Last Sunday on his blog, historian of student activism and student government Angus Johnston cited Wisconsin State Statute 36.09(5): “The students of each institution or campus subject to the responsibilities and powers of the board, the president, the chancellor, and the faculty shall be active participants in the immediate governance of and policy development for such institutions. As such, students shall have the primary responsibility for the formulation and review of policies concerning student life, services, and interests… The students of each institution or campus have the right to organize themselves in a manner they determine and to select their representatives to participate in institutional governance.”
Though this statute wasn’t passed until 1974, students have been taking a stand for what they believe in for decades. In the ’60s, students protested the presence of campus recruiters from the Dow Chemical Company that made the napalm used in the Vietnam War. Last fall the Student Labor Action Coalition held a teach-in at Chancellor Biddy Martin’s office protesting the school’s contract with Nike apparel due to their mistreatment of workers in Honduras. And just last week, students rallied together to object Bradley Smith’s Holocaust denial ad, which was placed in the Badger Herald.
Badgers aren’t the only ones taking a stand for causes that they believe in. Last Thursday, UW-Milwaukee’s Students for a Democratic Society organized what they had planned to be a peaceful demonstration in response to massive budget cuts. The protest, which started in California, was part of a national day of action to defend education.
The issues these students and organizations are calling attention to are not problems exclusive to certain groups; they are issues that affect student bodies on the whole. For example, the UW-Milwaukee students called for a tuition freeze and for head university officials to take salary cuts before cutting the salaries of lesser-paid faculty. Tuition price tags and professors’ salaries are not the causes of a single radical group craving attention; they are the issues of a collective entity, student populations that are striving for equality and quality of education.
However, the responsibilities Statute 36.09(5) dictates — that students have to “formulate and review policies concerning student life, services, and interests and to organize themselves in a manner that they determine” — in no way gives students a right to gather and protest in a manner that is anything other than peaceful.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported police officers “had to use pepper spray to help break up a rally at the campus after some protestors became violent while trying to enter the building that contains the chancellor’s office.” UW-Milwaukee Spokesperson Tom Luljak said in a statement released to the press that after being turned away, “some protestors began throwing punches and tossing chunks of ice.”
This is inexcusable. The right to protest and the right to free speech are freedoms students across the country are proud to have. When a person or organization abuses those rights, it reflects poorly on others who are making constructive and peaceful objections to matters they disagree with. Violence, in any shape or form, whether provoked or not, is not the answer. On another level, because the protest in Milwaukee got a little out of hand, the majority of the news headlines are reading, “Pepper spray used to break up UWM protest,” and “Tuition protest at UW-Milwaukee turns violent; 15 detained after scuffling with police.” The focus thus became the violence instead of their cause — exactly the opposite of what the students wanted.
There is power in organized activism. The UW-Madison students who rallied last Wednesday on Library mall were peaceful. The panel held to discuss journalistic ethics and sensitivity in response to the placement of Smith’s Holocaust denial ad was peaceful. The students who marched into our Chancellor’s office were peaceful. And guess what? With peace come results. Members of SLAC have opened up a doorway to discussion with Biddy Martin and have brought attention to their efforts to sever the University’s ties to Nike as long as it continues to treat its workers unfairly.
Nelson Mandela once said, “One of our strongest weapons is dialogue.” Conversation sparks change. Perseverance, dedication and the will to stick to your guns even when change is not immediate are what lead to reform.
The students who protested at UW-Milwaukee, UC-Berkeley, and all the other universities across the nation last week are taking part in actions that date back to generations before us. Student activism is alive and thriving on the lawns of educational institutions around the country. It takes courage and organization to get a group of people together to fight for a cause, but it is those who face opposition with a sense of responsibility and with the mindset of peace that will bring about the biggest change.
Chelsea Lawliss (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a sophomore intending to major in journalism.