Student protests require more action, less drama

Aleida Fernandez

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It is time Whitman students stop small-scale, apathetic protesting. In the last four years, there have been multiple student-led protests against perceived administrative faults or injustices. Each begins with primarily justifiable reasons, each riles up the majority of the student body, but each ends two weeks later. It’s these types of short, angry flare-ups that leave me frustrated, both by the lack of visible change on campus and the pattern of ineffective protesting. Too many Whitman protests are quick and uneven, making it easier for administrators and other students to tune out and silence important issues while diminishing the credibility of all student protesting.

Students have the ability to enact real change on campus, so it’s important to continue to have student voices heard. Too often, however, the public conversation ends with the protest. Look at the protests surrounding our mascot, The Missionaries. Every few years, a group of students take on the issue of changing our mascot to a less “colonial” and “genocidal” one, yet our mascot remains the same and the debate surrounding it has become a campus-wide punch line.

Many times the conversation ends because students don’t fully understand the issue or feel uncomfortable voicing their opinion. They may fear they will look ignorant or be met with the dreaded label of having too much “white privilege.” We as student activists can prevent this. We need to listen to those voices that perhaps don’t fully understand the protest at hand and not meet them with anger or annoyance, but with understanding and compassion. Not every Whitman student understands what it’s like to live without privilege, but every Whitman student is willing to try to understand if given the opportunity.

Other times protests at Whitman end because of student apathy. Many protests on campus don’t concern the majority of campus, so students lack the wherewithal to keep the pressure going when the elaborate demonstrations start to fade. I believe that this is because many of the student protests on campus have revolved around what the Whitman Administration should or should not be doing. There has only been one notable example in four years –– the racism rallies in the fall 2013 semester –– that instead asked the student body to reflect on their own assumptions and beliefs. Throughout the fall, students held multiple teach-ins around campus and advocated canceling classes during the annual Power and Privilege Symposium to increase attendance. As a result, the conversation surrounding racism and privilege on campus has continued and there were multiple institutions put in place to keep it from dying.

These all-campus and student-driven efforts prevent all-campus apathy. The Whitman Administration is an elaborate bureaucracy, and it takes them years to make noticeable change. Yet through student-led efforts, we can be the change we want to see on campus. The administration can botch multiple Title IX investigations, but it’s the students that can prevent an investigation from ever needing to happen in the first place. It’s time for Whitman students to ask not what Whitman can do for them but what they can do for Whitman. Let’s pick a cause that challenges us, not the higher ups, to make a difference.

In April of 1968, students at Columbia University occupied multiple university buildings after students discovered links between Columbia’s institutional apparatus and the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, as well as their concern over the construction of a segregated gymnasium in the nearby Morningside Park. For two months the students protested, even as 30 students were suspended by the administration and as protesters were met with violent clashes with the local police.  In the end, however, the student protesters achieved their stated goals: Columbia disaffiliated with the Institute for Defense Analytics and they scrapped the controversial gym plans.

The Columbia University protests illustrate how student protests can have a positive effect on university politics. They had large and passionate numbers and they did not give up when times became hard. It’s important for Whitman students to stand up for what they believe in; many of the issues that have been raised through student protests are issues that the college and its administration should be addressing. But it’s also important to ask ourselves how the student body can be a mechanism of change. We need to organize, to plan and to execute a protest so that it does not become one in a long list of other grievances or part of a joke. Protests are about sustained discontent, and just like the Columbia University students, Whitman students should advocate for change in a manner that inspires a real difference on campus.

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