Thursday, May 2, 2024

To Protest

I remember waking up on the ground late on a Saturday night in the quad. Or was it early Sunday morning? It was my turn to sleep in the protest shanty we had built at Washington University in St Louis. I heard voices and guessed school security had picked the darkness to dismantle our little shack. Graduation was coming up, and they sure didn’t want this eyesore in the middle of the parents’ seating area. But as my consciousness cleared, and the voices turned to words, I realized it was a group of late-night partiers who were daring each other to pee into my bedroom. I said a few words to let them know someone was there and awake, and they scurried off, fortunately before letting loose with a yellow stream. The protest had survived another night.

Many campuses in 1986 had primitive encampments, as student groups protested against and hoped to pressure the South African government into dismantling the apartheid system, which officially and very broadly restricted the rights of non-white persons. On campuses across the US, these shanty towns were extensive, and battles between students and administration sometimes led to violence and arrests. Ours was a small shack, which we kept going for the whole semester. Nobody was arrested as far as I know. The school did not divest from businesses active in South Africa, which was our request. Campus groundskeepers were able to haul the shed off during exam week and quickly get some sod in there prior to parents showing up.

I considered that phase a failure at the time, but our group was involved in many other ways: marches, gatherings, education events, and the like. We were a small part of the pressure that did contribute to freedom in South Africa. I was amazed to hear during medical school in 1994 that Nelson Mandela was elected president. When we were marching, he was still in jail: a total of 27 years. From my involvement and observations from that time, I have some thoughts and pieces of advice I would like to pass on to the campus protesters of today. I was not, and I am not a professional protester, nor am I extensively involved politically overall. I am sure you have heard from people like that--I sure did. I appreciate them, but you may not want to follow them too closely. That is my first point. Not everyone should become a professional protestor, spend time in jail, and give up their career. Those three things don’t always go hand in hand, but they often do. Think very carefully before you get hauled off by the police. Sometimes that is the right thing, and sometimes it is unavoidable, but sometimes you may have more influence and say if you keep your student ID, avoid the jail record, and show up for school next semester.

Related to the professional protestor, is the problem of thinking-as-a-package. You do not need to agree on every single point to gather with others in protest. The world does not need more echo chambers. Read books. Think. Have opinions and say them. Respect and listen to people with differing opinions. It makes the world and your life much more interesting. Unfortunately, the press and the campuses seem to love to quote the student in the midst of his or her opinion formation, and then label them forever for what is really a journey, so be careful what you say in public or online. Or turn your thought into a question instead so you won’t be tagged.

Choose non-violence. If you are like me, you will want to throw something, break something, hurt somebody. There is so much evil out there, and you want to tackle it now! But the best message, that lasts the longest, is the one that is packaged in humility, with all violence and coercion removed. If you do get arrested or you are about to be arrested, do not fight. Don’t put the police person at risk or yourself. Look up quotes from Dr Martin Luther King. Read Gandhi’s autobiography. Consider Jesus on the cross. Leaders whose message persists even after they’re gone, who very intentionally and purposefully planned to reject violence. There will be people who are ok with violence, who consider power the primary goal. In fact, current university education and polarized news emphasize power politics so much, I am surprised there is not more violence than there is. This is why you must be very purposeful about non-violence as a philosophy and a practice. A non-violent path enhances your credibility and chances of lasting success.

My last thought is: do something besides protest. I found that protesting racial injustice overseas was not enough for me, and I jumped into racial reconciliation and related work in St Louis both on and off campus. What can you do in your community to locally improve respect, dialogue, and understanding? Or to support those in need?

All the best to you in this fascinating time! I hope you don’t get peed on!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can’t believe you had a protest shack in 1986!