Activists’ PEN is Mightier than the Border

By Guest Columnist Oct 01, 2009

by Adebe DeRango-Adem, research intern at the Applied Research Center. Scholars should know the ABCs of United States visa processes if they’re hoping to participate in any sort of intellectual activity — including the right to speak. As the new research intern at ARC, and the first Canadian to work in the New York City office, I’ve noticed how freedom-of-speech issues speak consistently to freedom-of-movement struggles and the politics of migration. When people can be capriciously barred from the United States for statements they made decades ago, what does this say for migrants with nobody to speak for them? PEN, the international organization for the protection of writers’ and activists’ rights, has shed light on the recent news that prestigious German publisher and former activist Karl-Dietrich Wolff has been denied entry into the US. Scheduled to speak at Vassar College about the history of civil rights within the historical contexts of both Germany and Black America, the former head of the Socialist German Students Organization (SDS) and founder of Germany’s Black Panther Solidarity Committee was refused entry at JFK airport in New York this past weekend. Barred from entry due to an invalid visa, Wolff was forced to turn down his opportunity to speak at Vassar College, where he would have shared the stage with prolific activist/scholars such as Angela Davis to speak upon the larger global role of the civil rights movement. According to the the Guardian, Wolff was apparently denied entry due to his involvement in civil rights as a high school exchange student in the US in the early 1960s, a period during which he founded the Black Panther Solidarity Committee and was engaged with other radical thinkers, students and faculty alike.
Told at the border that his visa was in fact invalid from 2003, Wolff was subsequently interrogated, photographed, fingerprinted, and flown back to Frankfurt, Germany. Wolff had no American visa from 1969 to 1987 after being subpoenaed to the Senate Committee on Internal Security, but since the bar has been lifted, he has been able to travel freely to and through the US three times to date. Vassar president Catharine Hill and German Historical Institute director Hartmut Berghoff have both issued statements expressing their disappointment at the denial of Wolff’s entry. Dr. Wolff is seeking legal advice, and a letter of apology, before attempting to enter the US again. "Everyone who knows me knows I am one of the relatively few leftist leaders in West Germany who is really pro-America… It’s really very strange, the whole thing," he told The Guardian this weekend. Larry Siems, director of the Freedom to Write program at PEN America, has spoken publicly about the incident. He quotes, "We have been working hard to challenge the resurgence of ideological exclusion in the US since 9/11, which we consider to be a violation of the right to freedom of expression and of the right of Americans to meet with and engage with our foreign colleagues." The Guardian reports that the German branch of PEN, of which Wolff is a member, has also found the move (or lack thereof) as a human rights issue, tied to the continued suppression of radical political thinkers fighting for the rights of historically – and continually – oppressed groups.