About one month into my freshman stint at a left coast school known for student activism, I spied a flyer on a phone pole. “BART Alert!” it screamed, referring to the local rail transit system. I am still not sure what such an alert really is, but this particular flyer urged me to show up at a march. As a new college student who fancied himself on the side of the people, I took part that night in my very first march, protesting the use of U.S. troops in a place called Grenada.
It’s all quite hazy now, but I think I was even on local TV that night, literally waving my fist. I couldn’t say precisely where Grenada was. Looking back over the context, I think President Reagan was probably right to take the steps he did to avoid the creation of another belligerent communist island nation (there were armed Cuban workers on the island building an airstrip that was way too long for commercial traffic). But, man, I seethed with righteous anger at the time. This was imperialist oppression, plain and simple.
In twenty-first century Washington, DC, there is an uprising at Gallaudet University, the top institution of higher learning for Deaf and hard-of-hearing in the nation and an icon for that group. Student protests began in May and reached a head this month. The football team (of all things) closed the campus. A tent city was erected. There are signs. Angry speakers go on at length. Demands have been issued and there have been calls for negotiation. The faculty have voted no confidence in the administration. Arrests have been made.
It’s hard, from off campus, to understand what is at the root of the protests. The newspapers have been of little help in this respect. There are few news articles that are anything other than breathless in their coverage. One news piece literally refers to them, without irony, standing “shoulder to shoulder.” The protesters’ slogans are reprinted. Each new declaration of support they receive gets covered. Meanwhile, the administration with whom they have their beef is portrayed as increasingly cold and distant, negotiating only belatedly and perfunctorily, issuing carefully worded statements and generally being The Man. It is difficult to find more than a handful of opinion pieces that criticize the protesters.
This is the coverage that many news organizations seem to reserve for these events. In the guise of reporting the facts, protesters are always treated as legitimate heirs to the Suffragists and to Rosa Parks. But whatever grievance the protesters have has been buried under the weight of the story of noble protest.
When asked, the protesting students have given a shifting set of reasons for their anger, but have recently coalesced around two key demands. First, they say they are unhappy with the way the search was run to find a new president for the university – their viewpoints were not given enough weight. They want the chosen candidate to step down and the board of trustees to reopen the search. Second, they want a guarantee that there will be no “reprisals” against the students who led and took part in the protests. The board, their choice for president, and the current president, meanwhile, all say they have no plans to reopen the search and that student input was carefully considered.
As my college career progressed at my counterculture university, I remained on the periphery of a number of students who you might refer to as “professional protesters.” I did little of it myself. But no matter the issue, there was a ready crop of mouths to yell and fists to wave. Some causes were, in hindsight, inarguably worthy: divestment of university funds from companies doing business in South Africa. Other causes not so much: I recall one protest in favor of an unidentified group of people who had burnt the campus ROTC building to a cinder.
One common thread through all these college protests, and a thread connecting my Grenadine march to the Gallaudet students on the barricades, is a laudable – but hard to support – indignation. The examples of past demonstrations emboldened us to think our views were not only worthwhile but that they ought to carry more weight than other considerations. But we lacked the inclination to reflect on the content of those views. We were right, by virtue of little else but the heat of our convictions. Descartes might have said of us cogito, ergo sum rectus: I think, therefore I am right.
In the end, it all got a bit silly. I vividly remember one early morning when there was a loud rapping at my door. A throng of revolutionaries was on my porch, having outrun the pigs to our safe haven. The purpose of the demonstration I can no longer recall. But the purpose of their visit was quite clear: they were hungry. My girlfriend made pancakes for the lot of them, and we fed them as they swapped stories of blocking prison buses and hurling rocks. At the time, it all seemed so earnest. But it was the pancakes and braggadocio that survived, not the cause.
How will we look back on the protests of today? Are we changing the world – or passing the time?