Chicago, Illinois- Here’s some old news: protesters use “media”, like leaflets and pamphlets, bullhorns and posters, to rally support and raise awareness for their cause. However, when people speak of “social media”, there’s a certain mystique implied. Like, that some random person can say something so resonant that it will be reposted, retweeted and remixed to sow the seeds of revolution. From the Arab Spring to what’s now a global Occupation, media pundits like to say that big social movements are enabled by Twitter and Facebook.

Writers like Malcom Gladwell have done their part to diminish the perceived importance of social media in fomenting unrest, and rightfully so. Unless it’s your mom, brother, or best friend spreading the word online, reading a tweet or Facebook post telling you to join the movement to topple a regime or protest injustice doesn’t make you join up. And here’s what’s even more effective than social media: your mom, brother, or best friend peeling you away from your computer and bringing you out to the protest. No social movement is purely viral; it takes a strong tie to someone who is already a part of the movement to make you join. This should be viewed as a good thing, because even in our strange, socially-networked world, friends, family and community still matter.

Here’s the new news: Social Media, in and of itself, has the power to effect change. This past Monday, a previously scheduled talk featuring former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and sponsored by the newly-created Paulson Institute at the University of Chicago was postponed due to “an unforeseen scheduling conflict,” according to the University’s press release. There just so happened to be a large protest scheduled to take place outside the International House during the speech.

This is not only the story of how a Facebook event page led to the postponement of a hotly anticipated event; it’s about freedom of expression and a public figure’s response to it.

Like most public actions staged in conjunction with the Occupy movement, the protest was disseminated via Facebook. The event page was public, and it appears that the Facebook event page itself was enough for the University of Chicago to postpone the event indefinitely.

The University is no stranger to student activism. As a UChicago student, I can attest to the fact that the administration sends out the same email, every time, before a controversial speaker comes to campus. A particularly cogent excerpt from the letter states:

Argument is a central means of achieving deeper understanding and creating new knowledge. In this spirit, we engage one another and welcome campus speakers with viewpoints across the intellectual and political spectrum. We must protect a speaker’s right to be heard, just as we have a responsibility to challenge their ideas with honesty, vigor, and respect. No speaker is to be expected to present all views on a subject, but as a community, we offer the possibility of additional fora for exploration of contrasting opinions, so that taken together inquiry can proceed untrammeled in the service of scholarship.

For an institution so ready to participate in “rigorous inquiry”, (which is something of a catchphrase for UChicago’s president), they were well within their right to host Secretary Rice and given the spirit of argumentative bonhomie at the University, the protesters were entitled to demand explanation and inquire rigorously.

We have chosen this talk, in part, to highlight the fact that the University of Chicago has given an academic appointment to Henry Paulson because he has the money and power to found an institution to promote his own ideology.  That academic appointments can in effect be bought is a threat to the very idea that our University is indeed a place of free and open dialogue.  It would seem that we care far more about listening to the voices of the wealthy and the powerful than to the voices of the poor and the disenfranchised.  So the question is not: are we trampling on the free speech rights of Henry Paulson?  It is: who can we give voice to through our protest?

— — Excerpt from a letter written by “Jacob” in response to the University.

How did Monday’s protests come to be? It’s been several weeks in the making. An informal group of UChicago students, calling themselves UChiOccupy, which is aligned with the greater Occupy movement, is largely responsible for organizing the protest. Peter J. Fugiel, a second-year PhD student in UChicago’s sociology department took some time before class to explain. “Someone [within UChiOccupy] who follows University events noticed there was going to be this talk [hosted by the Paulson institute] and [this person] brought it up in a meeting.” At this point, the group decided to hold a protest. “Everyone was very excited about the idea,” Peter said, “and so I took the initiative to set up the Facebook event page.” Peter wrote the event description, which is a detailed, lucid explication of the organizers’ motivations for the protest.

Here’s the gist of it

The protests were seen an opportunity to raise awareness of a few general themes mostly related to conflicts of interests in government. Fugiel described Henry Paulson, the former Treasury Secretary and recent hire at the University of Chicago, as a “pretty striking representation of the nexus of corporate power and government oversight,” which are two things he and Occupiers argue shouldn’t mix. As the CEO of Goldman Sachs, Paulson championed “innovation” of financial products like mortgage-backed (and other) exotic securities which, protesters and most economists argue, destabilized the financial system and the economy both here and around the world. Basically, said Fugiel, “Hank Paulson was the architect of the government response to the crisis he helped create.” He also noted that the government’s rescue package may have provided succor to the financial system at the expense of Goldman Sachs’s competitors.

Former Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson

When students were first organizing the protest, they only knew that Henry Paulson would be giving a speech. The protests were originally intended to make a statement about Paulson but, “When we found out Condoleezza Rice was going to be there as well, we took that to be a bonus, because now we’re not only [going to be] talking about corporate and economic policy, but foreign policy and militarism as well.” Secretary Rice, a prominent Stanford professor, National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, formerly held a board position at Chevron, on whose behalf in 1992, she used her diplomatic connections with the President of Kazakhstan to broker a $10 billion development project in that country. In 1993, Chevron christened a 129,000-ton supertanker the SS Condoleezza Rice.

Here’s what happened

According to the official University press release, the event was postponed due to an “unforeseen scheduling conflict.” Condoleezza Rice was, apparently, double-booked on Monday night. The press release stated that Rice’s office notified the University of her scheduling conflict on Sunday night, fewer than 24 hours before she was supposed to speak at UChicago. However, it was announced as early as October that Rice would be speaking at a private fundraising event for freshman republican congressman Arron Schock, who represents Illinois’s 18th Congressional District, near Peoria.

An October 5th article in the Peoria Journal Star states that the fundraiser was to be held on November 11, several days before Rice’s speaking engagement at the U of C. The Star article said that the event would be held at 7 p.m. on Friday the 11, at the Five Points Washington hotel in Bloomington, IL, and emphasized that Rice would be headlining the event where she would give a keynote and distribute signed copies of her new book, which she’s promoting heavily.

Between the October 5th announcement and the fundraiser on November 11, there was apparently a change of venues. A story put out by the Central Illinois News Center (an NBC affiliate) stated that the fundraiser was supposed to take place at the house of Mary Crego, a State Farm Insurance Vice President. However, “close to 40 Occupy BloNo members stood outside the residence holding signs protesting the event,” and “corporations controlling politics.” Due to the protests, the fundraiser was relocated to Landcaster’s Restaurant in Bloomington.

Her duty done for Aaron Schock and the Republican party, Condoleezza Rice came to Chicago to give her talk at UChicago… until she didn’t. (Give her talk, that is). The University of Chicago announced, in the early hours of Monday, November 14th, that Rice had to cancel her speaking engagement at UChicago.  Emails and phone calls to staff of Former Secretary Rice, Aaron Schock and the University of Chicago requesting comment for this story were met with silence. Even without their input, given the fact that Rice was publicly scheduled for only one Schock fundraiser, it’s a safe assumption that sometime before “Rice’s office communicated the scheduling conflict to the event organizers on Sunday evening,” Rice decided to back out of her talk, having arranged with the Schock campaign to appear at another fundraiser, which, according to the Chicago Sun Times is what she did Monday night.

As far as this reporter could gather, there were no previously known scheduling conflicts between Condoleezza Rice’s UChicago talk and the Aaron Schock campaign. Taking into account the prominence of the former Secretary of State, it could be reasonably expected that—had Rice planned in advance to do a second fundraiser in Chicago—there should have been news coverage, along the lines of pieces like that in the Star. Such coverage would, presumably, have tipped off the University of the “scheduling conflict”.

The evidence shows that there were no prior announcements that Rice would participate in another Schock fundraiser. No matter where you, the reader, stand politically, the facts speak for themselves: Rice passed up the opportunity to speak with students and faculty at a leading research institution, at an event hosted by her former colleague’s research institute, to talk and sign books at a $2500-per-plate fundraising dinner—which, evidently, she signed onto at the last minute—for a well-funded freshman representative from a solidly republican, non-competitive district, for whom she (Rice) made a long-scheduled appearance at a highly anticipated fundraising dinner just three days previous.

Why the change of plans?

It’s unclear what Paulson, Rice and UChicago were expecting to happen. After looking through every “vociferous” post on the event page, the most offensive seems to be: “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a fuck-you-U-of-C pop? The world may never know.” As Occupy is a peaceful movement, no violence was threatened. Previous talks disrupted by Occupiers featured “mic checking” (a fantastic explanation of which can be found here) and heckling. While an outbreak of total chaos wasn’t out of the question, Rice didn’t bow out because of safety concerns.

Former Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice

“Look, the idea that Condi would snub Paulson to fundraise for this freshman congressman is laughable,” said Peter Fugiel toward the end of our conversation. So, if not the explanation given by the University and by Rice’s representatives, then what? Herein lies the power of “social media” in organizing protests, making change, and changing behavior in the name of a cause. “The Facebook event made the protest visible to the University administrators, and certainly to the staffs of Paulson and Rice. I’m sure they saw that 300 people were attending, and the vociferous nature of some of the posts, and decided at the last minute to back out.”

Because this article is, ostensibly, about the power of social media to organize protests, let’s talk about it. What can be gleaned from the events of last Monday?

If what Peter Fugiel said was correct, the Facebook event signaled to event organizers that a lot of people wanted to make their voices heard. It deterred Former Secretary Rice from speaking, but why? You could chalk it all up to the vitriol of the protesters’ posts, but I think that’s a cop-out answer. People got to vote with their mice; clicking “I’m Attending” did more than signal that someone is planning to attend the protest. It’s an expression of solidarity with the movement and the organizations behind it.

And because it was a “public” event page, it served as a public forum unlike any “real world” gathering place from a pre-digital era. Anyone could get up on their soapbox, or stand atop their bully pulpit to voice their feelings and/or disseminate information, do so without the noise and interruptions inherent to good ol’ fashioned talking (or shouting, as it were) and—most importantly—leave a public record of what transpired, accessible to anyone who might want to take a gander.

Think about it this way: politicians, diplomats, administrators, economists and businesspeople are trained in the art of rational decision making. The Facebook event page made very clear, in quantitative and qualitative terms, the cost side of the cost-benefit analysis. The medium’s raw transparency is its power: protesters and administrators—the “99%” and the “1%”—kept their respective fingers on the same pulse. For one, it was an opportunity to participate in and contribute to a movement in which they believe; for another, it was something to be observed cautiously, measured and monitored carefully so the “wisest” decisions could be made, whatever they are.

Editorial Note

It’s not my place to say whether it was right for Rice to back out, nor is it my place to opine about the ideology or conduct of the Occupy movement. I wanted to go to the talk because, as a citizen of the US and an adherent to the U of C’s culture of open and honest discussion, I had a couple of pointed questions to ask and I believe everyone deserves the opportunity represent themselves as their own defense in the court of public opinion. In this way I’m disappointed in the way things turned out.

As a consumer of mainstream media, I’m not so naive as to believe that all voices are represented. I don’t think I’m revealing my own ideological leanings when I say that, up until a couple of months ago, the general themes (however general, amorphous and multifarious they may be) of the Occupy movement were under-represented in the news media. I think we need to be honest with ourselves here: what we watch on CNN or read in the Times or Tribune is a somewhat sanitized, rarified version of what’s going on on the ground. Whether you’re an entrepreneur or a corporate lackey straight from a Dilbert cartoon, you’re just on different sides of the same coin: you understand the need for disruption in markets that have become complacent with the status quo. Just look at the 60’s: sometimes a bunch of congregating, creative, sweaty, smelly, bongo-beating folks who are fed up with society can actually change things- whether you like it or not.

This, I believe, deserves respect.

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