Monday, September 24, 2007

Big Signs Blogging Bollinger

NEW YORK, Sept. 24 — Also on CNN tonight, Columbia University President answered some questions about his introduction of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which Ahmadinejad himself called insulting.

"It always risks that when you have something like this that it will degenerate into a bland conversation," Bollinger said.

"It was very clear that the only way this would happen was for me to use very sharp questions," he continued. "These are very serous beliefs... the only way to have a discussion like this is to make sure it's a full, robust debate.

"I had things that I wanted to say, and I wanted to say them in my own words...

"He was very stony... so I really don't know what he felt.

"I think it's better to openly confront your adversaries and enemies to express your views."

Trump on Ahmadinejad

NEW YORK, Sept. 24 — On CNN tonight, Donald Trump told Wolf Blitzer that the visit was a good public relations move for Columbia. "It's very good for Columbia because, right now, everybody's talking about Columbia," Trump said.

Big Signs Notebook: Ahmadinejad Visits Columbia, Campus and Community Fired Up

NEW YORK, Sept. 24 -- The din of the day is fading, but with the Columbia Coalition, a loose collection of student groups denouncing the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the university, some excitement is surely still in the tanks.

On the most frenetic day of the semester so far, I bounced to midtown around 10 a.m. for an interview and to take in the insanity of east midtown as it welcomed the United Nations General Assembly. On my return to campus, the event was well underway, and I caught the last few minutes of the speech simulcast to the giant viewing screen on the south side of College Walk.

Here are a handful of observations from the scene. Photos to follow later.

10:10 a.m., leaving the main gate at 116th Street and Broadway, a short, bearded, Jewish man was chanting, "Death to Ahmadinejad, the Hitler of Iran!" and giving out fliers calling on Columbia alums to cut off their donations as a punishment for Bollinger inviting the Iranian president. Inside campus, the "Press Pen," set up on Low Plaza, remained empty.

11:30 a.m., from the 61st floor of the Chrysler Building, 42nd Street leading to the United Nations is blocked off at First Avenue by dump trucks filled with sand, and lined west of First Avenue with NYPD vehicles and trusty orange traffic cones.

2:50 p.m., on return to the Morningside campus, one of two stairwells exiting the subway at 116th Street station is closed, guarded by a white-shirted (higher-ranking) NYPD officer. Another white-shirt and a regular P.O. circulated through the station. The protest was in full swing on both sides of Broadway, with police barricades restraining the crowd.

There were at least four satellite trucks up and running and another three or four microwave trucks along Broadway, beaming content to their stations. Just north of the protest scene, on the west side of Broadway at 118th Street, in front of Barnard College, a coach bus idled, perhaps awaiting protesters, perhaps bringing tourists to spectate.

A sampling of the signage: a professionally printed banner reading, "Charge Ahmadinejad with incitement of genocide," on one side of the barricades, and on the other, a handwritten poster board that said, "Free speech in USA."

A sampling of the chants: "Shame on Columbia!"

Entering campus from the 117th Street gate, and weaving through the smattering of students meandering about the north side of campus, it seemed tranquil, as if perhaps the event had ended. On reaching Low Plaza, however, the sea of students showed itself set up on the south lawn, transfixed by the speech simulcast to the super sized screen. There were at least 3,000 people covering the southeast corner of the quad.

Catching the tail end of Ahmadinejad's remarks, as I squinted to see the screen from an angle off to its left, he asserted, through a translator, that Iran's nuclear program "operates within the law."

Protesting students held a massive orange banner, so large it reached the chin of one standing, female protester, which read, "Ahmadinejad = Bad/ Bush = Worse/ No War on Iran" and called on students to join in a protest of U.S. President George W. Bush on Tuesday when he speaks at the United Nations.

Ahmadinejad condemned Iraq's use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War, and he concluded by reciprocating on Columbia's invitation to him by inviting students and faculty to Iran.

"I invite Columbia faculty members and students to come to Iran to speak with our faculty and students. You're officially invited," Ahmadinejad said. Perhaps backtracking from the broad invitation, he suggested that Columbia could pick the students, possibly from student government, to make a trip, and that Iran would supply a list of its 400-some universities that the entourage could visit.

As he ended his remarks, Ahmadinejad said to the audience, "Best of luck to all of you."

More to follow -- covering the media covering the events, counter-speeches, overheard student reactions.

Pitt at Grant's Tomb, Secret Service at the Gates

NEW YORK, Sept. 24 -- Brad Pitt is in Morningside Heights this morning, just north of the controlled chaos at Columbia, shooting scenes for "Burn After Reading." Photos to follow later, but the crew filmed Pitt screaming "FUCK!!!" (yes, with three exclamation points) as cars (with Beltway plates) passed and one sped off in front of him, at least a dozen times this morning just after 9.

Grant's Tomb is acting as the Department of the Interior building, from what I could tell, and Riverside Drive is downtown Washington. Interesting premise.

Just south, as 117th and Broadway, four Secret Services agents from the diplomatic protection side of the house (think Sean Penn in "The Interpreter") hovered around an auxiliary gate to Columbia, earpieces, suits, sunglasses, and all the trimmings, along with several Columbia public safety officers. Interestingly, while I noticed Secret Service on campus, I didn't notice them at the 116th Street main gates, either at Broadway or Amsterdam Avenue.

Perhaps Ahmadinejad will enter that way and head to Bollinger's office in Low Library before his talk, or perhaps it's diversion. While Secret Service was absent from the main gates, the gates were on all-but-lockdown, with only one of three open in either direction, and swarms of public safety officers checking ID (entry with CUID only).

Big Signs that Morningside Heights is the Place to be Today

NEW YORK, Sept. 24 — Between the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Columbia University later today and the filming of the Coen brothers' "Burn After Reading," in Sakura Park just up the street from my apartment and a few blocks from campus, Morningside Heights may be as hopping as the United Nations today.

While the U.N. General Assembly gets underway in east midtown, Ahmadinejad's visit is riling up mid-Mo-Heights, and "Burn After Reading" stars George Clooney and Brad Pitt are heating up the north end of the neighborhood. Reports (and NYPD/NYC Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting parking signage) indicate that Pitt and Clooney filmed in the park just south of International House (my former residence) on Sunday and will be back today, apparently pretending that the heights are Georgetown, D.C. I have spent considerable time in both neighborhoods (including Sunday, in fact, having left Georgetown at 4 p.m. and arrived back in the heights by 8:30 p.m. thanks to the Amtrak Acela), and I'm not sure that the two are much alike, but an early morning visit may prove otherwise.

Meanwhile, back on College Walk at Columbia, the plans continue. The university has already placed a large viewing screen on the south side of the walk for the overflow crowd to watch the Ahmadinejad event (some might call it a spectacle, debacle, embarassment, or intellectual exercise; I'll have some thoughts later).

A closer examination of the fliers yielded the following: the flier upon which we previously reported actually reads, "Bollinger/ Too bad/ Ben-Laden/ is not available// You could have presented him with some tough questions too..."

A similar letter-sized flier read, "Bollinger, while you're at it, why not invite the Ku-Klux Klan," and in a smaller, parenthetical in its bottom margin alleges that infamous KKK member and white-supremacist (not to mention frequent candidate for public office, including for governor of Louisiana) David Duke was an honored guest at Ahmadinejad's conference denying the Holocaust.

Yet another flier quotes the Iranian president saying, "We didn't have a revolution in order to have democracy."

As this reporter strolled back toward Broadway along college walk, at midnight, he overheard five or so organizers of the protest rally discussing the plans. One young woman expressed her concern about the content of the fliers, agreeing that they were well intended but sharing her concern that the "national media" expected on campus to cover the day's events may distort their meaning and portray the fliers as inflammatory.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Big Sign that Lee Bollinger Loves the Spotlight: The Ahmadinejad Columbia Visit

NEW YORK, Sept. 23 — With Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad slated to speak at Columbia University on Monday, the university's campus is already buzzing with Ahmadinejad-related activity on the eve of the speech.

Walking to campus from my apartment just a few blocks north at about 8:35 p.m. tonight, I counted two satellite trucks parked on Broadway and a crowd of students circled around a TV stand-up report in front of Columbia's main gates. Walking by the crowd as I entered the gate to cross campus, I spotted the one and only Geraldo Rivera interviewing students.

Walking across campus from Broadway to the law school, across Amsterdam Avenue, I observed College Walk, the university's Main Street, all but plastered in fliers related to the visit, mostly in opposition and offering details about the planned protest. Almost every fence post along the western half of the walkway had a flier taped to it, and a carpet of fliers taped to the walk itself connected Broadway and Amsterdam.

One flier read something to the effect of, "Bollinger, too bad Ben-Laden wasn't available. You could have asked him provocative questions too."

Stay tuned. More to follow. Big Signs will be live-blogging (at least parts of) the day Monday.