With the end of the semester in sight, students of Ohio State were confronted by one last lesson. The event was advertised to students by promising a “strategy for ridding society” of believers in the free-market. During the conference attendees hinted at, alluded to and in some cases explicitly laid out the need for political violence.
The program explicitly stated the goal of the hosts, the International Socialist Organization. The ISO’s self-proclaimed agenda to the students of Ohio State: “To achieve socialism, the most militant workers must be organized.”
The “Midwest Marxist Conference” was the final stop on a tour of pro-Marxist sessions held by the ISO. Ohio State’s participation was coordinated by Professor Pranav Jani of English and Comparative Studies along with Haley Swenson of Women’s Studies.
Professor Jani, who was clad in all black beside a red armband, frequently turned the discussion to race relations. “The ISO is the leading organization on anti-Zionism,” he proclaimed during one session. The professor had been preparing for the conference for weeks in advance. On the event’s facebook page, he wrote encouraging statements to students who had reservations about attending a socialist conference.
Although 159 attendees were listed on the facebook page, approximately 120 people showed up. Nametags included guests’ city or school, and outsiders appeared to outnumber Ohio State students two-to-one.
The event was also advertised through Democratic Underground, a site dedicated to bringing together supporters of the Democratic Party.
Among the speakers Jani invited to address students was Tom Alter, who writes for The Militant, an online socialist publication. Alter has been writing for The Militant since at least the mid-1990s. His articles advocate for the construction of a “propaganda axis” that would be used to persuade not just college students, but high schoolers as well, to join the International Socialist cause.
Alter’s session was titled “How to Build Stronger Branches.” He was introduced by fellow ISO member Shaun Harkin. Harkin is a “community organizer” based in Chicago. A video found on youtube shows Harkin attacking an individual for attempting to film him at a public event in a public park. He grabs the camera from a woman and throws it to the ground as she pleads for him to stop.
Despite assurances of future equality among all, the socialist suggested that students could assume leadership roles if they joined his cause.
Alter told the students, “I can’t go out there on my own and fight,” pointing to a scar on his face he allegedly got fighting fascists. From the second row, Alter’s scar was not clearly visible. “We need to take advantage of the situation,” he said of discontent youth, “and be armed.”
The Ohio State Code of Student Conduct prohibits “Taking or threatening action that endangers the safety, physical or mental health, or life of any person, or creates a reasonable fear of such action.”
When a Question and Answer portion was opened to the crowd, several other contributed ideas to Alter’s talk.
Aaron from the Detroit branch of the ISO admitted, “the biggest barrier for us is that none of us are students,” which made recruitment of students more time consuming.
Swenson responded, “every branch struggles with this… Capitalism makes us busy. Right? Like if we just had tons of time, this would be way easier. ” She suggested that Aaron create “a sense of urgency” among potential future socialists.
The issue of race was brought up repeatedly. Many members voiced discontent over the fact that white men were the majority of the ISO. Gary, a white male member from Cleveland, suggested that the ISO could appeal to African Americans if “we send members to liquor stores and barber shops.”
Jani later added to the racial discussion, “it doesn’t make sense to be a black nationalist.”
Dissatisfied that the allotted time had run out for the session, the group agreed to extend it half an hour.
Pranav expressed conflicted views about the coercive nature of socialism. “What the fuck kind of revolution says working class people can lead their own lives but also says we’re right about everything?” he asked the crowd.
As the session neared a close, the structured discussion broke down. Several speakers and participants voiced general frustration.
“We need to be reflective of the working class. We are not right now,” said Jani, who holds a Ph.D from Brown University.
Tithi Bhattacharya, a professor of “Oriental Studies” at Purdue said, “we went to the Purdue anti-racism conference and what we argued was shit.”
Harkin conceded, “I went to ISO meetings for months and I didn’t understand anything they were saying.”
During “Race and Class” with Bill Mullen, one participant stated, “I’m not comfortable approaching comrades of color.”
One session was led by “Marilena Dirusso,” which is presumably a pseudonym, as a google search turns up only a twitter account.
Professor Jani lists “resources” on his official Ohio State webpage, such as Counter Punch, which advocate for international socialism. During his stated office hours, Jani could not be reached either at his office or by phone for further comment.
The ISO made a total of eleven stop, pressing students from Harvard to Portland State to get involved in the militant elimination of capitalism.
Correction: Marilena Dirusso is a member of the Chicago Teachers’ Union