By Siri Ericson ’17
After countless microaggressions and a wave of recent hate crimes across campus, students throughout University of Missouri (Mizzou) have united to challenge racist acts and the inaction of the school’s administration. In an interview with CNN, the African American student activist, Jonathan Butler, says, “I’m in this because it’s that serious. We’re dealing with humanity here. And at this point, we can’t afford to continue to work with individuals who just don’t care for their constituents”. Frustrated with escalating racial tensions, Butler declared a hunger strike until the school’s president, Tim Wolfe, turned in his resignation. Butler’s activism inspired the football team to go on strike and hundreds of students to camp out on the campus’s lawn until Wolfe finally stepped down, eight days later. Wolfe’s resignation came as a startling victory to students, coaches, and faculty who viewed Wolfe as largely representative of the school’s resistance to addressing problems of racism and the lack of diversity on campus.
Institutionalized racism and acts of violence are not isolated to recent events in Mizzou, nor does Wolfe’s resignation mark the beginning of what some would like to deem a ‘post-racial era’. The day following Wolfe’s resignation, black students on campus were threatened with a Yik Yak post that read, “I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see.” On November 14, the Dartmouth student Geovanni Cuevas was assaulted by a campus security officer and threatened, “The badge never loses”. On November 18, an “Ilini White Student Union” from the University of Illinois was created to “identify ‘anti-whites’ and expose Black Lives Matter’s ‘hatred for white people and police officers.’” Clearly, racism extends beyond the borders of Mizzou’s campus and remains a problem for students and administrators to address.
Highly publicized accounts of Mizzou have inspired a wave of student movements across the country. Students have staged teach-ins, walkouts, protests, and strikes in solidarity with students at Mizzou and in opposition to institutionalized racism and ineffective administrators at their own colleges. At Ithaca College in New York, a demonstration of over 1,000 students led to the hiring of a chief diversity officer. At Claremont McKenna College in California, the dean of students was forced to resign in response to a hunger strike and student protests. At Yale University in Connecticut, students erupted in protests and campus-wide discussions about policy changes to make their campus more inclusive for students and professors of color. From the University of Wisconsin, Virginia Commonwealth University, University of California, Los Angeles, and more, student movements have been influential in revealing racialized injustices and calling students and administrators to re-examine their roles in establishing a safer and more equitable environment for all students.
So how can St. Olaf students learn from student activists at colleges such as Mizzou? And what is the future of political activism at St. Olaf? Bruce Roberts and David Hvidtendahl came to St. Olaf last week to talk about the history of political activism on campus during the Vietnam War. According to former psychology professor, Bruce Roberts, before the 1970’s St. Olaf was characterized as a quiet, conservative, and traditional campus with hardworking and obedient students. However, during the early 1970’s that began to change. Motivated by student activists such as David Hvidtendahl, St. Olaf was radically transformed into what Roberts deemed, “a hub center for political activism”. Roberts comments, “During that time, change was in the air. The tension was as though someone were standing at the front of the room holding a rifle, demanding the students to sit still and listen”.
Amidst a national backdrop of political controversy, conscientious and daring students seized the moment to make a political statement on campus. David describes how, on a whim, he walked into administration’s office with a small group of students and declared they were staging a strike. This weekend-long occupation of administration’s office turned into a campus-wide party and forum for student debate, until administration agreed to hold a town hall meeting that established the grounds for student activism and administration’s support on campus. Bolstered by a student body with a renewed passion for political involvement, students organized teach-ins, walkouts, rallies, and a march across Northfield that was backed by the Northfield Police Department.
The professor, Bruce Roberts, reflects that he was not a “flaming liberal” before he came to St. Olaf, but that his political identity was transformed by learning from motivated, ambitious, and conscientious students that were willing to take a stance for their beliefs. Bruce and David emphasized the power of students to transform the social and political culture of an institution. Just as a small group of students protesting the Vietnam War at St. Olaf stimulated a mass movement of students on campus, a few students camped out Mizzou’s lawn led to a “tent city” of hundreds of students occupying the college’s lawn and awaiting the resignation of their college president. Bruce and David’s discussion revealed a historical framework of political engagement on our campus many are unaware of. Their discussion serves as a call to action, motivating students to rally behind a cause they believe in and begin to see themselves as active agents of political change.