Students gather to hear faculty speak out at ‘Trump Teach-In’

Originally published on October 18, 2016 for The Daily Californian

While the Berkeley College Republicans hung up a “Make America Great Again” banner and played clips of Donald Trump monologues from their tent on Sproul Plaza, faculty members and several students Tuesday afternoon prepared a microphone in front of the Savio Steps: The “Trump Teach-In” was about to begin.

Over the course of an hour, half a dozen faculty members spoke about the implications of the Republican presidential nominee’s rhetoric as more than 100 students gathered to listen. Michael Cohen, who teaches in the African American and American studies departments, and other members of the faculty organized the event as an effort to “get students to think about politics in a more rigorous way than the ‘who’s up, who’s down’ sports-like coverage we get every night on television.”

Cohen described the event as a nonpartisan effort, emphasizing its intention as an educational experience for students that would energize them to vote.

Faculty members Leti Volpp, Hatem Bazian, Juana María Rodríguez, Nikki Jones and Cohen addressed different aspects of how Trump’s policies could affect America and UC Berkeley students — along lines such as the middle class and the poor, appointing judges, his law enforcement policies and white supremacy.

“To have a teach-in like this, it allows a bit more freedom for faculty to say what it is they believe in more deeply,” Jones said. “I think that it’s important for students to know that side”

Volpp, a professor in the UC Berkeley School of Law, began the event with an overview of Trump’s immigration policies and how they specifically affect Berkeley students, explaining that Trump’s idea of the wall portrays a “retrograde image of American border security.” As Volpp spoke, BCR members held posters that protested Hillary Clinton and lined up behind the speakers.

BCR Internal Vice President Pieter Sittler called references to Trump as racist, sexist, xenophobic and Islamophobic examples of identity politics and unproductive for discussing the country’s problems. But, he said he appreciates the discourse that results from such disagreement.

“As a member of BCR, I’m certainly a defender of people’s rights to speak their minds,” Sittler said. “We have people debating members of our club and I’ve debated several people, and I think that sort of discourse is a good thing for the university.”

Second-year UC Berkeley student Leonard Irving-Thomas, who was recruited by Cohen to help with the security of the event, appreciated that students from the teach-in linked arms and lined up behind the speakers to block BCR protesters, who led chants throughout the event from the front.

“I happy that we ended up, ironically, building up a wall,” Irving-Thomas said. “I really wish the Berkeley (College) Republicans were listening as opposed to simply spew(ing) their beliefs.”

Acknowledging his role as a professor, Cohen said he wanted students to understand the necessity of voting and to have a deeper conversation about what it would mean if Trump were to become president. But he said he understood how this may give the appearance of partisanship.

“I think that teaching is a political act,” Cohen said. “Participating and speaking publicly in any public sphere contains politics.”

Journalist and UC Davis lecturer Sasha Abramsky concluded the teach-in by recounting his experiences interacting with Trump supporters in Nevada.

“The university is one of the great moral institutions of the nation,” Abramsky said. “There’s a moral imperative to stand up to this.”

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