Editorials

There’s more than one way to hold a protest, kids

Erin Kim studies next to a stack of supplies and groceries on Nov. 17, the second day of occupation of Occidental College’s administrative building. Students were protesting the administration’s handling of complaints about diversity and discrimination.
Erin Kim studies next to a stack of supplies and groceries on Nov. 17, the second day of occupation of Occidental College’s administrative building. Students were protesting the administration’s handling of complaints about diversity and discrimination. Los Angeles Times

Another week, another call for someone’s resignation. That’s the way it is on American college campuses these days.

It started with the University of Missouri earlier this month – an understandable reaction to months of unaddressed racist incidents on campus, including a swastika scrawled in feces on a dorm wall. The chancellor and president appropriately heeded calls to step down.

Since then, it’s as if the floodgates have opened. There have been protests on dozens of campuses across the country, from the Ivy League institutions of Yale and Harvard to the liberal arts bastions of Occidental and Claremont McKenna colleges in California.

The students are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. They want safe spaces for marginalized communities and an immediate end to microaggressions. They want diversity training and black studies classes added to the curriculum. They want campus-wide action plans to promote equity and inclusion, and new leaders to implement them.

They want justice! And if they don’t get it, well then, watch out because there will be no peace. Like a fire-breathing pet dragon, they will summon the power of social media – and the mainstream media outlets that dutifully follow whatever is trending – and burn the reputation of any school or person that stands in their way.

Problem is, these millennials, impatient and used to getting their way, have forgotten the concept of a proportional response. There’s no better example of this than what went down at Claremont McKenna College this month.

There, Dean of Students Mary Spellman told a working-class Latina student that the college wants to help kids “who don’t fit our CMC mold.” In response, students went on a hunger strike. The dean then quit. The students issued a list of demands to the college anyway and offered no wiggle room for negotiation.

Talk about an overreaction. When wronged, not every demand for a remedy should start with, “quit – or else!” Sometimes “I’m sorry” should be good enough.

While the comment from Spellman, who is white, could have been better phrased, there’s a difference between an insensitive remark and demonstrable indifference to the needs of students. A single faux pas, born less of malice than of ignorance or inattention, doesn’t warrant hounding someone out of a job.

The punishment should fit the crime, and calls for such a severe punishment should be reserved for the most egregious of crimes. And yet, too often in this wave of campus protests, that hasn’t happened.

If students have learned anything in recent weeks, it’s that they have a great deal of power – the power to organize and right very real wrongs that students of color have faced on college campuses for decades. But that epiphany is meaningless without the rest of the lesson: With great power comes great responsibility.

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