Type to search

Local

Protest in Paradise

“Rush a frat, Brett Kavanaugh did.”

September 20th, 2019 was a usual day on Yale’s campus. As the sun shone on Sterling Memorial Library, a student-led tour group scampered through the attraction’s gothic doorway. Amidst this expectable scenery stood two students in holographic costumes: Zulfiqar Mannan, or “Zulfi”, and Casey Odesser. They held large signs with bold, blood-red text painted on them. The signs read, “Brett Kavanaugh’s ‘Bros’ were frat boys” and “Brett Kavanaugh partied in a Yale frat.”

Exactly a year before, as rain poured in New Haven, all of Yale University’s bulletin boards were covered in the same message: “We believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, Julie Swetnick … all survivors.” In protesting Kavanaugh’s nomination, students raised bigger questions about the university’s complicity in addressing issues with the sexual climate on campus. 

In 1983, Brett Kavanaugh came to Yale as a first-year student. During his time at the university, he became a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon, or DKE, one of the nine fraternities currently active on Yale’s campus. When Kavanaugh was still part of “Deke,” newly initiated brothers paraded around campus with flags made out of women’s lingerie. 

In 2016, Zulfiqar Mannan came to Yale as a first-year student. That same year, Brett Kavanaugh’s former fraternity, DKE, returned to campus after a five-year suspension. In the fall, members descended upon campus chanting, “No means yes, yes means anal” and other sexual obscenities outside the Yale Women’s Center as part of their “Hell Week” initiation. Three years later, Zulfi—now a senior—launched their Human Rights Capstone Project, Paradise Sought. They began with the protest outside Sterling entitled, “Who we are,” describing themselves as “modern-day, cyborg feminist, malamatis.” 

A wordplay on Milton’s Paradise Lost, creators of “Paradise Sought” intended to change their hell—Yale, the paradisiacal Ivy League university they attended. They began with targeting a space frequented by many students: fraternities. Brett Kavanaugh was their initial culprit, frat culture the subject, but the protest hinted at something much deeper—Yale’s failure to protect its students. 

In an interview with The Politic, Zulfi bemoaned how normalized the threat of sexual harassment remains on Yale’s campus, especially at fraternity parties.  “I thought it was so messed up that my Yale female friends were going to parties knowing that they might get groped, that they might get sexually assaulted, and that was life. How crazy is that?”

Nika Zarazvand, another primary organizer for “Paradise Sought,” underscored Yale’s inability to address issues of sexual assault on campus. “There is so much rape apologism at Yale, we could not sit quietly,” she told The Politic. Informed by their own experiences with fraternities; protests against Kavanaugh by other Yale students; Andrew Moisey’s photo and ritual book, The American Fraternity; and Sheikh Sarmad, a critical opposer of Mughal-era leader Aurangzeb, Zulfi organized “Who We Are”. 

Two Yale seniors stood outside Sterling Library, asking passersby on this otherwise-regular sunny day, “Who controls your booze, body, state, and party?”

Thus, began Paradise Sought.

***      

“Your silence kills.”

Zulfi came to Yale from Lahore, Pakistan. Perhaps it was their background as a citizen of the Global South which informed Zulfi’s critical understanding of what they call “Yale’s role as an institution in sustaining a capitalist, imperialist world order.” Pakistan, a country in the Indian subcontinent, was the victim of centuries of British imperialism. The process of redefinition and reclamation for the country and its people to contend with their past, and create an imperialism-free future, is still ongoing. It is also a country which had first-hand experience with anti-terror wars led by Cold War superpowers, such as the War in Afghanistan. Personal experiences often serve as the strongest motivators for action, and there is no shortage of experience amongst the organisers of Paradise Protest. Nika Zarazvand is a first-generation Iranian immigrant. Casey Odesser is Jewish-American. Hazal Ozgur is of Turkish origin. Zulfi is Lahori. 

Armed with their experiences, and an eagerness to challenge “the imperialist” (read Yale), a second protest was organized. This time, the occupied space was a Yale classroom, the target the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, and the subject in question, Professor Emma Sky.

On their capstone website, Zulfi elaborated on what first led them to the doorstep of the Jackson Institute. “Due to the sketchy nature of the major’s capstone project that took students to Angola to end “preventable child deaths,” to “train non-U.S. security forces,” and to consult the “senior U.S. military authority in the Indo-Pacific Command Area of Operations,” Zulfi intended to examine where Yale and the Jackson Institute of Global Affairs stand in relation to the concept of imperialism through technocracy and “development” discourses.”

Emma Sky, Director of the Yale World Fellows Program and a Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale, served as the Governorate Coordinator for Kirkuk, Iraq for the Coalition Provisional Authority between 2003-2004. From 2007-2010 she served as a political advisor to US General Ray Odierno in Iraq—a man well known, according to The Guardian, for his aggressive war tactics. 

On November 5th, 2019, five students with their faces painted white staged a “protest experiment” outside Sky’s seminar, “Middle East Politics.” The demonstration was part of Paradise Sought’s first project installation following the introductory protest, “Do You Trust Your Educator?” A student-created pamphlet was released prior to the demonstration, which identified Sky in the role of a “proliferator of the current imperialist world order,” and questioned her “complicity and service in Iraq.” 

According to Zulfi, the protest was intended to “speak to the hearts of students, to ask them to think critically about the role their instructors have played in the global world order.” Nika added, “We wanted to bring to light how there are too many faculty members on our campus who reflect and entout very imperialistic values or have had involvement in war and militarism that has gone unquestioned.”

What Zulfi said was intended to be “a silent epistemological interruption with five gay mimes, inspired by leftist revolutionaries, sashaying into her class,” as they distributed pamphlets to Sky and the students inside her seminar, soon turned disruptive. Denied entry into the classroom by Dean of Student Affairs, Camille Lizarríbar, and a Yale Police Officer, the students opted to continue their protest outside. As the five chanted, “Open your eyes, open your ears, you are being taught by those you should fear,” stomped their feet and lay outside entryways, “Do You Trust Your Educator?” took a not-so-silent turn. 

Writing in the news about student perceptions of their protest, Zulfi worried that their work was deliberately being made to appear non-academic. They noted that “the institutional pushback to my project has shifted from being about inflammatory speech—in my use of the word “war criminal” [for Emma Sky]—to the creation of a violent or triggering environment to preventing the free exchange of ideas in a classroom.” 

Emma Sky echoed such concerns of disruption of academic spaces in an email to The Politic, where she wrote, “The protesters disrupted a Greek student presenting on Turkey, and a Tunisian student presenting on Egypt. I believe that Yale should remain vehemently committed to the most basic values of a university which allow us all to exchange ideas freely and without undue imposition.”

A few days later, the second protest under the same project was carried out outside Sky’s lecture, “Gateway to Global Affairs,” which Paradise Sought called, “Gateway to Imperialism.”  This time, the mimes pretended to be members of the U.S. military taking pictures with an anonymous Abu Ghraib prisoner, depicting the infamous video leak from occupied Iraq during General Odierno’s time in the country. “Your Silence Kills” was the headline this time. As though in conversation with the protestors, Emma Sky chose not to be silent, and instead filed a police complaint against the protestors. 

In a letter to the Executive Committee, which they later published, Zulfi wrote, “On Thursday, November 7, we conducted a performance that was experimentally adjusted from our experiences two days prior to maximize engagement, represent authenticity, and avoid interference with University functions.” Paradise Sought claimed to be learning from their experiences, and the proof, in their words, was in their actions. 

***    

“The U.S. constitution is the law of stolen land… upheld by Yale rapists.” 

On December 4th, 2019, Zulfi, Casey, and Nika, who were then becoming the recognizable faces of Paradise Sought, conducted their third protest experiment in Sudler Halloutside of Akhil Reed Amar’s class, “Constitutional Law.” Hall. Holding a banner with the words “The U.S. Constitution is the law of stolen land… upheld by Yale rapists,” a LGBT+ pride flag, and a trans pride flag, the protestors once again sung songs and handed out pamphlets whose protagonist—or for its purposes, antagonist—was Amar himself. The pamphlet questioned Amar’s students about their awareness of his role in government affairs and in organizations such as the Federalist Society, of which Brett Kavanaugh is also a member. It indicted Amar for “[his] contribution and relationship to the American government’s Alt-Right war on women’s bodies and autonomy.”

What was different this time, however, was that Amar allowed Zulfi and the other protesters to enter his class for a five-minute presentation. They read parts of the pamphlet aloud to the class, distributed copies, and ended saying “Feminists of the World—Unite!” Zulfi said they were surprised at the level of engagement they were offered and wrote on their capstone website, “We… urge Professor Emma Sky to rethink her actions and treatment of our art, inspired by the conduct and grace performed by Professor Akhil Amar today.”

Although Amar had reacted positively, by this point the protestors had become the target of much campus ire. Paradise Sought was seen mainly as a protest movement which disrupted classroom discussion, and considered “malicious” for identifying a lecturer as a “war criminal” based on “little proof, and poorly constructed argumentation.” 

Emma Sky felt that the student demonstrations had become dangerous, noting, “Democracy cannot flourish when speech is censored—or when it is weaponized to demonize those who are different, to drown out the voices of others, to spread lies, to incite violence.” 

Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken condemned Paradise Sought in a Yale Daily News article, proclaiming that “disrupting a class is fundamentally at odds with the values of a university.” 

Zulfi’s Human Rights Capstone, which they intended to be a year-long project, was cut short. For Paradise Sought’s conduct outside of Emma Sky’s classrooms, Zulfi was charged by Yale’s Executive Committee with defiance of authority, interference with university functions, and imperiling Yale community values. They are currently on probation, which will continue until the end of their time at Yale. The rest of the four members of Paradise Sought also faced ExCom trials. They were all given a reprimand. 

Zulfi felt demonized by Yale, and they recalled the remorse they felt at being denounced by a place they wanted to better. “I felt forsaken by Yale, because when I had made a critique that was unavoidable, they did not remember that I was a scholar. They remembered that I was an enemy.”

Nika found Yale’s reaction to their protests fitting for a university she believes has stakes in maintaining an imperialist world order. “There were so many times when they genuinely tried to silence me in their own interest, in the interest of their liability. The state will kill you to maintain itself, to maintain its power over you.”

***

“Yale, where do you stand?”

Paradise Sought was created, according to Zulfi, to question the role Yale as an institution plays in furthering capitalism and imperialism. Informed by the Endowment Justice Collective’s protests against Yale’s endowment—which, according to the organization, continually increases because of the university’s investments in Puerto Rican debt, private prisons, predatory lending, and fossil fuels—Zulfi claims they tried to “give [their] alma-mater the chance to justify its complicity.” The Yale Investment Office has refused to publicly disclose its investments to the student body and denies direct involvement in Puerto Rican debt.

Students on campus have often called upon the university to testify for its position in a variety of issues. The university has not been a silent spectator either. 

In March 1985, six students who disrupted a CIA recruitment interview in the Office of Yale Career Services were arrested by New Haven Police. Criminal charges were subsequently dropped and they were placed on probation. 

In April 2019, 19 Yale University student members of S.U.N. (Students Unite Now), were charged with disorderly conduct for blocking College Street for half an hour while protesting the student income contribution. 

In November 2019, over 20 Yale students were arrested for delaying the 136th edition of the Yale-Harvard Football game by staging a sit-in to protest the role the two schools play in the global climate catastrophe, the fossil fuel industry, Puerto Rican debt, and even Chinese Uyghur concentration camps. 

Paradise Sought—according to its organizers—locates itself amongst these aforementioned demonstrations and the countless other protests at Yale, including the 2002 anti-military recruitment protests by Yale Law school students and the 2016-17 Calhoun College name change protests. “All of us are finding new ways to be a student at Yale. We are pushing back, threatening expectations, and disrupting normative standards of being a Yale graduate,” Nika declared. “Instead of projecting [our dreams] onto a potential future, we are trying to act on it now.”

***     

“There are 101 ways to create change. This is the 102nd.” 

Paradise Sought has opened up a conversation at Yale about student expression in the face of the university’s responsibility in maintaining a safe academic environment. 

Yale, according to the 2019-2020 Undergraduate Regulations, has specific rules about peaceful dissent, protests, and demonstrations: “The right of free expression in a university also includes the right to peaceful dissent, protests in peaceable assembly, and orderly demonstrations, which may include picketing and the distribution of leaflets. These are permitted on the Yale campus, subject to approval as to schedule and location by the appropriate University official, until or unless they disrupt regular or essential operations of the University or significantly infringe upon the rights of others, particularly the right to listen to a speech or lecture.”

On one hand, those who oppose Paradise Sought view it as disruption of academic spaces, serving to disturb the free discussion of all narratives and ideas that concern an issue inside a classroom. On the other hand, protestors involved with Paradise Sought itself see the reaction and punishments levied against them as Yale’s attempts at silencing legitimate critique. On both ends of the argument rests a stated demand for uncensored expression. 

Some saw disrupting classrooms as inherently against the university’s core values. “Yale is committed to free expression and there are guidelines that establish the community’s expectations on how that is exercised,” Dean of Student Affairs, Camille Lizarríbar, wrote in an email to the News when asked to comment on Paradise Sought.

Others saw protesting the classroom as a necessary Yale tradition, one which should be sustained irrespective of how instructors feel. Stephanie Newell, Professor of English & Senior Research Fellow in International and Area Studies and Zulfi’s former professor, wrote in an email to The Politic, “Yale nurtures creativity and debate among its highly intelligent and often politically engaged undergraduate community. This is a tradition we should be proud of—and engage with productively—in spite of the discomfort we professors might sometimes experience as institutional figures.”

The university administration holds that the protests obstructed university guidelines of how to protest on campus. Those involved admitted to the charge, however, argued that it was necessary to recreate the imaginary of how a protestor on campus looks or acts, or behaves. Zulfi’s intended challenges to this order including responding to Dean Lizarríbar’s request for their names by loudly declaring “Zulfiqar-e-Lahori,” which referred to his birthplace in Pakistan in a poetic, unconventional fashion. “We wanted to throw people off in just the right ways, and expand notions of Yale student protesters,” Zulfi said. 

According to Newell, this is not a novel idea, and it is one that should be welcomed on college campuses. “Paradise Sought fits into what the Tate Gallery in London defines as ‘The Angry Space.’ The performance can be seen as part of a long tradition of work by artists like Mark Wallinger and Pipilotti Rist, who borrow objects and activities from one institutional space and transplant them into another space, as a result of which they become critical and challenging, or surreal and alienating, simply by appearing out of context.” She continued, “Zulfiqar’s performance certainly resonated with the kind of challenges to space and power to be found in the work of the political theorists, artists, and activists described above.” 

Zulfi claims that Paradise Sought, which was initially named “101 Ways to Change the World,” was not created for the purpose of “changing the minds of administrators, at getting an administrator fired or at pissing them off, or helping me fulfill my interests, but for highlighting that there’s another way of being a student at Yale. There’s a 102nd way.” 

***

“Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.”

Yale has often been described by many as a Paradise. With the university’s medieval architecture, search for Truth and Light, and unofficial endorsement of liberalism, many see the campus as heaven in New Haven. Zulfi came to Yale bearing the same opinion as a First-Year, but they realized soon enough the contradiction in Lux Et Veritas at Yale. 

Yale’s adventures in furthering this light, disclosed themselves to Zulfi, however, to be identical to those undertaken by 18th Century imperialists. From the financing of Departments like Global Affairs, to continuing support for a man infamous for sexual assault allegations, Zulfi saw their first-year beloved reveal itself. They wrote on their capstone’s website,“There is no Lux here, and certainly no Veritas, but a lot of U.S. dollars.” 

They recalled their first couple years at the university, “My intent to be good at and to Yale, stemmed from the sincere belief that I love this place. It’s given me an education that I do not know where else I could get from, and I want to respect that education. Lux Et Veritas, right? Truth and Light.”