The Necessary Recklessness of Campus Protests

Progress against racial injustice is stagnant, yet the demands of student activists are still widely dismissed.

Jeff Roberson / AP

I remember wanting to leave. One of us wanted to go to the University of Pennsylvania; another friend talked about going to school in Maryland. My friend and I would be at Duke by spring semester. I told a senior about our collective plans to transfer out of Princeton and he said: “Everyone says that freshman year; no one actually leaves.”

We weren’t special. We were only the latest in a lineage that felt some kind of discomfort and sought escape. The senior had thought the same thing his first semester. He tried to identify it like we did. We tried to root what we felt in parties that didn’t play music we liked, in very strange and palpably elitist traditions, in buildings with names of men who did not want us there. I had a transfer application open on my computer because I wanted one of my friends to see it and laugh. We knew we weren’t going anywhere, that we were lucky to be there; so we had been told. I remember telling it to myself. Sometimes I still do. And when later, we heard the same complaints, the same desires from other black underclassmen, I remembered what we were told our first year. That senior was right. None of us left.

Over the past few weeks, college students in the U.S. and abroad have turned into activists, demonstrating against racial injustice on their campuses. Critiques, of course, pursue these protests. A large portion focus on behaviors they term reckless. They single out Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike at the University of Missouri, a $1 million refusal by Mizzou’s football team, students at Princeton calling for the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from campus buildings, the demand for safe spaces on campus, or the demand for media-free safe spaces in public areas. The word used, though, is rarely “reckless.” It is “coddled,” “sensitive,” or plainly, “enough.

The critics claim that students’ demands are unnecessary, and the nature of their demanding unwarranted. So, logically, the protests themselves are reckless. They become the reckless expressions of over-emotional, over-reactive kids, bloated on political correctness, with a poor grasp of the First Amendment. The collective impact of this type of critical response is rarely discourse, it’s dismissal.

The poet Claudia Rankine, in her essay describing the “condition of black life [as] one of mourning,” wrote: “When blacks become overwhelmed by our culture’s disorder and protest (ultimately to our own detriment, because protest gives the police justification to militarize, as they did in Ferguson), the wrongheaded question that is asked is, What kind of savages are we? Rather than, What kind of country do we live in?”

The night Darren Wilson was not indicted for the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, about 300 students marched around Princeton’s campus, chanting for justice and peace. I remember a white student blowing cigarette smoke in the faces of marchers who passed close to him. I remember that my friend and I were shocked as we passed him. A few days later, I remembered a black-and-white picture I’d seen growing up in high school textbooks, in documentaries on the civil-rights movement. It’s of a young black man blowing smoke in a black girl’s face, to prepare her for what she would likely face at a sit-in. It’s from 1960.

The reckless demands made by the student protesters to their universities constitute recognition of what progress actually isn’t.

The students are demanding them to imagine: What is it like to enter a building or look at a mural of someone who did not think you good or human enough to be in that building, to be looking at that mural? I did this for my last two years at Princeton, as a major in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. My friends and I made jokes about reparations when we turned in our theses to the Wilson School. We had been reminded by the name for two years, and by the school for four, that we were there, but Princeton was not ours. We carved out our spaces and moved through, ending up with T-shirts that said Woodrow Wilson in cursive scribble across the front, us wondering if this was winning. I wondered why we had to be at war at all.

The protesters’ demand isn’t to excise the pain endemic to being in a space where they were once not allowed. That’s impossible; it is history. It’s that university administrations work to understand inclusion as a step. Left alone, as it has been, it’s merely palliative. Access can’t temper exclusion if its legacy is not addressed. These students are demanding it be addressed. Their protests are the natural result of bearing such a legacy’s hostilities.

Hostilities like a noose hung on campus at Duke, and then the university administration denying it was a hate crime. A frat denying female students of color entry into a party. My last year at Princeton, at a panel on socioeconomic diversity on campus, a lecturer implied that black and Latino students, and student athletes were less intelligent, citing meritocratic admissions at other schools, where student populations are overwhelmingly white and Asian. My friend, a black kid, had him, a man who said the racial diversity “we have in this country” is “bad diversity”, as a precept instructor the previous semester.

A day after Jonathan Butler ended his hunger strike and Mizzou President Tim Wolfe resigned, Butler spoke to a crowd with protest group #ConcernedStudent1950 behind him: “Please stop focusing on the fact of the Mizzou hunger strike itself, look at why did we have to get here in the first place, why the struggle, and why we had to fight the way that we did.” He presented his hunger strike not as the reckless act of a lone individual, but rather, as the culmination of the efforts of a broader movement. “After all the letters we’ve sent, all the in-person interactions. After all the forums we’ve attended. After all the tweets and DMs that we’ve sent telling the administration about our pain, it should not have taken this much.” He presented the history of denials.

This history is paralleled at Yale, where student protesters said in their demands: “Over the past week, people of color, especially women, outpoured painful experiences of blatant racism at Yale and organized their peers to demonstrate solidarity and resilience. They spent hours meeting with President Salovey and Dean Holloway—as well as other administrators, faculty, and fellow students—in an attempt to ask for help in ensuring their safety and well-being on campus. President Salovey’s first response was to announce that Yale is now a tobacco-free campus.”

The absurdity lies in the contrast: The students’ confession of pain yielded a smoking ban. The students invested emotional labor, and a tremendous amount of time—these are still students, whose job it is to graduate—in an attempt at progress, only to be met with a non sequitur. They received no recognition of the emotional intensity of asking for more, through the quiet institutional path, and being denied.

After Darren Wilson was not indicted, some of my friends and I formed the Black Justice League, a group against campus racism, out of mourning, and out of a need for the mourning to end. One of our friends was researching the history of black-student protests for his thesis. He warned the group that the university would use bureaucracy to try dampen our protests. He warned us that committees and task forces would be formed. Meetings would be scheduled before breaks or early in the morning. They would wait for the seniors to graduate and pray that the summer would calm the rest down.

Most of his predictions proved prophetic. Princeton’s president Eisgruber himself seemed to confirm these warnings in an email sent out following the 32-hour sit-in at his office: “In December of last year, I charged a Special Task Force on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to develop recommendations that would enable our University to provide a more welcoming environment for students of all backgrounds.” And still, a year later, on a November night, students were asleep on stones and grass and in tents, blankets, and sleeping bags, outside of the oldest building on campus.

Operating through the institutions, through forums and task forces, has not been enough. Historically, institutions operate slowly, but also historically, these institutions were created by excluding certain population groups. How much is possible without recognition of past injustice?

What persists is implicit in #ConcernedStudent1950’s name. It was the year black students were admitted into Mizzou. But focusing on such milestones only reinforces the narrow, limiting notion of continual progress. Slavery ended in 1865. Yale produced a black graduate in 1874, and black students arrived at Mizzou in 1950. The black student protests took place in the 1960s. All these things that are named progress, with beginnings and their celebrated ends.

The third demand on the #ConcernedStudent1950 group’s list is: “We demand that the University of Missouri meets the Legion of Black Collegians’ demands that were presented in the 1969 for the betterment of the black community.” June Beshea, the president of the Real Silent Sam Coalition, a black activist group at the University of North Carolina, read out demands from 1968 at a recent demonstration. The demands render this connection explicit: “In 1968 the Black Student Movement issued 23 demands to the University. Almost 50 years have passed, but if you look at the demands you realize we are still dealing with exactly the same issues: little has changed.”

This terrifying dissonance between progress and what still exists is not unique to the campuses, it’s part of the American bloodline. It is a sentiment that stretches from slavery to mass incarceration, Black Lives Matter, and these campus protests. Imagine them on a string, all these manifestations with beginnings and ends; history and progress. The demand is for the recognition of the string itself. It’s an interrogation that perhaps only seems to benefit those demanding for it, perhaps that is why it remains undone. Why can the integration of black students be called progress, while today’s protests are called reckless? The demand for this recognition goes against the very pervasive sentiment it wants recognized.

Parul Sehgal highlighted this dissonance in her defense of the student protesters’ resilience, by quoting James Meredith, the first black student enrolled at the University of Mississippi: ‘‘Ole Miss kicked my butt, and they’re still celebrating,’’ he said in an interview with Esquire in 2012. ‘‘Because every black that’s gone there since me has been insulted, humiliated, and they can’t even tell their story. Everybody has to tell James Meredith’s story—which is a lie. The powers that be in Mississippi understand this very clearly.’’ He continued, ‘‘They’re gonna keep on doin’ it because it makes it impossible for the blacks there now to say anything about what’s happened to them.’’

And if it is this impossible, I am not sure what is left but recklessness. Who demands their body back quietly?

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