Standing in front of a crowded auditorium here on Tuesday night, Ward Churchill didn’t look like a professor who had received 100 death threats just a few weeks ago. That’s what happened the last time he was scheduled to speak on a college campus. But this time, the four leis draped around his neck made him look more like a visiting dignitary than a treasonous professor, as he has been labeled.
Who says people hate this man? Maybe back on the mainland they do. There, his calling victims of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center “little Eichmanns” led to a rough reception.
It was just four weeks ago that the three-year-old essay in which he made that remark sparked a national controversy, and prompted Hamilton College, in upstate New York, to cancel his planned speech. It led to thousands of negative e-mail messages, hundreds of newspaper articles, hours of talk-show ranting, and calls for his firing. More recently, Denver reporters have been investigating his Indian heritage, his scholarship, and how the professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder received tenure.
But for his first campus visit since all that happened, he traveled to the University of Hawaii-Manoa — about as far as you can get from Hamilton College and Bill O’Reilly and still be in the United States. And out here, the people loved him.
They loved when he called the American populace “a willfully ignorant, self-deceiving public that celebrates the obliteration and carnage of others because they devalue them to the point of being not human.”
They loved when he said, “White is a state of mind. It’s not a gene code, by the way. You’ve got to choose to act white in order to be white.”
And they really loved it when he said that the United States “has never had 15 minutes of its history when it was not butchering some people for its perceived interests somewhere. … This most peace-loving country has never experienced peace.”
There were, of course, some protesters. Remember, this man’s words angered so many people so much that Hamilton officials feared his scheduled speech on their campus would lead to violence. Given that, the protesters here in Hawaii seemed almost quaint. They didn’t chant or wave their signs. Instead they taped them to a nearby wall. One read: “Churchill Does Not Speak for Hawaii.” Another said: “The 9/11 Victims Were Heroes. You’re a Disgrace.”
Kimberly Craven, a senior at the university and leader of the Hawaii College Republicans, helped organize the protest. She said she was opposed to bringing the professor to the campus because she believes he sympathizes with the enemy. “It seems very similar,” she said, “to bringing the Japanese emperor to campus during World War II.”
Among the hundreds of the supportive and the curious trying to cram into the auditorium an hour before the speech were a few who believed Mr. Churchill was, in the words of one woman, “a creep.” Patty Hustace, who graduated from Hawaii, heard about the event on the radio and had to come down to voice her complaint. “He thinks the terrorists are heroes,” she said.
Yet the largest problem was not those who thought he shouldn’t be there; it was the hundreds of people who wanted to get in but couldn’t. A young boy sat on a man’s shoulders to get a better view. One man waved a sign picturing the now iconic image of a hooded Iraqi prisoner at the Abu Ghraib prison. Stuck outside the doors of the auditorium, they began chanting “move it to the steps.” Inside, Ruth Hsu, an associate professor of English who helped organize the visit, kept explaining that plans for an overflow room to broadcast a video feed of the speech had fallen through.
After a Hawaiian chant opened the event, a small woman hobbled to the podium, using a walker with tennis balls on the two rear feet. Yuri Kochiyama, the 83-year-old civil-rights activist who was by Malcolm X’s side when he was killed, introduced Mr. Churchill, comparing him to Malcolm X and Che Guevara and calling him a “warrior” who “speaks the truth.”
Then, after a standing ovation, Mr. Churchill began his first speech on a college campus since becoming — depending on one’s point of view — the nation’s current cause célèbre of academic freedom or its foremost example of a leftist professoriate run amok.
The professor is a tall man, with an immediate presence. Wearing a navy-blue T-shirt, jeans, and a black sport coat, he spoke rapidly and passionately. His is the confident voice of someone who gives dozens of speeches every year.
He explained the origins of his essay. It was written at the suggestion of the publisher of an online journal in the 12 hours immediately after the September 11 attacks. He explained how he saw the attacks in the context of a history of U.S. aggression — from Vietnam to the Philippines, from Wounded Knee all the way back to Dutch colonists in New Amsterdam.
And he elaborated on his reference to Adolf Eichmann, who orchestrated the transport of Jews to concentration camps under Hitler. “Eichmann,” Mr. Churchill said, “symbolized the people that worked under him in his little bureau, that performed the technical functions with great proficiency of arranging the train schedules, the shipment of gas, the transshipment of gold from teeth, never stepping close enough to smell the stench of rotten death, never ever killing anyone, being perfect little bureaucrats.”
And he explained again that he did not mean that everyone — the passers-by, the children, or the janitors — fell into that category. “Obviously, that’s not who was at issue,” he said. “The Eichmanns were the investment bankers, the Eichmanns were the traders, the Eichmanns were those who didn’t even necessarily agree with U.S. policy in the Middle East or Southeast Asia, but embraced the system and made it function so the results would accrue.”
The crowd loved it when Mr. Churchill railed against “the urinal sort of journalism.” They loved when he joked about Bill O’Reilly or Paula Zahn. They laughed when he mocked Thomas Brown, a Lamar University professor who has charged that Mr. Churchill’s research is fraudulent. (Mr. Churchill dismissed the claim with one sentence: “He found a footnote he disagrees with.”)
When the audience got a chance to ask questions, no one talked about the controversial essay. No one questioned the “little Eichmanns” reference. One person asked him to clarify his position on the use of violence. (He said that defensive violence could be justified.) More common, though, were the questions that began with favorable comparisons between Mr. Churchill and Crazy Horse.
‘I’m Going to Butcher Them in Court’
Before the final standing ovation, he argued that attempts to silence or fire him were the beginning of a widespread “purge” of the academy.
“No less than Newt Gingrich said, ‘We’re going to nail this guy and send the dominoes tumbling,'” Mr. Churchill said. “‘And everybody who has an opinion out there and entire disciplines like ethnic studies and women’s studies and cultural studies and queer studies that we don’t like won’t be there anymore.'”
Mr. Churchill defiantly said he would fight for his job: “If they try to deep-six my ass, I’m going to butcher them in court.”
He then concluded the speech with a rousing endorsement of academic freedom. That’s what the coalition of departments and professors at Manoa said they were defending when they scrambled to raise the several thousand dollars it cost to bring Mr. Churchill to Hawaii. (He was not paid an honorarium.)
“I never set out to be a poster boy of academic freedom,” he said. “They selected me. And I’m going to stand on the principle. I’m going to stand on the issue because to give an inch is to give away something that we cannot afford to lose, and when I say ‘we,’ I mean all of us in the academy. Whatever your interest is in the academy, if you let this one go down you’ve lost it all.”
Immediately after the speech, Mr. Churchill and his wife, Natsu Saito, left to catch an overnight flight back to Colorado. By the time the crowd cleared out of the auditorium, the protesters were long gone. One group of men outside debated theories that the World Trade Center attacks must have involved bombs, not just planes, because fuel fires alone could not have melted the steel frame of the buildings. A few students nearby agreed that Mr. Churchill had “kicked ass.”
Just one sign remained. Instead of those deploring the terrible, enemy-loving professor there stood a single poster: “Collateral Damage Every Day in Iraq.” Down in the right-hand corner was a color photograph of an Iraqi man cradling a dying boy.