We’re jammed around a tiny table in the packed Blue State Coffee shop on Wall Street in New Haven.
Greg Williams, a Yale Divinity School student who-with his long hair and thick beard-resembles an island castaway, is trying to figure out how to land himself in a New Haven jail cell in about two hours.
Might sound like an odd objective, but for Williams, it’s about making a statement. At 7 p.m., Yale students will congregate into the leadership seminar of Stanley McChrystal, a retired U.S. Army general that-depending on who you ask-is either celebrated or scorned. Yale University did the former when it hired the four-star general in 2010-after his dismissal by the Obama Administration-but Williams and his crew are not of the same philosophy, and they embrace, unflinchingly, any potential retribution for showing it.
“You can’t be afraid of going to jail and racking up a big record,” Williams tells me.
McChrystal’s own record– the 2009 surge of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the 2006 abuse and torture of detainees in Baghdad on his watch, amongst other aspects of his military career-is the focal point of Williams’ demonstration tonight. That and the fact that-despite the rap sheet-McChrystal has not gone to jail. Williams can’t say the same-he and a group of fellow activists were arrested several months ago for an anti-drone warfare protest outside a military base in Syracuse. That irony is not lost on him, and perhaps that’s what he’s seeking to shed light on.
Across the table from Williams sits Creigton Chandler, another Divinity student and his partner in crime-or-as they would put it, justice. And he’s dressed for the part-Chandler is clad in a black judge’s robe that, minus the white wig he was originally planning to wear, makes him look more like his intended profession, a priest. Either way, he is here tonight to issue judgment.
“You orchestrate all of this violence, and you end up with a new, kushy job at Yale,” Chandler says. “It’s like the more shit you do, the bigger the ship you get at the end. Is that really what Yale wants to be?”
The judgment-the reading of a war crime indictment they had wanted to deliver directly to McChrystal during his seminar-will have to wait. The Yale University administration was tipped off at the last minute and, given the expected police presence, Williams and Chandler no longer believe that they will get into the building, so it’s time to improvise.
Chandler and Williams will be flanked by a group of demonstrators from Seminarians for a Democratic Society and the ANSWER Coalition, but they are the only “arrestable” participants in the action.
“Did you remember that permit?” Chandler asks Williams jokingly.
“I’ll never do a permitted protest-ever,” Williams shoots back.
They won’t be the first ones to challenge McChrystal’s Yale employment-his initial hiring in 2010 sparked a minor backlash from New Haven activists that culminated in small demonstrations outside the university’s lecture buildings.
“It’s never risen to a level of civil disobedience,” Williams says.
From Blue State, Williams, Chandler, and the group of 10-15 protestors don’t have very far to go. The building where McChrystal is teaching the Jackson School of International graduate level class on leadership is just a few blocks down Prospect Street. After a brief meet up at the corner of College and Grove Street, the march begins.
“No Yale! No bail! Stanley McChrystal belongs in jail!” the marchers shout as a banner that reads “General McChrystal: War Crimes 101” is carried by two activists at the front of the procession.
They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. In the case of McChrystal, there just may have been not enough of it-the demonstrations prompted by his hiring in 2010 only drew 9 protesters, according to a 2012 New York Times article detailing the four-star general’s relationship with the Yale student body. Whether or not his dissenters galvanized this, McChrystal is in demand-200 students attempted to enroll in his course during the 2012 spring semester, the Times article reported.
Then again, the enlistment of controversial faculty members isn’t exactly a new practice at Yale. Also within the Jackson School is John Negroponte, who was the U.S. diplomat to Honduras when the Ronald Reagan Administration was funding the country’s then-military dictatorship-known for widespread torture and kidnapping, amongst other abuses-to the tune of $100 million.
Back on Prospect Street, the march reaches the lecture building. They don’t exactly have a riot squad waiting for them, but three police officers stand guard outside a front gate that leads into a courtyard. As the protesters approach, the cops retreat behind the gate and lock the demonstrators out. Pretty anticlimactic, but Williams and Chandler aren’t out of ideas yet.
Luckily for them, the building isn’t exactly fortified at green zone level. While the rest of the protesters hold a moving picket outside, Williams and Chandler breach the courtyard by going around the left of the building, running past the police officers and unlocking the gate from the inside while one cop radios for backup.
Williams is pushed back though the entryway and, after some words with the officers, is pushed to the ground. As he and Chandler are put in handcuffs, protestor Chris Garaffa, who is filming with a cell phone camera, demands a badge number. Another cop steps in front of the cameras, attempting to block the view of the arrest as Williams, from his knees, begins singing the gospel song “Down by the Riverside”.
“You’re arresting the wrong person!” Garaffa shouts at the officers. “The murderer is inside!”
“Let them go! Arrest McChrystal now!” the protesters chant behind them.
After a few minutes, a New Haven Police Department patrol car arrives.
“There’s a mass murderer in there, buddy,” says activist Norm Clement to one of the officers. “Wanna arrest him for us?”
Williams doesn’t resist, but he doesn’t make it easy either-three officers have to carry him to the waiting patrol car because he has let his body go limp. They throw open the back door to put him inside, but decide against it.
As they wait for a paddy wagon, Williams, kneeling on some grass between the sidewalk and curb with his hands cuffed behind his back, begins a prayer while the picket continues behind him.
“I do believe that we will succeed,” Williams shouted to the demonstrators. “It may not look like it now, but believe it or not, we are on the winning side of history.”
Administrators from the Jackson School of Global Affairs could not be reached for comment.