Two days ago a colleague of mine here at Stanford and I were standing in line for lunch. When I asked her how things were going she fumed, "Not well -- they have cancelled all classes and shut down our building, all for Facebook. Heck, they are not even alums as far as I know." When I backed my colleague up a bit she filled in the gaps. "They" in the first instance were the Stanford administration of course, the building in question was Memorial Auditorium, which is part of a larger complex which houses offices and classrooms. "Facebook" in this instance was Facebook Inc. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, whose husband David Goldberg had recently died. As Reuters reported, "Many of the tech world's top executives filled a 1,700-seat auditorium at Stanford University to commemorate David Goldberg, chief executive of SurveyMonkey. He died at age 47 on Friday after a treadmill accident during a vacation in Mexico." The area was cordoned off, traffic diverted, classes cancelled, new platforms built for the event.
The Reuters report contains further details:
On their way out, guests were offered Minnesota Vikings baseball caps as a reminder of the Minneapolis-born Goldberg's lighthearted nature and love of sports, according to a person who attended the service and who declined to be identified. Also on hand were playing cards stamped with his initials, and poker chips. During the ceremony, U2's Bono sang "One," the Irish rock band's anthem to love and support...
Many guests entered through side and back doors after driving into a cordoned-off area behind the hall. Some, such as Hewlett Packard Chief Executive Meg Whitman, walked up the steps and through the main entrance.
Many began offering personal tributes to Goldberg on social media on Saturday, including Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg. Sandberg, however, remained silent until Tuesday morning, when she responded to a public note by President Barack Obama.
Let me say that I extend my condolences to the family, even though I do not know them and never will, nor any of the people they associate with. The ceremony was private, sequestered off -- for the afternoon that portion of Stanford was given over to this event. I have absolutely no criticism of that, except for the fact that classes were cancelled and faculty and students left to their own devices to make up for that. I mention this only as part of a contrast I want to draw out, and the point I want to make goes far beyond Stanford, Facebook, and the President of the United States.
Consider the difference between the event I just mentioned and another, which took place on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this year, when dozens of Stanford students shut down the San Mateo Bridge for an hour. On January 19, the Los Angeles Times reported that:
The group identified itself as Silicon Shutdown, a collective of Stanford students organizing against police brutality and oppression, according to its website and Twitter account. At one point, protesters unrolled a large Palestinian flag on the bridge.
They held up traffic on the westbound side for 28 minutes, a time chosen to symbolize that "every 28 hours, a black person is killed by law enforcement or vigilantes," according to a press release posted on Silicon Shutdown's website.
"We chose to inconvenience the weekend commute because the status quo is deadly to the black and brown peoples of this country and can no longer be tolerated," participant Maria Diaz, a member of Stanford's class of 2017, said in a publicly posted statement.
Angry comments posted on the LAT website equated this act with acts of terrorism; people scolded "pampered Stanford students" for harassing people trying to get to their jobs.
Now think of the assumptions that are built into both these events and public reaction to them. For the Goldberg memorial, no question: disrupt campus life as much as is necessary to honor the man. And collect the luminaries in Silicon Valley, not to mention Bono, so they can properly mourn their collective loss. At base, this is all part of normal Silicon Valley, and elite American, life. Stanford was transformed into a staging ground for a ritual that is repeated over and over and over again -- recognizing the value of entrepreneurship, innovation, "disruption" in the capitalist mode, and just being a good member of that elite group. The well-known fact that corporate boardrooms in the Valley are notorious for their lack of minorities, let alone blacks, would be a rude thing to mention in the midst of all the ceremony, and I have no desire to do so. Except, again, by way of drawing an important, and telling, contrast.
The students who disrupted, for an hour, the peaceful commute to work in Silicon Valley, were arrested, jailed, charged. For what? For calling attention to another scene of mourning and grief and death -- and a multitude of such scenes which are repeated over and over again in black and brown communities. The university did nothing to support the students -- but why should it?
And yet there is a case to be made that the students actually, as they intended, performed an educational service. How else would these people -- who, by and large normally would never be in contact with poor people of color -- have any sense, no matter how fleeting, of the disruption to "daily life" the silenced and oppress face every single day?
As a society, we have accepted the disruptions to life the very privileged and the very powerful visit upon us. And I am not talking only about ceremonies like the one that took place at Stanford. At this point, I want to leave that event in the distance and address the wider point.
I am not bitter about the brief interruption to Stanford life. At base I am more concerned about the disparity of privilege, rights, and sanctioned behaviors that we tolerate and are told to get used to. I have an idea -- let Stanford fund a #BlackLivesMatter memorial at the same location as the Goldberg memorial. And let it not be a private ceremony: let us open our doors to the community.