The Magazine

The Ward Churchill Notoriety Tour

From the April 25, 2005 issue: The worst professor in America meets his adoring public.

Apr 25, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 30 • By MATT LABASH
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San Francisco

ON A LATE MARCH EVENING in the Mission District, the line stretches down the block. Hopefuls are anxious to make the cut at $10 a head; the auditorium in the Women's Building only seats 400. It's an explosively colorful structure featuring murals of warrior poets and others who've been lodged in the tread of the jackboot of oppression, like Audre Lorde and Rigoberta Menchu. From the feverish intensity of those standing in line, you might think they'd turned out for the Vagina Monologues or American Idol auditions. Instead, they've come to hear a craggy-faced ethnic studies professor from the University of Colorado-Boulder liken 9/11 victims to Nazi war criminals.

The professor, Ward Churchill, became famous in late January, when a college-newspaper reporter dusted off a previously ignored three-year-old essay Churchill had written for the Internet entitled "Some People Push Back." The essay was later expanded (complete with footnotes), and included in Churchill's book On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality. In the essay, Churchill advanced the provocative thesis that the amoral money-changers who worked at the World Trade Center, the materialistic purveyors of third-world exploitation and genocide--or "little Eichmanns," in his signature formulation--essentially got what was coming to America after years of military aggression and unjust foreign policy. It wasn't some senseless tragedy, but a natural plot progression. We can delude ourselves by boo-hooing and wearing Stars and Stripes lapel pins, but the big karmic wheel keeps on turnin' (I paraphrase, but barely).

As is always the case when Hitler's minions are invoked, it was all-hands-on-deck on the cable chat shows. Churchill was the most exciting thing to come out of Colorado since Columbine, or maybe even JonBenet Ramsey. (Churchill himself says his favorite show is The Ward Churchill Factor, since Bill O'Reilly has done no less than 31 segments on him.) Predictably, the political right--everyone from Colorado governor Bill Owens to Rudy Giuliani--called for Churchill's head to be stuck on a pike. Even more predictably, the left did what the left does best: sign support petitions and compare the right to Joe McCarthy.

As a result of all this controversy, Churchill's popularity is soaring. Already required reading at over 100 universities, Churchill is a prolific, if not downright logorrheic, author. He's written or edited over 20 books, and while his specialty is Native American studies, whatever he writes tends to be of a piece, with titles such as A Little Matter of Genocide, Fantasies of the Master Race, and Agents of Repression.

Having headed the Colorado chapter of the American Indian Movement (AIM) for several decades, having boasted of his affiliation with the Black Panthers and his days teaching bomb-making to the Weathermen, he's more than just an angry professor. He's a nostalgia ride at the Aging Radical Theme Park. Pay ten bucks, and it's like watching your parents' college yearbooks transubstantiated into flesh and blood. Pre-controversy, Churchill already did about three speaking gigs a month. But since, the number of invitations has tripled, and his fee, when he's not doing pro-bono work, is at five grand plus expenses.

Then there's all the pregame hype, with blustery death threats, angry editorial denunciations, and the occasional SWAT team working security on the roof. It's not a bad quarter's work for an academic who just a few months ago was heard mainly within the walls of his "Indians in Film" class, and who was lucky to move a few units of his "In a Pig's Eye" lecture CD. At this clip, he might surpass Che Guevara in commodified outrage, the latter having posthumously set the standard with "for all your revolutionary needs" (Che shooter glasses are only $11 plus shipping).

I CAME TO SAN FRANCISCO to soak up Churchill's rising-star aura. His perfectly pleasant fourth wife, Natsu Saito--his de facto publicist and fellow ethnic studies professor--permits me to shadow Churchill off-and-on during his four-day stand in the Bay Area. Right before he goes on for his Women's Building speech, I'm escorted to a spare upper room. Churchill is there ministering to his disciples, a couple of his students who've followed him out on spring break, as well as some functionaries from his publisher, AK Press--a "workers' cooperative" that cranks out beach-reads like Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice, along with inspirational T-shirts suggesting "Whitey Will Pay."

Churchill is sitting at a table, winding up a funny story. I miss the setup, but am just in time for the big closer in which he cites Tom Wolfe's riff on the "shiny-black-shoe" cluelessness of undercover cops. I grab a metal folding chair behind him, silently taking in all 6'5" of him.