Syracuse builds a fence to hide students' protest. Photo courtesy @THEgeneralbody.

In defense of student activists at Syracuse University and beyond


Students at Syracuse University are on Day 12 of their occupation of the institution’s administrative building.

The group leading the efforts, THE General Body, has issued a 45-page list of grievances and demands to the Syracuse administration. Citing problems ranging from reduction in support services for sexual assault survivors to the defunding of scholarship programs for low-income students of color, THE General Body is asking for 11 principle reforms, including improved mental health services, fossil fuel divestment, gender-neutral accessible restrooms, living wages for RAs and TAs, and transparency around administrative decisions. You can sign their petition here.

While the protest has certainly found support among some students and faculty, others, including the student newspaper’s Editorial Board, have noted that, although they “support” the protesters’ grievances, they condemn the manner in which they are going about addressing them. Citing the loud, assertive tactics of THE General Body, the Editorial Board wrote:

We cannot condone [their] unruly and unprofessional behavior…. What could have been a chance for students to appear calm and willing to listen instead turned into a mob incapable of compromise…. This childish approach to university problems will not command respect from administrators…. If these students wanted to be taken seriously, they should have behaved professionally instead…. Effective discussion requires compromise, respect and rationality…. Extreme[s] of irrational and disrespectful conduct…will not command respect…. Volume does not equal strength.

The Editorial Board’s critique isn’t new or unique to Syracuse. It’s the same critique students employed against those organizing for justice in 2014 at Columbia, 2013 at Dartmouth, 2012 at Amherst, and all through the decades at schools and in communities all across the country.

To those critics, who claim activists are being “disruptive”:

1. ICYMI: The point is to disrupt. It’s to halt business as usual. It’s to demand response to the issues the institution has consistently ignored, issues that have been easy to brush aside when approached via “existing channels” — indeed, issues that the university has been incentivized to brush aside as they threaten the comfortable status quo, and the steady flow of profit.

2. Students protest when existing channels have failedWhat the broader student population (and no doubt the Editorial Board) so rarely sees are the hours and hours activists have spent in meetings with administrators, “politely” and “professionally” and “rationally” asking for change behind closed doors — to no avail.

3. Disruption worksIt co-opts the neoliberal institution’s twin objectives — to grow reputation and profit (and manage risks that threaten them) — for students’ benefit. After THE General Body attracted national attention to the University’s abuses, the administration began to make initial concessions, including a “search for an ADA coordinator [and] a commitment to a 7% raise for Grad Student TA pay for one more year.” The administration was unwilling to grant these (modest) victories back when THE General Body student organizers were quiet, “professional,” and “respectful.”

When volume is negative publicity, negative publicity is lost dollars, and profit is the principle ethic on which the increasingly corporatized university operates, volume does equal strength.

4. Appeals to “respectful conduct,” “professionalism,” and “rationality” are deeply racially-coded and gendered. Who has access to existing channels of redress, who sees their experiences and needs addressed in university policy and institutional support systems, and whose activism gets to be interpreted as “impassioned” rather than “irrational” is almost always determined by activists’ race and gender. Women are told to be nice and quiet and accommodating — to be good girls. Black women in particular are warned not to be that “angry black woman” — to be “polite” and “respectable.”

Invocations of “civility,” “calm,” “rationality,” and “dialogue” mistakenly assume equal power among all members of a community, a neutrality to all positions in the debate (“All sides are equal and worth hearing”), and objectivity accorded to those who have the least personal experience with the topic at hand (“You can’t speak objectively about sexual assault because you’re a survivor, but I can because I’m not”). In reality, equality, neutrality and objectivity are myths invoked to silence and discredit marginalized voices, and preserve comfortable existing distributions of power. “So much power depends upon the enforced silence of these voices.”

5. By “civility”- and tone-policing your fellow students, you’re doing the institution’s work for it. As Reclaim UC writes, calls for civility in administrative discourse are means “by which the administration [and too often the co-opted student body as well] designates those forms of ‘speech’ that count as legitimate and acceptable and likewise those that do not…. By deploying ‘civility’ [the administration and complicit students] hope to disrupt disruption, channeling energies away from blockage and confrontation and into forms of pure speech that in no way threaten the constant flow of capital through the neoliberal university.” The university’s success in recruiting students — largely unknowingly — to silence and shut down other students is the social reproduction of conditions of inequality in action.

We all like to think, with the rosy glow of hindsight, that if we were alive at the great defining moments of protest in our country — the civil rights movement of the 1960s, or efforts to end apartheid in South Africa — we would have come down on the right side of things. That we would’ve shown up and marched and screamed and fought against the wrongs of the world, and the institutions that perpetuated them. That we wouldn’t have been the complacent people we read about in our history books, who told the great leaders of the past to compromise a little bit more, to ask for justice a little more nicely.

We like to think, all these years later, that we would have condemned such silencing as complicity and violence itself.

New Haven, CT

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and the co-founder of Know Your IX, the national youth-led organization working to end gender violence in schools. She's testified before Congress on Title IX policy and legislative reform, and her writing has appeared in a number of outlets, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. She's also a student at Yale Law School, and you can find her on Twitter at @danabolger.

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and a student at Yale Law School.

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