Agents of Change: Student Protestors

From the American Revolution to Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring to #StopPoliceBrutality, protests have shaped American political discourse and motivated change across our collective national culture. College campuses are no exception, rather they are often some of the first (and most important) places where people gather to speak their minds. It is here where student protestors express their dissatisfaction with the status quo and inspire educators to address serious concerns. And now, with the ubiquity of social media, the entire world is watching in real time.

The Role of Student Activism in Campus Policy

Many of the most-successful student protestors have taken a stand regarding campus and curriculum policies and procedures. More than 1,000 high-school students in Jefferson County, Colorado, for instance, expressed their upset about AP History curriculum changes in 2014, according to Colorado Public Radio. Students felt that the new curriculum promoted revisionist history by painting America’s history in a positive light while glossing over troubling elements of systematic oppression of minorities. Another recent topic of protest on campus is the cost of higher education and the amount of debt with which students graduate.

Leading the March Toward Social Change

Campus issues aren’t the only focus of student protestors. Activists can take a lead role in the pursuit of larger social justice and change. Students can protest congressional decisions and executive orders just as easily as they can march against high on-campus textbook prices or tuition cost increases. In fact, students have often made national headlines for their attempts to inspire change in the political, financial, and social arenas. Writing for The Atlantic, Melinda D. Anderson traces the the roots of civil-rights protests through multiple generations. She reports that, in the 1960s, students from high-school to college organized protests to promote civil rights and to condemn segregation. Similarly, students have congregated on campuses in the last year to spread the message that Black Lives Matter. Certainly one of the most well-known (and tragic) demonstrations occurred on a college campus, namely the Kent State shootings where unarmed students protesting US involvement in Viet Nam and Cambodia were shot by the National Guard.

Preventing Psuedo-Activisim

Although student protestors can initiate positive change on campus and beyond, they can also devolve into slacktivism — a portmanteau of “slacker activism,” which implies that the protestor simply adds politically-motivated hashtags to the ends of Tweets or publishes a few short blog posts about an issue and feels as if he or she is actively engaged in a movement. Additionally, students must take care to avoid appropriating protesting language or initiatives for their own purposes. Replacing one word with another to create a new protesting “slogan” can have extensive negative consequences. For instance, those who co-opted the Black Lives Matter language and began promoting the phrase “All Lives Matter” experienced tremendous backlash. Appropriating an activist phrase for one’s own needs devalues the word’s or phrase’s original meaning.

Creating a Safe-and-Peaceful Protest

Students don’t have to encourage or engage in violence in order to inspire change. Peaceful protests allow students to continue expressing their opinions and beliefs without administrative or law-enforcement intervention. As long as every student abides by campus rules and remains accountable and in control during the event, student protestors can gain publicity and a willing ear. It is this sort of tactic that was so instrumental to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s getting his messages across to the mainstream.

Recent student protests surrounding the LGBTQ community, the proliferation of on-campus rapes, and other issues have attracted attention from administrators as well as the public. Continuing this tradition can inspire future generations of students to speak their minds. College is a time for exploring ideas and idealism. It is a great place to exchange opinions and meet others with whom one can work to make this world better.

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