The rescheduled version of Miami University’s Janus Forum went on Thursday night amid controversy around the speakers selected.
The spring forum, “Can Both Black and Blue Lives Matter?”, was originally scheduled for March with conservative political commentator Heather Mac Donald and documentary filmmaker Dawn Porter as the debaters. However, the event was postponed after Porter, a proponent of Black Lives Matter, fell ill.
Event organizers secured Maryland governor and one-time Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, as the replacement speaker. However, some were concerned that the addition of O’Malley, who is white, to the slate was a misrepresentation of black perspectives and the Black Lives Matter movement. The original Black Lives Matter speaker, Porter, is black.
Graduate student Isaac Pickell was among those whose interest was piqued by the speaker switch.
“Two white voices is not sufficient for a conversation about this issue,” Pickell said.
While Janus Forum organizers acknowledged the potential for controversy, political science department chair Patrick Haney said, their options were limited when it came to finding a backup speaker.
“At some point the issue became [to] either cancel the event or go forward with a very high-quality speaker with deep experience in these issues as mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland,” Haney said.
Sophomore Emily Tatum, a member of the Janus Forum student steering committee, agreed.
“We wish we would’ve had Dawn Porter, but I think in the end the conversation was still very strong and presented a wide variety of viewpoints,” Tatum said. “[O’Malley] did a great job and definitely gave a view into the side of politicians and governors and their view on the matter as well.”
Haney said O’Malley’s experience working to reduce local crime rates as mayor of Baltimore offered a perspective counter to that of Mac Donald.
“It was not a perfect matching, but no match is ever perfect for these things,” Haney said. “Frankly, I didn’t think we’d be able to do it. I figured we’d be postponing it until the fall. It was really lucky to get somebody with the kind of experience that Governor O’Malley has.”
Haney added that while the subjects O’Malley and Mac Donald were debating — criminal justice and race relations — are contentious, he was pleased with how the audience handled them.
“People took the time to listen to each other; I’m sure there were things said that [people] took exception to,” Haney said. “I think that’s the whole point of the forum, to be able to create a space for challenging perceptions and viewpoints.”
Mac Donald, who recently published a book entitled, “The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe,” was the object of two student protests in April. During the question-and-answer portion of a lecture she gave at the University of California, Los Angeles, Mac Donald was met with chanting from audience members, some of whom took the stage alongside her. The next day, students at California’s Claremont McKenna College blocked the entrance to the building Mac Donald was speaking in. Claremont McKenna officials determined it was dangerous to remove the protesters, so Mac Donald spoke to a mostly empty room as the lecture was livestreamed.
But Mac Donald’s speech during Miami’s Janus Forum went uninterrupted, a point of pride for Haney.
“My own view, at least, is that the solution to speech that you find challenging is not to shut that speech down, especially not at a public university,” Haney said. “I was proud of the way the university community came together to handle a difficult issue. People came together, they came together in good faith, and we pulled off an event that, at a lot of campuses, probably couldn’t have happened.”
Save for a few moments of supportive applause for O’Malley and whispers during Mac Donald’s statements, the audience was quiet and attentive during the debate, which spanned topics from systemic racism within police forces to possibilities for criminal justice reform. The event lasted about an hour and half, followed by a reception, and garnered a nearly full house in the Farmer School of Business’ Taylor Auditorium.
Mac Donald’s main argument was that the Black Lives Matter movement created what she called the “Ferguson effect,” referring to the aftermath of the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Because of this ‘Ferguson effect,’ officers are backing off crime,” Mac Donald said. “Crime has increased as a result of this.”
In addition, Mac Donald felt that the Black Lives Matter movement was based on a “false narrative.” However, O’Malley argued that there is racial bias within the police for and the criminal justice system that cannot be simply be ignored.
“We do a disservice to public discourse with a nation like ours when we see that the one place that this racial history does not exist is in criminal justice,” O’Malley said. “There is a racial inequality everywhere. It is in the structure of economics, education and criminal justice.”
O’Malley’s main argument focused on an increase in transparency and record-keeping, which he felt could help visually represent discrepancies and biases existing in the criminal justice system.
“[We need] better data, evidence and information. We need to know if the consequences of the policy actions we take and if those actions are working,” O’Malley said.
The debate, despite a dispute over the meaning of phrases, was relatively calm, as Matthew Arbuckle, a political science professor at Miami, noted.
“I thought it was very civil. I was impressed by that. Both were able to challenge each other’s points pretty well,” Arbuckle said.
“I thought it was a good chance for students to hear both sides of the story,” junior Carly Ream said. “I think that in an academic setting it was good that the questions were monitored, but at the same time it was debate-style, which was good for everyone to see.”
Before the debate, first-year Delaney Sherman noted the importance of the forum’s controversial topic.
“It is a very relevant issue,” Sherman said. “I think if people can see both sides then it’s easier to get somewhere.”