The Illiberal Demands of the Amherst Uprising

Fighting racism doesn’t require censoring critics.

Redjar / Flickr

At Amherst, a private liberal arts college in Massachusetts, student activists began a sit-in last Thursday at the campus library, intending “to stand in solidarity with the students in Mizzou, Yale, South Africa and every other institution across the world where black people are marginalized and threatened.” Students gathered “to speak about their experiences with racism at Amherst and beyond,” according to The Amherst Student, and at some point, some participants in the fluid event declared a new movement: “Amherst Uprising.”

President Biddy Martin later remarked that “over the course of several days, a significant number of students have spoken eloquently and movingly about their experiences of racism and prejudice on and off campus.” In her judgment, “the depth and intensity of their pain and exhaustion are evident. That pain is real. Their expressions of loneliness and sense of invisibility are heartrending. No attempt to minimize or trivialize those feelings will be convincing to those of us who have listened.”

She added, “It is good that our students have seized this opportunity to speak, rather than further internalizing the isolation and lack of caring they have described.” I wish we could all hear their stories. If any Amherst students or students at any other college are interested, I’d eagerly publish a roundup of personal stories so that the public could understand what collegians are hearing and experiencing.

Instead, most of the news and commentary written about Amherst Uprising has focused on the group’s 11 demands. They’re what students chose to declare to the world. And they were extraordinary ill-conceived. (Most have already been rejected.)

There are exceptions.

The students pushed for the school to distance itself from an unofficial mascot, Lord Jeff, who is said to have joined in giving blankets infected with smallpox to Native Americans. (On Wednesday, a majority of the faculty voted to change the school’s mascot; the athletic department had been quietly removing him from apparel since September.)

And the activists believe that faculty, staff, and students who express agreement with their movement should not be punished. After all, people in an academic community shouldn’t be penalized for taking an earnest position in campus discourse.

But the activists didn’t adhere to that same principal. Here’s the fifth demand in all its ignominy:

President Martin must issue a statement to the Amherst College community at large that states we do not tolerate the actions of student(s) who posted the “All Lives Matter” posters, and the “Free Speech” posters that stated that “in memoriam of the true victim of the Missouri Protests: Free Speech.” Also let the student body know that it was racially insensitive to the students of color on our college campus and beyond who are victim to racial harassment and death threats; alert them that Student Affairs may require them to go through the Disciplinary Process if a formal complaint is filed, and that they will be required to attend extensive training for racial and cultural competency.

Protestors were trying to punish counter-protests with an extensive, compulsory racial-reeducation program. Perhaps the curriculum could be issued in a little red book.
The sixth demand, keeping to the illiberal theme, says: “President Martin must issue a statement of support for the revision of the Honor Code to reflect a zero-tolerance policy for racial insensitivity and hate speech.” One can assert, as the students do in their letter, that Amherst is a place of institutionalized white supremacy. Or one can believe that Amherst administrators should be in charge of deciding what’s racially insensitive and punishing it. To believe both things at once is incoherent.

The 11th demand, that “Dean Epstein must encourage faculty to provide a space for students to discuss this week’s events during class time,” treads too close to impinging on academic freedom for my taste, although faculty are welcome to choose to teach the controversy. Of course, to teach a controversy requires dispassionate analysis and the airing of some opinions that student activists find insensitive.

Those are the worst of the demands. And yet, the others are of interest too, for the insight they offer into the impulses of the students who created them.

A bit of context is useful.

Many of history’s most successful protest movements involved untold hours of careful planning. No one would expect college students to dash off demands as thoughtful in an afternoon. But the students–– unexpectedly occupying a library with a few hours to decide what they ought to demand––might have Googled the most successful movement for racial equality in this country’s history and used the demands that they issued as a template.

Relevant inspiration from the civil-rights era is readily available.

Before the March on Washington in 1963, the coalition of civil-rights organizers and activists who planned the protest published a list of ten demands in a brief program.

Their aim was nothing less than securing full equality under the law and decent economic opportunity for a race that had never enjoyed either in the history of the country. In that sense, their demands were wildly ambitious.

In another sense, however, the document was extremely pragmatic. All demands were at least within the realm of political possibility. Each pushed a very specific policy change with obvious relevance to the lives of black Americans, and were likely to directly benefit large swaths of the black community and beyond. And the benefits were concrete, not spiritual (as uplifting as it was when various items on the list were met).

Students could no more equal that document in an afternoon than Amherst’s science faculty could gather one evening and recreate the Manhattan Project. But even with that caveat, it is instructive to compare the demands of the 1960s civil rights leaders to the demands of the student activists, who’ve taken something like an opposite approach. Their demands don’t just seem impractical; they’re also surprisingly lacking in ambition.

Take the 10th demand: “The Office of Alumni and Parent Programs must send former students an email of current events on campus including a statement that Amherst College does not condone any racist or culturally insensitive reactions to this information.”

​Shouldn’t the activists demand the ability to send their own emails? They seem to believe that taking action entails demanding that authority figures take action. It is striking that the first four demands on their list were all calls for authority figures to issue statements of various sorts. And three of the four requested statements would serve no real function save for the students to have their world view validated by adults:

  1. President Martin must issue a statement of apology to students, alumni and former students, faculty, administration and staff who have been victims of several injustices including but not limited to our institutional legacy of white supremacy, colonialism, anti-black racism, anti-Latinx racism, anti-Native American racism, anti-Native/ indigenous racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Middle Eastern racism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, mental health stigma, and classism. Also include that marginalized communities and their allies should feel safe at Amherst College.
  2. We demand Cullen Murphy ‘74, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, to issue a statement of apology to students, alumni and former students, faculty, administration, and staff who have been victims of several injustices including but not limited to our institutional legacy of white supremacy, colonialism, anti-black racism, anti-Latinx racism, anti-Native American racism, anti-Native/ indigenous racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Middle Eastern racism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, mental health stigma, and classism
  3. Amherst College Police Department must issue a statement of protection and defense from any form of violence, threats, or retaliation of any kind resulting from this movement.
  4. President Martin must issue a statement of apology to faculty, staff and administrators of color as well as their allies, neither of whom were provided a safe space for them to thrive while at Amherst College.
What good would coerced statements do?
And the only demand that seems to serve a functional purpose–that police declare that no force be used against their movement–seems at odds with the preamble. “If these goals are not initiated within the next 24 to 48 hours, and completed by November 18th, we will organize and respond in a radical manner, through civil disobedience,” Amherst Uprising declared right at the top. “If there is a continued failure to meet our demands, it will result in an escalation of our response.” How likely are the cops to pledge forbearance in response to a document that opens with an implicit threat of disorder?

Campus social-justice activists frequently use words in ways that don’t correspond to their usual meanings, and while the students talked of a “radical” response and an “escalation,” it was most likely just campus-activist hyperbole.

But imagine an Amherst lawyer advising the college president. Failing to act on the message as a warning of violence might expose the university to liability, if a student or staff member were subsequently hurt. The statement, on the whole, seems more likely to provoke aggressive policing than to restrain it. The way that students framed their demands could only have had an effect opposite of what they desired.

But it was the contrast between the faux-militant preamble, with its stark warnings about radical measures and escalation, and the eighth demand on the list that actually made me laugh out loud: “Dean Epstein must ask faculty to excuse all students from all 5 College classes, work shifts, and assignments from November 12th, 2015 to November 13th, 2015 given their organization of and attendance at the Sit-In.” They’re posing as radicals, but still asking permission to skip class.

The shortcomings of the 11 demands are a shame, and ought to provoke introspection among campus progressives. Why were these illiberal demands the go-to impulse?

There are better ways to protest and solve problems.

The testimony of black students in the school library evidently had a powerful effect. Their words should not be diminished by the missteps of the activists, but neither should the power of their testimony be invoked as if they make these demands more forgivable. Trying to subject classmates who disagree with you to punishment and compulsory reeducation is abhorrent. Other demands are obviously unmeetable or written as if their core objective was to secure rhetorical validation from authority figures.

If one believes there’s nothing actually wrong on American college campuses today, that the widespread upset of black students is much ado about nothing, then it doesn’t really matter that activism aimed at improving the situation is so rife with intolerant ideology, opaque jargon, and faulty premises. The semester will end. If protests even restart next term, the movements keeping them alive will fade as students graduate and activist excesses cause supporters to fall away. The activism on display at Amherst isn’t going to win converts off campus.

But if one believes, as I do, that there are vestiges of institutional racism on college campuses, and that some black students consistently feel alienated, pursuing remedies should no more be left to the whims of 18-year-old social-justice ideologues than Wall Street reforms should have been left to Occupy Wall Street. Administrators, faculty members, and fellow students need to engage the activists, knowing that they can learn from their testimony and urgency, but also to reject their intolerance and their unhealthy relationship to authority.

Said Amherst’s president:

Those who have immediately accused students in Frost of threatening freedom of speech or of making speech “the victim” are making hasty judgments. While those accusations are also legitimate forms of free expression, their timing can seem, ironically, to be aimed at inhibiting the speech of those who have struggled and now succeeded in making their stories known on campus.

Nonsense. The activists flagrantly threatened speech rights on campus. They could hardly have done so more nakedly. And the timing of the criticism is neither coincidental or ironic; it is offered now, because they just issued their illiberal demands.

Fortunately, the rest of Martin’s statement, including her praise for the students who shared their stories, is strong, and she shows no sign of caving to outrageous or inane demands, even though she phrased things diplomatically.

She wrote:

The organizers of the protests... presented me with a list of demands on Thursday evening. While expressing support for their goals, I explained that the formulation of those demands assumed more authority and control than a president has or should have. The forms of distributed authority and shared governance that are integral to our educational institutions require consultation and thoughtful collaboration.

When I met yesterday in my office with a small group of student organizers, I explained that I did not intend to respond to the demands item by item, or to meet each demand as specified, but instead to write a statement that would be responsive to the spirit of what they are trying to achieve—systemic changes that we know we need to make. I also talked about why apologies of the sort that were demanded would be misleading, if not downright dishonest, suggesting, as they implicitly would, that I or the College could make guarantees about things that are much larger than a single institution or group of people. Reacting immediately to strict timetables and ultimatums and speaking in the names of other people and for all times would be a failure to take our students seriously.

She added:

Student protesters themselves are engaged in serious conversations about the importance of free speech and have asked themselves questions about uses of language that respect that freedom. They are also asking themselves and us how the College protects free expression while also upholding our anti-discrimination policies and our statement of Respect for Persons. Censorship and silencing are not the answer. I believe our students know that. It takes time, attention, and serious discussion to sort out and make clear how we protect free speech while also establishing norms within our communities that encourage respect and make us responsible for what we do with our freedom.

That is the discussion we need to have.

In those passages and the rest of her letter, Martin appears willing to work with student activists to secure any number of improvements to campus life. And to their credit, the activists seem to be backing down from their threats and pursuing a more sensible path. The student newspaper now reports that “students at the sit-in organized themselves into committees. Nine committees focused on topics that had been brought up throughout the previous days: cultural competency, academic policy, prospective students, faculty and staff hiring, student resources, the mascot, funding, alumni relations and mental health.”

While pursuing those discrete issues, they should also renounce illiberalism and adhere to one of the principles set forth in the Port Huron statement. “While society has the right to prevent active subversion of its laws and institutions,” that statement held, “it has the duty as well to promote open discussion of all issues—otherwise it will be in fact promoting real subversion as the only means to implementing ideas.”