Angry student activists aren’t a problem, they’re the engine of change

These voices are silenced by existing structures.
These voices are silenced by existing structures.
Image: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
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In the fall of 2013, Brown University students shouted New York Police Department commissioner Ray Kelly off the stage.  Kelly was scheduled to talk about the controversial “stop and frisk” policy he’d introduced to fight crime by targeting people of color in low-income areas of New York City.

Student groups and individual activists had planned the protest in advance of Kelly’s visit to campus. The auditorium was filled by the time the police commissioner arrived, and yelling started well before he took the stage. He went home that afternoon without imparting a word to the crowd about his policing method. In the days that followed, Brown’s president, Christina Paxson, admonished protestors for inhibiting the “free exchange of ideas” in a campus-wide email. 

This fall, students activists across the country have faced similar reprimands for their efforts to call attention to racism on campus. Critics argue that their methods are immature, hostile and impinge on others’ right to “free speech.” But to discredit student activists’ methods because they do not align with traditional structures of dialogue at universities is to misunderstand and decontextualize the protests. 

Take the recent protests spearheaded by students of color at Yale. After a residential dean sent an email promoting “free expression” to students in regard to their Halloween costume choices, students accused her of being insensitive to students of color and demanded that she step down. Along with a letter listing the demands of these students, a video of a student of color aggressively yelling at the dean’s husband went viral. Pundits across the country accused this student and her equally enraged counterparts of immature intolerance and attempting to shut down free speech on campus. 

Maturity levels aside (these are 20-year-olds we’re talking about), it’s time to acknowledge the role that expressing outrage and shutting down intolerant or ignorant perspectives can play in bringing about social change. The tactics employed by student activists are varied, and one of them is definitely to curtail voices that are insensitive, or outright hostile, to their experiences on campus. 

This can be an effective way of mobilizing the broader student population to push for social justice. I was a student at Brown, but I did not attend Ray Kelly’s attempted speech. I would not have heard about Kelly or his “stop and frisk” policing were it not for the students who silenced him. By rallying an auditorium full of students to shout the police commissioner off the stage, a few organized and enraged students were able to send a message to the entire student body.

In essence, they did a lot more than silence Kelly—they woke people up to an important dialogue. The debate over “stop and frisk” policing that emerged from the protest uncovered deep-seated issues on campus. University administrators held forums in the weeks that followed in response to the ruckus raised by the protestors, and president Paxson formed a committee to investigate how Brown could reconcile its commitment to hosting controversial speakers without marginalizing part of its student body. 

In order to create the conditions necessary to bring these discussions to fruition, student activists often do have to step out of line and subvert the systems they are part of—centuries-old systems that were not set up to support them.  

We saw these methods work to great effect recently at the University of Missouri. The actions of a lone student activist eventually inspired black students on the football team to take action that forced change. Certainly this was not the way that the school’s administrators would have liked to see that change to come about. But in the absence of effective means to seek action on their behalf, black students at Mizzou used the leverage they had to demand it.

Mizzou’s protestors have inspired student activists at other colleges and universities. In response to the violence critics threatened against the students at Mizzou last week, my Facebook newsfeed was filled with statuses that read: “To the Black students and other students of color at Mizzou, we, alum of color at Brown University, stand with you in solidarity. To those who would threaten their sense of safety, we are watching. #‎ConcernedStudent1950#‎InSolidarityWithMizzou

These students gathered by the hundreds at Brown on Nov. 12 to show their support for students of color at Mizzou, and to voice their discontent with their own school. 

“You think Brown’s been doing a good job? Because something that happened at Mizzou or at Yale or at many of the other institutions across the nation might happen here,” one student said to the crowd, according to the Brown Daily Herald

The next day, Nov. 14, a Latino student was assaulted by a campus officer at Brown.

My Facebook newsfeed once again overflowed with activist statuses. This time, they read: “Last night at Brown University, a Dartmouth College Latinx student was assaulted by Brown University campus police while attending the Latinx Ivy League Conference. Violence against people of color is a reality and follows us wherever we go. Make the problem known. #‎IStandWithGeo#‎IStandWithPOC

In response to the burgeoning outrage on campus—led by outspoken, aggressive student activists—Brown president Christina Paxson called an emergency forum on Saturday to discuss the incident. Over a hundred students packed the lecture hall. Some proceeded to shout at Paxson, displaying the same behavior students at Yale have been condemned for. 

The student in the video asks: “What are you doing to fix it? Not conversation—what are the actions you are taking?”

While Paxson did not have an answer to this question, she promised the students who had gathered in the hall that she would follow up with a response in an email on Sunday night, according to the Brown Daily Herald.

It took until Monday afternoon, but President Paxson did email the entire Brown community to inform them that a working ”action plan” to increase diversity, previously scheduled for release at the end of November, would instead be made available to the community on Nov. 20 in order to gather their feedback. 

“By releasing a working document early, we can gather the community input we need to establish a set of concrete, achievable actions that will make Brown more fully diverse and inclusive,” the email read. 

Releasing an “action plan” that solicits what essentially amounts to more “conversation” is a far cry from enacting the immediate changes students demanded, but it is not nothing. It is an institutional response to student activists’ methods. This kind of impetus is necessary to drive the system forward. 

In 2014, five months after the Ray Kelly protest, the committee Paxson formed in response presented a set of recommendations to the president aimed at addressing inequality on campus. Among them were to restructure the Office of Institutional Diversity and increase its funding, to change minority faculty hiring policies, and to create a Diversity Action Plan.

Paxson has at least partially acted on all of these. The Office of Institutional Diversity was moved into the President’s office in the fall of 2014, and hiring minority faculty at Brown through “cluster hiring” is part of the President’s strategic plan, released in Sep. 2015.  The Diversity Action Plan that came out of the Kelly committee’s recommendations is the working document that will be released on Nov. 20 in response to the demands raised by students in the meeting on Saturday. 

Before labelling student activists at Brown and elsewhere as unnecessarily aggressive or immature, critics would do well to step back and consider them in context—as providing necessary tension in a system that is predicated on the balance of tradition and the needs of its ever-changing student body. In essence, all of the institutional “action” for diversity at Brown has come in response to bouts of kicking and shouting.