The Tools of Campus Activists Are Being Turned Against Them

Students working to force the resignation of UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi to resign face critics using the language of social justice to attack them.

An earlier generation of UC Davis students call for Chancellor Katehi's resignation back in 2011. (Brian Nguyen / Reuters)

At UC Davis, where student activists still hope to oust Chancellor Linda Katehi, critics of their activism are using concepts like “safe space” and “hostile climate” to attack it.

The student activists had occupied a small room outside Katehi’s office, planning to stay until their chancellor resigned or was removed from her post. By the time they left 36 days later, a petition that now bears roughly 100 signatures of UC Davis students and staff were demanding that they prematurely end their occupation, criticizing their tactics, and alleging a number of grave transgressions: The signatories accused the student activists of sexism, racism, bullying, abuse, and harassment, complaining that many who used the administration building “no longer feel safe.” The student activists say that those charges are unfair.

The conflict illustrates a pattern that campus observers are likely see more and more in coming years: Insofar as progressives succeed in remaking campuses into places unusually sensitive to psychological harms, where transgressing against “safe spaces” is both easy to do and verboten, confrontational activism will no longer be viable.

Too many people feel upset by it.

* * *

Like the activists who’ve called on Katehi to resign, I’ve condemned the 2011 pepper-spraying of UC Davis students lawfully assembled on a quad, the Katehi administration’s costly attempt to scrub that assault on students from Google, and Katehi’s ill-conceived if lucrative moonlighting on the board of a textbook company.

This week, the Sacramento Bee reports that Katehi hired more crisis communication consultants when the student activists started occupying her office, because, in her words, “You have students in front of your office, you know it’s a crisis.” She didn’t use her existing communications staff for whatever it is that the consultants do because “no one on UC Davis’ communications staff has crisis-management experience.” Though the students have now left her office area, “the firm is still in the university’s employment working on another crisis that the chancellor said she could not reveal.” Nothing about these statements is reassuring!

The fact that anti-Katehi students are now under fire should not influence UC system overseers, state legislators, Davis professors, or voters as they gauge their confidence in the chancellor’s administration. Even critics of the activists note that their movement neither supports nor opposes Katehi—its members are united only by objections to activist tactics.

But the anti-activist backlash is relevant to those trying to understand campus politics and to activists who care enough about righteous causes to avoid derailing them. The 100-some critics of the campus activists began their statement as follows:

Some of us agree with the broader issues of the protesters, like greater transparency and more dialogue between the students and campus administration. But we write to strongly condemn the tactics of the protesters, including sexist and racist behaviors, threatening and bullying of staff, students and faculty who come to Mrak Hall to work. We feel that these actions undermine not only the values of our campus community, but also the ideals which the protesters claim to defend. Several students and staff have been treated abusively by the protesters.

It’s worth pausing here to note that, this being a group petition on a college campus, what’s characterized as “threatening” and “bullying” and “abuse” may describe behavior that others would call “harassing” or “annoying” or “irritating.” Concept creep has robbed us of linguistic clarity or precision in these  matters.

That said, the first specific allegation is disconcerting:

Several protesters took to shouting that an employee was a “coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside) for being a Latina who works for UC Davis.

Since my days in college, when I first heard a friend attacked as a “banana” for challenging a belief of a campus Asian American group, my blood has boiled at the tiny but noxious subset of leftists who stress the importance of identity in politics, then try to exclude people of color from their own  respective racial groups–– often using slurs––to evade an inconvenient reality: Neither African Americans nor Latinos nor Asian Americans  nor Pacific Islanders nor women are ideologically monolithic. Social-justice progressives do not speak for many in those groups.

The statement continued:

Several students and staff were stalked for a period of time after leaving a meeting with the Chancellor. Many students and staff who are supposed to work in Mrak no longer feel safe. Staff and student workers have been also filmed without their permission. For the sake of the daily operations of UC Davis, we call upon the Mrak Hall protesters to move their protest to a location that does not lead to these aggressive disruptions of UC staff and student work spaces in case they have plans to continue this protest.

Again, I suspect my threshold for what constitutes “stalking” is higher than that employed by the authors of this letter. What’s beyond dispute is that a group of protesters followed Katehi and a small group of students and staff she was speaking with across campus, filming them without their consent, snarking at  Katehi, making her companions visibly uncomfortable—as almost anyone would have been in similar circumstances—and coming off … well, you can judge for yourself.

This was petulant and self-indulgent. It was an excuse for two or three activists to peacock and self-aggrandize. The fact that it was posted publicly, as if those who took the footage thought it reflected well on them even in hindsight, astonishes me. The female activist who shouts her head off across campus, literally serenading her chancellor with insults, claims at one point that she is being silenced!

But the part that struck me most is when, at roughly 6:25, one of the student activists reacts to the apparently unplanned arrival of an adult black male, who is friendly toward Katehi, by accusing the chancellor of “doing what they usually do, which is grabbing a person of color as a shield—that’s a tactic that the chancellor likes to use.”

This for merely talking to a black person who approached.

That activist couldn’t see the black man as an autonomous subject—only as a white person’s prop. The offensive jump makes sense within a highly stylized ideology wherein Katehi is “the oppressor” and all black people are “the oppressed.” By that logic, the only possible reason she would be doing something as enlightened as cordially interacting with one of “the oppressed” is if the black man was functioning not as a person, but as a “prop” and a “tactic,” never mind his agency.

The whole encounter is dripping with dehumanization.

It’s ironic, this recurring feature of campus protests: Time after time, activists wield phone cameras, intending to publicly discredit any adversary who lets so much as a “microaggression” slip. And in doing so, they inadvertently reveal prejudices that spring predictably, though quite unintentionally, from flaws in their belief system.

The statement opposing the occupation of the administration building concluded as follows:

The administration has also committed to addressing conflict of interest issues more transparently. Beyond this, what is the real goal of this protest? Day by day more staff and students are harassed as they merely commute to their offices to do the work that supports the primary mission of this institution: teaching, research and public service.

We feel that this protest has lost its purpose and is dividing the campus community. The protest has fostered a hostile climate on UC Davis campus. We want to see a united campus and not a divided campus. The reality is that Chancellor Katehi’s resignation will not solve the problems of privatization.

The tactics of the protesters to aggressively and abrasively silence other students, staff and faculty with whom they do not share the same opinion is hypocritical, abusive and contrary to the ideals of our institution, which fosters free and open debate. We call upon the Mrak Hall protesters to ‘walk the walk’ and engage the broader campus community in a dialogue on the legitimate issues of transparency, privatization and reform. By dialogue we do not mean acquiescing to the Chancellor’s or Regents’ opinion. Rather, we would like to encourage the protesters and the rest of the campus community to have a constructive dialogue in an environment that is not hostile, aggressive and threatening to those with whom they do not share an opinion.

Notice that the activists are being accused of fostering “a hostile climate,” of acting to “silence” students, staff, and faculty—the very transgressions that loom so large on college campuses because of the ideology advanced by other social-justice activists.

Of course, one needn’t adopt the social-justice left’s ideas about “sensitivity to harm,” or find it credible that anyone on either side was somehow “silenced” at UC Davis, to believe some anti-Katehi activists behaved badly. I’ve already objected to the behavior of the activists in the video above. Legally speaking, I rather doubt that anyone crossed the “hostile climate” threshold for any staffers in the administration building, but I can’t be certain. A rotating band of more than one hundred students were in and out, in small groups, for a month. Some were polite, others rude. I do not know who did what to whom, or how often they did it. Odds are I would find the behavior of some activists laudable and others worthy of sharp criticism. But the accounts of Katehi’s subordinates can’t be presumed unbiased.

Regardless, all this raises a larger question: almost everyone agrees that student protests of some sort should be tolerated, or even celebrated—and that, beyond a given threshold of aggressiveness or disruptiveness, it’s legitimate to enforce harassment laws, constitutional time-and-place restrictions, and other lawful limits.

But how is that threshold set?

The classic liberal answers are relatively well trod.

The civil-rights movement, the free-speech movement, the anti-Vietnam protests, and protesters on both sides of the gun and abortion questions have all deliberately tried to make others uncomfortable, intellectually if not physically. They’ve all shouted, insulted, provoked, and tried to deny their opponents “safe spaces.”

Today’s strain of campus progressivism has a more ambiguous relationship with traditional liberal values, finding them too viewpoint neutral and rough-and-tumble.

Still, most campus protests are left-leaning. And administrators cannot help but realize that almost all of that activism is, on some level, about confrontation—that it frequently involves a lot of shouting or chanting or marching or banging on drums. Now, any time such protests challenge the interests of the administration, or make their jobs marginally harder or their lives marginally more inconvenient, they can always pinpoint some folks who are earnestly upset or unnerved by all the ruckus.

They can always undermine the activists of the moment by finding the students experiencing “trauma” from all the conflict; the staff members who feel “unsafe” around protesters, the community member who, in the new paradigm, somehow feel “silenced.”

As best I can tell, this does not worry leftist activists yet, perhaps because they mostly operate on shorter time-horizons than other campus power brokers, or perhaps because they see themselves as marginalized and mistakenly believe these standards will never be applied to them, even though it’s already happening.

When I reached out to a contact at UC Davis, soliciting a response to the allegations made against the anti-Katehi movement, I got a few thoughtful emails back.

Here’s Rebecca Senteny, an English major at UC Davis:

Being in a position of power means that you should be open and responsive to criticism. It also means that you have advantages over those who would criticize you, such as students, workers, and lower-level staff. Because of this advantage, these groups often have to engage in tactics outside of the system in order to have their concerns be truly addressed.

Loud forms of protest such as marches and sit-ins might be classified as bullying by some and as a refusal to engage in civil dialogue, but this critique is assuming that so-called “civil forms of dialogue” are not disproportionately in favor of those in leadership positions and that student activists, workers, etc will be able to engage in that dialogue in a fair way.

Have the Fire Katehi protestors been loud? Yes. Have we been direct? Yes. Have we been bullies? I do not think so. Many of the students, workers, and community members that have been involved in this protest are from marginalized communities and in a much more vulnerable position than Katehi or her administration; they have the chance to really harm us, either by arrest, academic suspension, or even expulsion.

If we had the power to bully the chancellor, then why is she still in office? We are so powerful that we have been protesting for over a month and she is still there. We have more people than her, but she has more power. She has the power to contact the entire student body at once; we do not have the power to respond to all of the students in kind with our own side of the story. The administration can continue to paint us as bullies, Katehi can say that she feels personally attacked, and some people will continue to buy into that, because what is the argument of a few passionate students in the face of administrative power. However, we will continue to fight for our university and for the disenfranchised, even against the odds, because together we can be powerful.

There are important aspects of that email that I agree with, and it would be a relatively strong response to the counterprotesters if they’d just accused the student activists of bullying Katehi. But the difference-in-power argument disappears when the allegations of “bullying,” “silencing,” and creating a “hostile climate” are being made by low-salary staff and fellow students.

Here’s an email from anti-Katehi activist Carli Hambley, a third year Anthropology major:

Living in Mrak Hall was on the one hand, for the sake of the community the protesters created, one of the more supportive, inclusive, and accountable spaces I've been a part of; while on the other, for the fault of the administrators, was one of the more draining, toxic, and unhealthy spaces I've been in. While many of the staff in Mrak Hall were genuinely supportive of us and shared our goals, many more of the administrators were condescending, transphobic, immature, and just outright mean.

Every day, some high up administrator—usually Milton Lang, Anne Myler, or Sheri Atkinson—would come in to give us "our daily reminders" as they would call them, which, in reality, were candid threats against our safety as they served to remind us of the omnipresent police that "were out of their control" and of our violations of Student Code that could cost us our position as students at UC Davis.

I remember one night Sheri and Milton came in and told us that the staff of the fifth floor were filing reports against us because they were concerned for their safety, and when I questioned them about what we are supposed to do about our safety, all Milton could say was to call the police or file a report. The whole reason we were in that room and the reason we are continuing to fight for an accountable administration is because our safety as students and workers, especially that of people of color and queer and trans* people of color on this campus, has been under attack for so long.

While the administrators on the fifth floor make multi-figure salaries and write their reports behind locked doors, we sit open and vulnerable with no process or promise for our safety.

Notice that this student complained about some sort of “I’m concerned for my safety” reports being filed, ostensibly illegitimately, against student activists—the very development that critics of illiberalism on campus have predicted. In her view, it’s the people on her side who are unsafe, who are "under attack.” She’s implicitly appealing to outsiders who read her press statement to make a judgment call, to skeptically evaluate what others at Davis are claiming about their safety.

Again, I don’t know enough about what really happened to take sides. But I don’t think activists like her can prevail in this dispute if they live on a campus where subjectively asserting that one feels unsafe is never to be questioned or challenged. Hambley implicitly made a case for objective standards and logical scrutiny.

Here’s another voice from UC Davis, former graduate student Amandeep Kaur, who is now a Chancellor’s Science Fellow and Director of the Emerging Leaders in Policy and Public Service program. As a woman of color she is, in the previous emailer’s telling, under attack from the Katehi administration. Yet she wrote this in a public Facebook post:

Today I was BULLIED by Fire Katehi protestors when I entered the 5th floor of Mrak Hall. I am Chancellor Linda Katehi's Science Fellow and I have been working in the Office of the Chancellor for almost last 2 years.

Before that, as a student leader and an advocate for underrepresented student groups during my time as a PhD student at UC Davis, I advocated for numerous causes and organized Diversity Dialogues on Graduate Education which were attended by 300 members of UC Davis community. I organized a campaign in 2012-13 which led to new post candidacy fellowships for international PhD students and a revised budget model the following year. I know what oppression feels like and today 2 of these protestors oppressed me and questioned my identity as a woman of color.

They engaged with me when I entered the office through the elevator. They stalked the Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, me and a student when we were walking to the Mrak Hall prior to that. And then one of them laughed in my face when I said to them stop bullying me after they engaged with me and questioned my ethics because I work in the Office of the Chancellor. I have kept quiet for a long time but today when I was bullied I have decided to break my silence. I will not tolerate racism, bullying and oppression ever, no matter where it comes from. To me its hurtful and its unacceptable.Chancellor Linda Katehi has been a huge supporter of students and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to not only work with her when I was a student on this campus and now as her science fellow as well. ‪#‎StopBullying‬ ‪#‎StopBullyingUCDStaff‬

Some campus activists seem to think that, by declaring themselves marginalized and the people they protest “oppressors,” they can benefit from a double-standard in how sensitive to harm they’re expected to be. In the short run, this sometimes works. But the world is rarely divided neatly between oppressors and the oppressed, especially on college campuses. There are people of color on every college campus who will sharply, earnestly disagree with almost any activist effort of any significance.

And in the long run, it's strange to count on a status quo where the powerful willingly hold themselves to disadvantageous standards with regard to people they’re “oppressing.”

That just isn’t going to happen.

None of that is to render any overall judgment in the dispute between the UC Davis occupiers, who’ve done a service by bringing wider attention to Katehi’s misdeeds, and the folks who urged them to end their occupation, who may or may not have sound grievances. There’s too much I don’t know about the contradictory claims flying around, and all of it is cloaked in such slippery language and creeping concepts as to be impenetrable. But I’m confident that both sides really do feel “unsafe” and “bullied,” whatever those words have come to mean in their campus subculture. To me, that underscores why subjective feelings about such things just can’t determine winners and losers in campus politics.

Now that the Davis occupation is over—as Katehi confers with her crisis communication consultants as they work on their secret project—anti-Katehi activists are plotting their next steps. I hope the offending activists will reconsider their ugly, prejudicial treatment of black and brown people who are allied with the embattled chancellor, and refocus on the fact that a powerful substantive case for Katehi’s ouster can be made without any need to be personally hostile, snide, or sanctimonious to any classmates, professors, UC Davis staff, or even Katehi herself.

Hopefully, the more responsible anti-Katehi activists will influence their peers.

A lot is at stake. The UC Davis protests touch on nationally important problems: administrative accountability, the stifling of lawful protest, police brutality, excessive union protections for cops, and the corporatization of higher education, exemplified by a chancellor taking money from a textbook company and—it’s almost too perfect—the hiring of a PR firm to scrub posts about police brutality on campus from the web, which is to say, a university elevating corporate image over the search for facts.

Yet for a subset of activists, righteous grievances have not translated into constructive activism. They’ve needlessly alienated a sizable group of their peers, whether because they lost perspective on how they are seen outside their bubbles or underestimated their vulnerability to attack by social justice concepts. Respectability politics is a much maligned term in left-wing activist circles––to a counterproductive degree, Randall Kennedy has argued––yet it seems to me that a new type of respectability politics is the unintended consequence of social justice ideology. If that ideology keeps spreading, successful left-wing activism will have to police itself, on college campuses, to be less confrontational, less “silencing,” whatever that means, and less aggressive, so that no one feels “unsafe.” It isn’t clear to me that any activism of significance can survive those conditions.

In the end, unreformed social justice activism may destroy itself.