the night’s guest speaker, University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, was not the typical academician invited to participate in the university’s annual look at Native American issues.
Churchill, caught in the center of a month-long controversy concerning an essay he wrote in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, made his long-awaited appearance on the Whitewater campus Tuesday following weeks of protest aimed at keeping the provocateur from speaking in Wisconsin.
Churchill had originally been pegged to detail racism against Native Americans to the Whitewater crowd. But little of the controversy over his visit centered on that subject, and Churchill seemingly recognized as much, deciding to devote the majority of his speech to the essay that sparked a national debate relating to free speech and academic freedom.
“I have an almost impossible assignment tonight,” Churchill acknowledged in explaining the need to stray from his scheduled speaking topic.
Churchill immediately lashed out at media coverage of his essay, in which he condemns American foreign policy and compares Sept. 11 victims to a Nazi official, saying he did not advocate the terrorist attacks.
“I never anywhere in that essay use the word ‘justify,'” he said. “I didn’t justify anything. I spoke to a phenomenon that I believe to be natural and inevitable.”
The attacks, Churchill said, were the result of the United States’ long-term abuse of third-world countries coupled with a flagrant disregard for standards of international law. He listed, among other incidents, the bombing of Baghdad, the U.S. invasion of Grenada and policy directed toward Palestine.
The United States has still not learned its lesson, Churchill said, citing Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez’s memo questioning the applicability of the Geneva Conventions to the United States.
Through all this, the American public has turned its collective back, Churchill asserted.
“The American public as a whole has taken upon itself such a divine entitlement that these things can go on … ultimately with absolute impunity,” Churchill said.
“I understand there’s a prayer vigil going on [with] lit candles out there,” Churchill said of a Republican rally outside the auditorium, adding sarcastically: “I’m sure it’s for the Iraqi children.”
Churchill asserted citizens will ultimately be responsible to stop the government from acting with such reckless behavior.
“The citizens of the United States are going to have to be the enforcing entity — you’re going to have to get your government on a leash,” he said.
Addressing the most controversial portion of his essay, Churchill said his comparison of the workers in the World Trade Center to Nazi official Adolf Eichmann has been repeatedly misrepresented.
Although Eichmann did not directly kill prisoners in German concentration camps, he was responsible for the structures’ daily operations. According to Churchill, the WTC workers acted in the same way — they merely ensured America’s profit-maximizing, capitalistic hegemony remained a well-oiled machine.
Toward the end of his nearly hour-and-a-half-long presentation, Churchill confronted widespread claims in the media disputing his Native American heritage. Churchill, who has repeatedly contended to be Native American despite a lack of evidence, acknowledged his native blood does not run deep but insisted he is of Cherokee descent.
The largely supportive crowd of students applauded at several points throughout the presentation. Outside the auditorium, a large police presence ensured Churchill’s speech, which had been canceled at other schools due to safety concerns, proceeded without incident.
“My concern was that there was nothing endangering students,” UW-Whitewater Associate Vice Chancellor Roger Pulliam said afterward. “I’m happy to see it end safely.”
Rallies outside auditorium
Before the speech, students and legislators from both sides of the Churchill debate gathered to emphasize their views while braving a chilling cold. Emerging from what began as a quiet afternoon in the small town, students quickly turned Highway 12 into an active demonstration area.
College Democrats and College Republicans put on rallies a mere block apart from each other, with both groups holding signs and yelling cheers as honking trucks and cars passed by Whitewater’s main thoroughfare.
According to UW-Whitewater senior and College Democrat Patrick Singer, students did not necessarily agree with Churchill’s comments but did not want to deny the professor the opportunity to speak.
“Basically we wanted to support the university,” Singer said.
Other students emphasized the benefit of Churchill’s lecture as a major bonus for the university at the national level.
UW-Whitewater College Democrat social chair Paul Anderson said part of the reason he attended the rally was to help the university get exposure.
“It’s really great for the university,” Anderson said. “What else can we ask for? We’re getting national press.”
While the small group of College Democrats and a few other non-student demonstrators supported Churchill, a significantly larger group of students and community members gathered to protest the visit and remember the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.
WTMJ-Milwaukee radio host Charlie Sykes; chairman of the Walworth County Republican Party Tyler August; State Reps. Robin Vos, R-Racine, and Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, all delivered speeches as the 200-person crowd held a candlelight vigil.
Nass targeted Churchill’s more-recent dilemmas, including the question of his Native American heritage and scholarly credentials.
According to Nass, Churchill should never have been allowed on campus.
“The American Indian Movement has called Churchill an Indian fraud and an academic fraud,” Nass said. “Common sense, unfortunately, was assassinated during this particular decision.”
However, Anderson pointed out Churchill has been a Native American activist for quite some time and has significant knowledge of Native American culture. Still, Anderson believed if Churchill was guilty of academic fraud, action should be taken.
“If he’s an academic fraud, they should ban his tenure,” Anderson said. “But why is this coming up now? Why didn’t they do it when they were doing the tenure review?”
According to Sykes, supporters gathered in order to stand up against Churchill’s “hate speech.”
“With free speech comes a responsibility: the responsibility to speak back, to reject the kind of bigotry and hate Ward Churchill has brought to this community,” Sykes said.
Vos disagreed with the pertinence of free speech with regard to Churchill, saying it is “alive and well in America and it has nothing to do with Ward Churchill.” Vos added free speech is “alive because of the men and women who have died overseas.”
Sykes read a letter from Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Mark Green, who could not attend the event.
“Your message is so much louder, so much more clean than any vitriolic and irrational statement that Ward Churchill could ever make,” Green wrote in the letter.