February 10, 2016
For the complicit, the complacent, and the comfortable,
Protests are often times questioned and/or antagonized. This is because these acts re-center the bodies and voices of those often criminalized, marginalized, and forgotten - the grouping of a people stripped of their humanity leaving many with one option: to act.
Recently, the University of Minnesota's College of Liberal Arts in partnership with Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) organized the new discussion series, “Big Questions.” The series aims to bring "multiple and diverse perspectives to bear on today's pressing questions." The first discussion question asks “Is there a right way to protest?” Based on the University’s treatment of student activists, we believe that it already knows the answer to its own question. The University has consistently ignored and dismissed the demands of (multiply) marginalized students seeking to affect transformative changes in a hostile tower that feels as anti-ebony, anti-Asian, and anti-brown as it does ivory. When students resist bureaucratic procrastination by taking the initiative to advance their demands through protest or other forms of disruptive politics the University retaliates with force, including arrest, incarceration, and student sanctions. The University is but a microcosm of wider structural violence shown towards political activists in communities neglected by the state. Responses to protest on campus and in the community leave many folks wrestling with a more important question: Why is dissent criminalized?
The question of "Is there a right way to protest?" is fundamentally flawed. Such a question places the responsibility of effecting positive social justice squarely on the backs of organizers, while ignoring the role of systems of power and domination that create socially unjust conditions making protest imperative. This is precisely why we invoke the spirit of Assata Shakur when we yell "It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win." The "right" way to protest is whatever ways marginalized communities see fit, based on the resources at their disposal, and the way they choose to exercise their agency. Asking this question without including the voices of systemically disenfranchised communities is an act of violence, which we oppose for the following reasons:
Making a value judgement about social justice movements that are constantly responding to state sanctioned violence against QTPOC and other marginalized communities begs a more pressing question: Why do we only ask whether the actions of victims and survivors of oppression are "right" when the causes of such protests are so blatantly wrong? When police officers continuously evade prosecution for the killings of unarmed Black and Brown people, we are left questioning whether morality has been inverted where wrong is right and right is wrong.
Holding a conversation about whether there is a "right way to protest" ultimately serves as an excuse for the University to neglect the demands of student activists, whose actions will always already be read as wrong in the eyes of those in power.
Like discussions about "racism" and "diversity," conversations about protest work to naturalize the everyday injustices conditioning the experiences of (multiply) marginalized students of color on campus, by leading people to equate conversation with conversion (i.e. substantive change).
By co-sponsoring this conversation on the topic of protests, the University absolves its role as a major underwriter of the inequities, both on and off campus, that make protest inevitable. Many of these inequities are routinely challenged by groups like Whose Diversity? and APIs for Equity and Diversity. Because the demands of both groups remain unmet, protest becomes a necessity.
This event takes place two days after the one-year anniversary of the takeover of Morrill Hall by Whose Diversity? We believe this choice was not accidental but a way to send a message about "the right way" of protesting, by reproducing the dichotomy between the "safe" and "unsafe minority."
The University's strategic selection of panelists serves as an invitation for internal tensions to rise between peoples whose struggles are inextricably linked. We are aware that the University always finds ways to divide and conquer. Those in positions of power and privilege would love to see those committed to social justice fight to the point of dissolution. Because we're hip to these politricks, we make it clear that our critique comes from a place of genuine concern and sincere love for those enmeshed in struggles similar to our own.
Suggesting that there is an “right” way for students to express grievances obscures the way in which these channels are obstructed to marginalized students, not to mention that these paths lead nowhere. Within a code of “civility” and “standards of appropriate behavior,” direct action tactics are read as transgressive and worse, criminal.
Asking whether or not there is a right way to protest places the blame on students and community activists for speaking out about the injustices committed by the University. For the University to be asking this question and then interrogating community members is nothing but an act of deflection. It is the University who should be interrogated as to why athletes are not treated fairly in the athletic department, why the Ethnic Studies departments are perpetually underfunded and understaffed, and why Black and Brown students rarely feel comfortable, safe, and supported on this campus.
There is a myriad of productive questions that could be discussed instead of the one framed for this panel. When you hear the question "Is There A Right Way To Protest," you have to ask yourself what message is the University trying to convey to its student body and surrounding community? If the University is not open to hearing suggestions from historically marginalized groups of people, then it needs to stop parading around as if it is a "diverse" place that welcomes and supports "diverse" communities. Until the University of Minnesota starts working to actually respect, represent, and support students and community members from historically marginalized backgrounds, we will remain #UMNDrivenToUncover the racist, sexist, classist, heteronormative practices of the University and disrupt said practices until they cease to exist.
Do! (Differences organized!)