Cornell University Chemistry Professor David B. Collum was targeted in one of the earliest examples of campus cancel culture after the death of George Floyd. The attacks on me would follow by just a few days, though I didn’t know it when I wrote about Prof. Collum.

On June 4, 2020, in Buffalo, NY, in the middle of nationwide protests and rioting over the death of George Floyd, an older protester approached a line of police who were clearing a plaza under a city curfew order. The man came within a foot of two policemen while reaching for their belts. They then pushed him back.

The video shows that the force used was not great — both policemen stretched out their arms to push him back, with one of the policemen holding a nightstick while doing so. They didn’t throw him to the ground, beat him, or anything similar, but the push backwards was enough to make him stumble backwards, lose his balance, then hit his head on the pavement. He lay bleeding as the line of police moved past him and another police officer called for medical assistance.

Video of the encounter went viral, and the police officers were denounced, among others, by NY Governor Andrew Cuomo. The two policemen also were suspended, leading the rest of their tactical riot unit to resign from the unit (but not from the police force) in protest. They later were charged with felonies, since the protester was over 65 years old.

Prof. Collum, someone who is active on Twitter with a large following, tweeted in support of the police in the fairly sarcastic way Prof. Collum often tweets and writes. Prof. Collum claimed the man had no business being where he was, was reckless given his age in putting himself in that position, and that the police were justified in the force they used.

In now deleted tweets, responding to someone who called police conduct “appalling,” Prof. Collum wrote: (1) “That guy needed to give that cop space. Wasn’t brutality: the guy was feeble. The cracked skull (which I agree was the likely event) was self inflicted,” and (2) “Can you imagine how fried these cops are at this point? The guy got a nudge. The old guy had something in his hand. Looked like maybe a taser. If were a cop, my nerves would be raw. I am tired of these riots.”

The campus erupted when Prof. Collum’s tweets became known. On June 7, 2020, I documented the movement against Prof. Collum, Cornell students demand Chemistry Prof. David Collum be fired for tweeting that Buffalo incident was not police brutality.

Please read that post for background on Prof. Collum, and the history of graduate student attacks on him because they blamed him for a graduate student unionization drive failing. That post also has more detail on the June 2020 attempt to get Prof. Collum fired, including a Change.org petition signed by over 5000 people and an editorial by The Cornell Sun demanding Prof. Collum be fired. It was a full campus pile-on.

In these situations, university leadership is key. An unfortunately frequent occurrence nationally is that unpopular professors get sacrificed by administrators to quiet the online mob — they may not be fired if they have job security, but they are denounced publicly as deviants from university values.

And that is what happened to Prof. Collum. The entire Cornell University administrative leadership — the President, Provost, Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, Vice President for Student and Campus Life — denounced Prof. Collum in a particularly scathing Statement on Prof. David Collum’s Tweets, which was co-signed by the Cornell Chief of Police (emphasis added):

We watched the video of the events in Buffalo yesterday where police officers shoved an elderly man to the ground and walked past while he lay bleeding on the sidewalk. The behavior we saw was deplorable. We are heartened that the authorities took immediate actions and that the two police officers involved have been suspended.

We agree with Governor Cuomo that the incident was “wholly unjustified and utterly disgraceful.” We also saw the tweets by Cornell professor David Collum justifying the actions of the police. While Professor Collum has a right to express his views in his private life, we also have a right and an obligation to call out positions that are at direct odds with Cornell’s ethos.

Especially at a moment at which this nation is grappling with the vital need to implement reforms that end police brutality, we find Professor Collum’s comments to be not just deeply insensitive, but deeply offensive. The right of assembly and the ability of citizens to peacefully protest are fundamental to our society. Cornell is founded on a vision of a university, and by extension, a world for “any person” and the hatred and violence in this country stands in the way of that vision, particularly as it so disproportionately affects Black people and other people of color.

Cornell Chief of Police Dave Honan recently stated that the actions of the officers in Buffalo demonstrate that there are still those in law enforcement who are morally and ethically unfit for this profession. We support those in our community calling for change. We can and will do better.

As noted in President Pollack’s message June 3, the Cornell University Police Department is reviewing its policies and training in the areas of use of force and de-escalation techniques, and we are convening a group of regional law enforcement agencies from the local area to also discuss community engagement policies, to try and ensure that we never have this type of episode here.

But was the situation so clear? Were the police actions in Buffalo so obviously and outrageously wrong that it left no room for dissent without being denounced collectively in this way by every single senior administrator of the university?

This is a phenomenon I have seen so many times before, particularly in police use-of-force cases, where the initial reaction and narrative are called into question as the facts and analysis are given a chance.

That certainly was the case in the Michael Brown shooting, where the narrative of “hands up, don’t shoot” ultimately proved false — My writing about the Brown case in early June 2020 triggered the effort to get me fired and denounced even though I was right. When it comes to police use of force, some people can’t wait for the facts to come in, or accept the facts that do eventually come in.

The case against the Buffalo policemen went to a grand jury, which refused to indict and the charges have been dropped. The Buffalo News reports:

A grand jury voted not to indict the two Buffalo police officers for what happened in front of City Hall, Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn Jr. said Thursday….

The incident occurred as the Buffalo Police Department’s Emergency Response Team – the Buffalo police riot team – joined by State Police, cleared protesters in front of City Hall after an 8 p.m. curfew that had been imposed amid nightly protests against police violence in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.

Two days after the incident, the officers were charged with felony second-degree assault…

“To this day, I’ll stand by the fact that charges should have been filed,” Flynn said Thursday.

So maybe the grand jury was biased? Or maybe the grand jury heard ALL the evidence, which the prosecutor said he did his best to present and therefore was in a better position to judge whether a crime was committed.

Maybe, just maybe, reasonable people could differ as to whether there was an excessive use of force? The Cornell denunciation of Prof. Collum left no such room, yet even the prosecutor said reasonable people could disagree. From the Buffalo News:

“I apologize for nothing,” Flynn said.

He said he still believes that a crime occurred, but that whether the officers intended to cause harm to Gugino, or if their acts were reckless was “50/50 in my mind. That’s not beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“I am telling you that I sandbagged nothing,” Flynn said. “I went into that grand jury. I put all relevant evidence in the grand jury. I put multiple witnesses in that grand jury,” he said.

Prof. Collum was portray in the Cornell statement not just as callous, but as justifying a violation of the right to assemble and protest peacefully. Yet even the prosecutor did not claim that the older man was lawfully exercising his right to assembly and protest — the prosecutor said the older man was committing a crime by being where he was and failing to move. From the Buffalo News:

Flynn placed some of the blame on what occurred on June 4 on Gugino himself.

“Mr. Gugino committed a crime. He had no business approaching those police officers. There was a curfew and he broke the law,” Flynn said.

But, Flynn said, the police officers shouldn’t have pushed him.

“They should have grabbed him, gently turned him around and walked him peacefully … off the steps,” Flynn said.

Whatever else happened here, there was no violation of the right of lawful assembly, according to the prosecutor himself. Cornell was wrong about that.

Maybe Prof. Collum was right as to use of force, maybe he was wrong. There still is a departmental proceeding against the police officers. And maybe Prof. Collum was too sarcastic, as he tends to be. But there was a rush to judgment by Cornell before all the analysis and facts were known, and at a minimum, reasonable people can differ.

Prof. David Collum is owed an apology, or at least a correction. The statement against him at a minimum should acknowledge the presently known facts and law, so that people reading it in the future are more fully informed about Prof. Collum. Or better yet, the statement should be retracted. It would be the right thing to do, and it would send the right message that facts and evidence still matter, as do legal standards of proof.

The university denunciation of Prof. Collum set a bad precedent that, in hindsight, likely contributed to the completely unjustified denunciation of me soon thereafter by then Law School Dean Eduardo M. Peñalver. (Read the National Association of Scholars Open Letter.)

I have not yet received a response to my email to Cornell’s media relations as to whether Cornell will retract or modify the university statement against Prof. Collum.

 

 
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