At the University of Missouri, student activists succeeded this week in forcing the resignation of President Timothy M. Wolfe, charging that he has not done enough to address persistent racism on campus. Tim Tai, a University of Missouri student, got a freelance assignment from ESPN to photograph the reaction of victorious activists at the tent city they set up in a public area of campus. As a matter of law, he had an indisputable First Amendment right to photograph events transpiring outdoors on public property.
But student activists did not want their tent city or the people in it photographed, and forcibly prevented him from taking pictures. “We ask for no media in the parameters so the place where people live, fellowship, and sleep can be protected from twisted insincere narratives,” a Twitter account associated with the activists later declared, adding that “it’s typically white media who don’t understand the importance of respecting black spaces.” Tim Tai is Asian American.
“We’re documenting historic events with our photographs, and when people are crying and hugging when Wolfe resigns, it becomes a personal issue that people all over the country can connect with,” Tai explained in an interview with The New York Times. “It’s my job to help connect those people to what’s going on.”
The protests at the University of Missouri were assisted by dozens of players on the school’s football team who declared that they would boycott games until the school’s president stepped down. This important, complicated story can be explored using an impressive timeline published by Missouri’s student newspaper. Tai’s story is one footnote to this larger narrative.
First Amendment protections for photographers are vital. And I agree with my colleague, James Fallows, that Tai demonstrated impressive intellectual and emotional poise. But video of his encounter with protestors is noteworthy for another reason.
In the video of Tim Tai trying to carry out his ESPN assignment, I see the most vivid example yet of activists twisting the concept of “safe space” in a most confounding way. They have one lone student surrounded. They’re forcibly preventing him from exercising a civil right. At various points, they intimidate him. Ultimately, they physically push him. But all the while, they are operating on the premise, or carrying on the pretense, that he is making them unsafe.
It is as if they’ve weaponized the concept of “safe spaces.”
“I support people creating ‘safe spaces’ as a shield by exercising their freedom of association to organize themselves into mutually supporting communities,” Ken White wrote prior to this controversy. “But not everyone imagines ‘safe spaces’ like that. Some use the concept of ‘safe spaces’ as a sword, wielded to annex public spaces and demand that people within those spaces conform to their private norms.”
Yesterday, I wrote about Yale students who decided, in the name of creating a “safe space” on compass, to spit on people as they left a talk with which they disagreed. “In their muddled ideology,” I wrote, “the Yale activists had to destroy the safe space to save it.”
Here the doublethink reaches its apex:
- As the video begins, a man tells the photographer that he is not allowed to push the wall of people which has formed to stop him from moving forward.
- Around the 20-second mark, a woman shouts that the photographer needs to respect the space of students, just as they start to forcibly push him backwards.
- Just after the one-minute mark, having been pushed back by students who are deliberately crowding him to obstruct his view, things grow more surreal as the photographer is told, “Please give them space! You cannot be this close to them.”
- At the 1:24 mark, as the students are chanting at the photographer and some are visibly smirking at him––and as he’s frustrated but doing his best to keep his cool––a protestor tells him, as if he is disrespecting them, “You think this is funny.”
- Around 1:42, after several rounds of students chanting and yelling loudly at him in unison, he raises his voice to politely insist that he has a First Amendment right to be there. And a student interjects that he must not yell at a protestor.
- At 1:50 or so, a student tells the photographer that the members of the large group outnumbering him 20- or 30-to-one need to protect their space as human beings from him.
- Around 2:08, a woman walks right up to the photographer and says, “You know what? Back off of my personal space. Leave these students alone.”
- That woman then spreads out her arms and starts pushing the photographer back more––and as she makes contact with his body other students tell him, “Stop pushing her.”
- At 2:33, the same woman tells the photographer that one of the students doesn’t want to talk to him. He explains that he has no desire to speak with anyone. And she replies, “She doesn’t want to see you,” as if he’s infringing on a right to not stand in a public space in a way that makes him visible.
- Another surreal moment comes at 2:47, when a student who has been there the whole time approaches the wall of people preventing the photographer’s forward progress and says, “I need to get through, are you not going to let me through?” as if the photographer is the one transgressing against her freedom of movement.
- At 3:32 another student says, “They can call the police on you,” as if the photographer is the one breaking the law.
- A moment later, the photographer puts his hands and camera directly above his head to try to snap a photo. The women in front of him pushes her hands in the air to try to block the lens. They make fleeting, inconsequential contact, and a bystander accusatorially says to the photographer, “Did you just touch her?” Because that would be beyond the pale, never mind he has been repeatedly pushed!
And on it goes like that.
This behavior is a kind of safe-baiting: using intimidation or initiating physical aggression to violate someone’s rights, then acting like your target is making you unsafe.
“You are an unethical reporter,” a student says around 5:15. “You do not respect our space.” Not 30 seconds later, the crowd starts to yell, “Push them all out,” and begins walking into the photographer. “You’re pushing me!” he yells. And even moments after vocally organizing themselves to push him, they won’t fess up to the nature of their behavior. “We’re walking forward,” they say, feigning innocence. Says one snarky student as the crowd forces him back, “I believe it’s my right to walk forward, isn’t it?” Then the photographer is gone, and only the person holding the video camera that recorded the whole ordeal remains. Ironically, he is a member of the press, too, which he mentions to one of the few protestors who is left behind.
By then, the mask has fallen.“Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?” an unusually frank protestor yells. “I need some muscle over here!”
The woman calling for muscle? An assistant professor of mass media at the University of Missouri ... who had previously asked the campus for help attracting media attention.