Some college students today say they’re protesting fascists when people like Milo Yiannopoulos come to their campus to lob verbal firebombs. That’s a conviction they share with student protesters of the 1930s, some of whom were registering their opposition to the world leaders who made 20th-century fascism famous.
Carol Smith, a retired professor at City College of New York, documented the history of one such incident, in which students protested a student delegation representing Benito Mussolini, in an exhibit called "The Struggle for Free Speech at CCNY, 1931-42." That 1934 protest — which saw violence committed, students expelled, and a college president and Mussolini burned together in effigy — features some parallels with the present.
Cassie Barnhardt, a University of Iowa assistant professor of education who studies campus activism, said the students back then fought about similar subjects — economic inequality and race, for example. Today’s students, she said, have more variety in what and how they protest.
"Remarkably, the tactics used by many of the protesters hold many similarities over the decades — protests, political theater, boycotts, letter writing, the use of symbols, pamphleteering, etc. — tactics that resonate with onlookers are those where the activists succeed in imparting new meanings onto norms or aspects of life that many take for granted," Ms. Barnhardt wrote in an email to The Chronicle.
And Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism who teaches at the City University of New York’s Hostos Community College, said that the 1934 uprising was a prelude to wider protests in the ’30s, and that he thought present-day movements seem to be nearing a similar breakout. "One of the things that’s happening here, as in the 1930s, student activists were trying out new tactics," Mr. Johnston said. "They were feeling a new sense of power they hadn’t felt previously. It’s a time of experimentation and boundary pushing. And I think that’s reflected in the fact that administrators are kind of struggling to figure out how to respond in each case."
‘I Am a Guttersnipe’
A telling episode in Ms. Smith’s exhibit — which lives online and has toured the country — picks up in October 1934, in the middle of the Great Depression.
In one corner were students at the college, who were among the poorest in the country. They were mostly Jewish, and as such especially attuned to fascism and anti-Semitism in Europe.
In the other corner was Frederick Robinson, then president of City College, who had previously called in law enforcement to break up campus protests and suspend students. Some said he once batted students with his umbrella following an antiwar demonstration. "It was in some ways the most explosive or repressive campus in the country because of President Robinson," Ms. Smith said.
So the students had to have known a prominent protest could be met punitively. But that didn’t faze them when an Italian delegation that had visited other campuses on what Ms. Smith described as a "good-will tour" was set to visit City College.
Students asked Mr. Robinson to disinvite the delegation. The president denied the students’ request and instead made the assembly mandatory for freshmen. Not done, he also denied a request from students who wanted to picket outside the hall where the delegation would be visiting. "They were very mad because they felt the president was honoring the young fascists, and not letting the anti-fascists have free speech on campus," Ms. Smith said. The question of who and who isn’t allowed to be invited is, of course, still being debated.
For instance, the appearance last month of Charles Murray at Middlebury College, which led to a professor’s being injured, prompted lasting debate about what the campus could have done differently.
The City College protest eclipsed the Middlebury incident in scale. On the day of the delegation’s appearance, about 2,000 students filed into an enormous hall. They booed and hissed when the president introduced the delegation. And Mr. Robinson, his attitude to protests well-established, responded angrily and declared their behavior "worse than that of a guttersnipe," according to a college-newspaper article detailing his departure, in 1938.
It went downhill from there. The student-body president welcomed the Italian students by describing them as "enslaved" and "tricked," whereupon a professor of Italian tried to grab the young man. That’s when the fighting broke out. "There was no assembly that day," Ms. Smith said.
But there were repercussions. Mr. Robinson expelled 21 students and suspended the student government. More than 100 students were called in front of disciplinary committees. The administration, Ms. Smith said, claimed the protesters had stifled the free-speech rights of the Italian students — a familiar refrain from today’s speaker debates.
About a month later, about 2,000 students protested the administration’s actions. They wore buttons that declared, "I am a guttersnipe, I fight fascism." Someone created a seven-foot-tall figure that combined Robinson and Mussolini on one body. They then lighted it on fire while chanting, "Smoke Robby out."
"The burning of the papier-mâché effigy was considered a very radical thing for the time," Ms. Smith said. The protest lasted two hours. Mr. Robinson persevered as president for four more years.
Another Charged Moment
The exhibit was born out of its own charged free-speech moment. Ms. Smith created it after top university administrators publicly criticized a teach-in she organized about a month after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
An article in the New York Post painted that teach-in as "anti-Americanism." Following that article, CUNY’s chancellor at the time, Matthew Goldstein, said that the free exchange of ideas was important, but that he had "no sympathy for the voices of those who seek to justify or make lame excuses for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with arguments based on ideological or historical circumstances," as reported by The Chronicle. The trustees later voted to endorse that statement, according to CUNY’s union newspaper.
"I was so upset I decided to remind CUNY of its own history of repression," Ms. Smith wrote. The exhibit includes photographs, cartoons, and other graphics, and a version of it is available online. The exhibit has also made physical appearances in recent years, often at City College, and Ms. Smith said she is always looking to take it to new venues.
"I would love to get more people interested," she said.
And she has a personal connection to the protests. Her cousin, who recently died at 100, took part in the protests. Although he suffered memory loss, those memories lingered. "He could still tell you, word for word, what happened," Ms. Smith said.