The growth of the student protest movement has sparked a series of debates about strategy and tactics, and those debates have gotten more intense in the wake of the March 4 Day of Action. Activists and their critics have legitimate disagreements about methods and goals, and those disagreements are now being aired in public with growing frequency.
I’m going to be talking a bit about those disagreements soon, but first I want to clear away some of the strawmen that have popped up recently. If there’s going to be a debate, and there should be, let it be in good faith.
I read an essay this morning that suffers from all of the weaknesses that I’ve got in mind. In an opinion piece in the online journal Politics Daily, Muskingum College senior Joshua Chaney argues that March 4 represented a missed opportunity because “participants’ messages were mixed, their disruptions turned away other students and members of the public, and their voices often fell on the wrong ears.” That’s a legitimate argument, but unfortunately Chaney gets the specifics of it completely wrong.
Here are four things to bear in mind when writing, talking, or thinking about contemporary student protest:
1. Mixed messages come with the territory.
Chaney complains of the March 4 protesters’ “lack of a common voice and purpose,” calling for “clearer messaging.” That’s all fine nad dandy, but it avoids the central question: clearer messaging from whom?
The contemporary American student movement isn’t an organization or a political party. Nobody was screening March 4 actions and giving out credentials. There was no seal of approval. This was a grassroots event. Nobody had the power to impose a common agenda on the events, because the events weren’t coordinated or conceived by a central body. Anybody could mount an action on March 4, and just about everybody did. That’s how social movements roll.
“Student activists are now taking divergent paths in determining what steps are next,” Chaney says. Well, of course they are. They weren’t all on one path to begin with. That diversity is a reflection of the vigor and vitality of the movement.
2. A rally and a lobby day are two different things.
Chaney quotes a Berkeley first-year as saying that students should be talking to legislators in Sacramento rather than “waving [their] hands” at a campus protest. I’m a big fan of lobbying. Huge fan. But I also recognize that state legislators read the papers and watch television, and I’m having a hard time remembering the last time that a sit-down with an assemblymember’s staff made the evening news or attracted the attention of a student on her way to class.
Mass action gets noticed, and getting noticed is part of getting results.
It’s also important to note that many protesters last Thursday weren’t particularly interested in swaying legislators. Some were working to reform campus-specific policies. Some were looking to build student power in their institutions. Some, for that matter, were trying to bring on the revolution and overthrow capitalism entirely.
Before you tell people that protesting won’t get them what they want, make sure you know what they want.
3. The disruptions of March 4 were actually really mild.
Chaney opens with a vivid account of the campus climate of the late 1960s. Eight bombings in a year at Berkeley. A riot that sent nearly fifty cops to the hospital. Hundreds of weapons confiscated from student protesters.
This “style of protest,” he says, “was alive in various forms” on March 4.
Really? Come on.
There were more than a hundred actions on March 4, and Chaney finds evidence of disruptive activity at just four of them. At Davis and in the Bay area, students blocked traffic, or tried to. At Santa Cruz, students barred cars from campus. And at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, fifteen activists were arrested “for obstructing justice and disorderly conduct.” That’s it. That’s all he’s got.
In colonial days, armed students regularly burned buildings and terrorized professors. In the early years of the American republic universities often had to be shut down because student unrest threatened life and property. Campus riots hospitalized untold numbers of activists, police, and bystanders in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Student violence didn’t begin with the sixties — it’s been a recurring theme of campus life for hundreds of years.
But there was virtually no student violence last Thursday. Throughout the country, even on campuses where activists had clashed with police in the recent past, activists conducted themselves with care and restraint. I am aware of only two serious injuries on the day — a student who was hit by a car that was running the blockade at UC Santa Cruz, and a high schooler who fell off the highway overpass in Oakland. That’s all.
If you’re going to criticize the student activists of March 4 as being out of control, then no grassroots movement will ever meet your standards for restraint and decorum.
4. Mass action works.
The student protests of the 1960s that Chaney decries provided the impetus for profound changes in the American university, and in society more broadly. In the late sixties and early seventies students across the country achieved huge victories in their efforts to secure a real role in campus governance. They forced the creation of ethnic and gender studies departments on hundreds of campuses. They ended the draft. With the adoption of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1971, they even gained the right to vote. They didn’t win everything they were fighting for, but they won a hell of a lot.
Was it rioting and bombing that won those victories? Mostly it wasn’t. The vast majority of student agitation then, as now, was peaceful and disciplined. But that movement, far messier and far rowdier than today’s, transformed the country.