Spirited discussion ensues on campus activism and dissent
The Big Question: Is there a right way to protest?
This question was the focal point of a discussion panel held at the University of Minnesota on February 11. Moderator Tom Weber of Minnesota Public Radio introduced the topic, the panel members, and the question at hand when student protesters quickly interrupted him by “questioning the question,” as Weber put it.
On the panel were Keith Mayes, professor in the Department of African American & African Studies; Trista Harris, president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations; Javaris Bradford, student and president of the Black Student Union; and Lena Gardner, co-founder and organizer of Black Lives Matters.
The student protesters insisted that the question is not the actual issue. They demonstrated that the question should not be “Is there a right way to protest,” because many organizations, including the university, already know the answer to the question.
The questions that the protesters shifted everyone’s attention to are as follows:
• How do we make it safer for organizers, both on and off campus, to express dissent without fear of criminalization?
• What structural conditions on campuses and in the community bring about protests?
• How is the university culpable in creating the conditions in which students are forced to these kind of actions?
• Why did the police use violence against peaceful protesters at the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct?
• How do you support student activists seeking to effect transformative change related to social justice?
• How does arresting and jailing student protesters help students feel safe in expressing dissent?
With limited time for discussion, most of these questions could not be answered. However, it did make for a good turning point and accurate depiction of the indifference that society has shown towards addressing racial disparities in America. In order to bottom-line most of the questions, Weber proceeded with his first question by asking Keith Mayes, “What is going on on this campus?”
“What’s going on on the campus is the same thing that is going on in society,” answered Mayes. “Students are reflecting a reality that involves a certain kind of marginalization and oppression. They feel unheard, and they are in many ways invisible.
“Your original question, Tom, was ‘Is there a right way to protest?’” Mayes continued. “I think we all know the answer to that. The answer to that question is “no.” The reason we know the answer is “no” is because of what you guys just heard and saw.”
He further stated that students are always at the forefront of social change. “It’s the young people that do the great work of organizing, activism, and speaking truth to power.”
Trista Harris added that “students have the most to gain. Young people in entire communities get to define the narrative.”
Weber asked Bradford his thoughts, and he replied, “I don’t need all of the answers to life. I actually don’t want all of the answers to life. I just want to be able to live in a world that acknowledges my questions.” He continued by saying that we live in a world that does not acknowledge our questions but continuously ignores questions to preserve a status quo.
Weber asked how to respond when the people who aren’t in the trenches with you ask, “Why protest?”
Gardner responded, “We are doing it because people are dying. Communities are being crushed under the yoke of oppression that can be seen in every structure of society from education, health care and criminal justice. We are protesting because racial disparities are getting worse, not better.
“The starting point of the question is so centered in Whiteness and dominant culture, that they literally cannot hear the basic phrase,” continued Gardner. “We are protesting for our lives. Despite the best intentions, all evidence says that the disparity and the killings are getting worse.”
“Some of the people that ask those questions are in this room,” said Bradford. “You are a part of the problem. Some of you all don’t want to help. Some of you want to feel less guilty about your privilege that you occupy in society.
“When you ask questions like that, don’t ask me what’s wrong with me and what I need help with, and then, when I tell you, you say that that’s not the problem,” continued Bradford. “It’s very counterintuitive and it makes no sense. The solution is rooted in your privilege, and you don’t want to give up your privilege to help me.”
Weber asked, “So what’s the problem? You say here is a solution, and let’s say it’s a policy, and it may not be. But without that experience, and I don’t have that experience, how can I help you?”
“You don’t need to understand someone’s experience to help them,” responded Bradford. “If I fall down on the ground, you don’t need to understand why I am on the ground, how I got on the ground, or why was I not walking with people if I know I have issues falling on the ground. You just need to know I need help getting up,” explained Bradford.
“Just help me up. But therein lies a problem, because if you help me off the ground it may take some power away from you. The problem is not having the capacity to understand the experience; the problem is saying, ‘Even though I don’t understand, I’m still going to do what I can to help you.’”
Julia Johnson welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edited 2/24/2016 12:50 pm