Dale Altshuler was walking down Bascom Hill in October 1967. She heard the chants of students protesting the Vietnam War, something pretty normal since she had seen protesters before.
But soon the chants turned to screams.
Students started scattering in all directions, police chasing after them with billy clubs and shields.
Then, Altshuler, a junior at the time, was hit with tear gas. Her eyes and nose burned in “agony,” but worse yet, she couldn’t get away. The gas was in the very air she was trying to breathe.
“I was totally traumatized,” Altshuler remembers. “I was crying — I couldn’t stop crying.”
“It felt like I could participate with a group of people and really have an influence. We ended the war.”Alan Robock
Students had staged a sit in at the Commerce Building (now Ingraham Hall) to protest Dow Chemical, a company that was creating napalm for the Vietnam War and recruiting students on campus. Police ended the protest by beating and tear gassing students, even bystanders like Altshuler who were leaving class.
At the time, Altshuler didn’t know what was happening. Before that day, she said she was in “her own little world” and didn’t pay attention to protests or the war. But after that day she became an activist. Even with the “unbearable” tear gas, she attended many more protests, and worked with her fellow students to support the anti-war effort.
But some “cynics” said student protests were useless, according to an April 1972 statement from the Wisconsin Student Association. UW alumnus Alan Robock, who also participated in the Vietnam protests, said students had no right to expect they could change anything — but they did.
“It really felt empowering. It felt like I could participate with a group of people and really have an influence,” Robock said. “We ended the war.”
Whether it be helping to end a war, raising awareness about racism or pushing for changes in school policies, students have proven themselves to be forces of change throughout UW’s history. But changes almost never come easily. Students often have to fight tooth and nail to have their causes listened to, let alone for change to occur.
Vice Provost Lori Berquam said this grit and passion for activism in students is part of UW’s identity.
“It’s really part of who we are is that concept of being passionate about social issues, being passionate about making our world a better place,” Berquam said. “That level of passion that contributes to activism is what I think makes our campus unique.”
Current UW activists seek change
Today, students continue this tradition, employing tactics tailored to their causes as well as themselves.
Some employ direct actions to push for very specific changes, like recent UW graduate Brooke Evans and UW sophomore Rena Newman. As soon as Evans heard about the mandatory minimum that was a part of UW’s new dining policy, she knew she had to act.
“In an article that was released about this policy change … I was tagged in it, and it said ‘@Brooke Evans, please help,’” Evans said. “And so then I immediately opened the article and was altogether stunned and immediately began drafting … my own version of what I thought a petition would look like.”
Evans, a long-standing advocate of student hunger and homelessness and someone who has experienced it herself, was joined by Newman, who contributed to the cause with their passion for writing. Finding a niche in any movement, Newman said, is key to being a successful activist.
In part, because of the 3,500 signatures they were able to amass, a group of students were able to meet with University Housing Director Jeff Novak and get the policy removed from the plan.
Other students, such as Cortez de la Cruz and Eneale Pickett employ disruptive tactics which draw attention to their causes and evoke discussion.
“At some point, people have to suffer publically for things to become relevant in the minds of other people.”Brooke Evans
De la Cruz, a UW senior, has been involved in planning speaker protests against figures like Ben Shapiro, a blockade of UW’s 2016 homecoming parade to promote Black Lives Matter as well as being involved in the multimedia #TheRealUW project.
“We understand what pushes buttons,” de la Cruz said. “With organizing, we never want to come across as too aggressive and that we can’t conduct ourselves. But you have to make sure that your actual feelings are coming across that this is an important issue to you.”
Part of this, he said, is making sure each demonstration has a specific set of demands and working with entities like UWPD to ensure protests go smoothly.
Through his clothing line Insert Apparel, Pickett, a UW junior, creates t-shirts, hats and hoodies, bearing messages like “All White People Are Racist” as well as visual projects. Each has stirred difficult, often uneasy dialogues about white supremacy and sexism on campus, as well as garnered attention from outlets like The Washington Post.
Though Pickett has a knack for stirring controversy, he maintains that each garment contains nothing that has not been said before.
“What I’m saying on my shirt is nothing new,” Pickett says. “People have been saying this forever, I just decided to put it on a shirt.”
For each of these students, regardless of cause and action, each related that no matter the action, each is planned meticulously in advance. For Newman and Evans, this meant conversing with other food scarcity advocates and concerned parties before pursuing Evans’ idea for a petition.
For de la Cruz, this means a week of planning sessions to make sure everyone is on the same page. For Pickett, it means months of research into the ideologies he chooses to manifest in his fashion.
“Success is never going to come quick.”Cortez de la Cruz
Each activist also described the necessity to take an intersectional and reflective approach when organizing. Newman said it’s especially important to reflect and listen when advocating for a cause that does not affect you specifically, as Newman does with food scarcity.
“Being humble and saying ‘I don’t know’ is crucial,” Newman said. “But you have to also keep in mind that no one is obligated to educate you.”
While many see activism as something that only progressives take part in, College Republicans Chair Jake Lubenow said conservatives also have their ways of making change. Lubenow said College Republicans has strong ties to the state Legislature and are able to communicate their priorities with lawmakers. College Republicans communicated with lawmakers about the importance of having an opt-out option for student segregated fees. The legislature did not include that option in this budget, but Lubenow said they were receptive to making plans for that in the future.
Each also said though change is possible, it is also often met with challenges. Though the tear gas and billy clubs of the Vietnam era are absent, students encounter death threats on social media, divides between themselves and the administration and changing social climates in the 21st century.
Obstacles to change
Student activists face challenges that range from having to work tirelessly to ensure one’s voice is heard to receiving death threats because of their views.
Both Pickett and de la Cruz have experienced the latter. De la Cruz said his profile on campus has also led to some askance glances and other microaggressions, though he noted, by this point, he is more or less used to them.
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Another major obstacle is simply getting people to listen.
When Evans was trying to get Associated Students of Madison to adopt a food pantry for low income and homeless students on campus, ASM didn’t think it was worth the time. She had to come out publicly as a homeless student for them to pass the motion. Evans said it’s hard for people to care about something they’ve never seen or experienced.
“At some point, people have to suffer publically for things to become relevant in the minds of other people,” Evans said. “You almost have to watch and know and hear that someone is bleeding out loud.”
But even after speaking publicly about her homelessness, some still didn’t care. Important issues for low income students like getting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program on campus or getting socio-economic status recognized in the hate and bias policy as a recognized identity were often joked about as “Brooke issues,” rather than serious problems. Evans said her experiences trying to create change have been “labor intensive, emotionally exhausting and almost sanity trying.”
De la Cruz said, though that sometimes organizers have to realize who they are never going to be able to win over. He added, people are people. Many will be receptive, but some have “core values” that are out of reach.
Another common challenge that student changemakers face is that most issues cannot be solved overnight, especially societal ones.
“Success is never going to come quick, especially when we’re dealing with systems of power,” de la Cruz said.
Dialogues with UW administration
Despite Berquam’s pride in UW’s tradition of protest, many student activists feel there is a rift between themselves and the administration.
Pickett said he is fatigued by the times he has contacted the university and not received a response.
Evans said she has had meetings with UW officials where promises have been made to her and have not been followed through on.
Assistant Vice Chancellor Argyle Wade acknowledged that listening to students is an area in which administration is always trying to improve.
“It’s hard to be connected and included into all the different voices and opinions and thoughts. It’s an ongoing, constant struggle,” Wade said. “There would be no way to say that we’re able to listen to everybody all the time — it’s a huge place. We’re always trying to get better. I don’t think I would ever say that’s something that we could not be still better on.”
If students don’t feel listened to, Wade said he would want students to come forward and say, “‘hey, I think my voice hasn’t been heard on this,’” so the administration can listen.
But sometimes the fastest and most effective way to make a change within the university is to solve problems with faculty and staff, rather than taking issues all the way up to administration. Berquam said there are many issues that could be solved with professors or department heads rather than administrators. She pointed to the changes to the recent dining hall policy as a recent example of this.
“It’s so interesting to me when people are like, ‘nothing changes.’ Every time you look around, there are changes.”Lori Berquam
Novak said he met with ASM to get feedback on the new dining hall payment plan before the policy was announced. Novak also met with students after the backlash and had conversations about the petition. Housing made the policy a pilot program, instead of a permanent policy, and allowed student funds to be rolled over because of these conversations.
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Evans, however, is still frustrated with the university’s response and plans to advocate for further changes.
Berquam said one reason students may be frustrated with the changes that happen is because they may simply be unhappy with the outcome — not necessarily because they weren’t listened to. Wade said they have to balance the interests of all students, alumni, Madison residents and the state of Wisconsin.
“Sometimes on one issue we’ll have multiple perspectives on what’s the right direction, what’s the right thing to do,” Wade said. “And you can only pick one sometimes.”
For instance, in 2014 when the state Legislature made budget cuts to the UW System, UW officials spoke out against the cuts. Many Democratic students lauded UW’s stance against the cuts, but conservative students wanted the university to remain impartial, Lubenow said. Lubenow said College Republicans made requests for the university to stay objective, but these requests “fell on deaf ears.”
De la Cruz wishes there were more avenues for communication with the university, and feels even when they start to initiate changes they are more so placations rather than long-term solutions.
Similarly, graduate student CV Vitolo-Haddad, who is a member of the activist group Student Coalition for Progress, said the most effective way SCP has found for getting the university’s attention is by getting issues to have national media coverage.
Still, there are countless examples of changes to the university that have come about because of student requests, most of which did not garner national news coverage.
Berquam pointed to the Our Wisconsin program, online and in-person training to raise awareness about sexual assault, the hate and bias reporting system, the Black Cultural Center, changes to Rec Sports, the renovation Memorial Union, making College Library 24 hours and adding more mental health counselors at UHS as just some of the changes the university has made that have been driven by student input.
“It’s so interesting to me when people are like, ‘nothing changes,’” Berquam said. “Every time you look around, there are changes.”
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Activism in a digital landscape
One thing that has helped students facilitate change is social media.
“Social media plays a big role in organizing,” de la Cruz said. “It allows us to reach out to people and also serve as another place to ensure our voices are heard.”
De la Cruz added social media gives protests an added dimension, another space where things like demands and relevant information can be posted. At one point, he posted a death threat he’d received on social media, in order to demonstrate the causes he was advocating against were both harmful and serious.
Newman and Evans were able to link up rapidly and communicate with others because of social media, videos and images of Pickett’s clothing line were spread and discussed on social media and #TheRealUW based much of its trajectory in online visual images of students posting what UW really means to them.
But social media comes with both positive and negative effects.
UW journalism and mass communications professor Chris Wells, an expert in how people use social media to participate in politics, said it’s easy for people to fall in the trap of simply following groups and updates, but then “clicking off” and not participating in them. Wells said it’s important that activists have both an online and in-person presence for a social movement to be sustained.
In addition, since it’s so easy to organize via social media, some may see protests as less impactful than in the past when gathering thousands of people came from flyers on telephone lines, Wells said.
Wells, though, is confident that certain students will continue to be politically active and use social media as an avenue for political success.
Seeds of change
But even if “success” in the sense of sweeping, societal changes are not achieved, the success of a protest can be measured in a variety of ways.
Vitolo-Haddad said SCP sees simply getting their message out there to people as a success. They’ve been able to have their voices heard by being picked up by media outlets and getting more students to register to vote.
Protest can also take on a more personal role in the lives of students, becoming a part of who they are as individuals.
“It’s success stories that inspire me and keep me going.” Eneale Pickett
When de la Cruz began as a student at UW, he suffered from being in “a dark place,” one where some mornings he could not bring himself to get up in the morning.
Organization, for him, became a way to not simply fight for causes he believes in but also stay away from that dark place.
Pickett, who has also received numerous death threats, said though organization takes a toll on the self, he is motivated to continue by interactions he has with his supporters. One supporter posted a picture on social media of him wearing one of his shirts which also went viral, and led to the supporter receiving death threats as well.
Still, Pickett said the supporter told him that if Pickett could go on wearing the shirts and fighting, then the supporter could as well.
“It’s success stories that inspire me and keep me going,” Pickett said. “My supporter said ‘every time I put your shirt on, I’m ready to fight.”
Even if students don’t get the specific policy changes they advocate for, Vitolo-Haddad said fostering an environment for student activism now will create more changes in the future.
“We’re going to send our students out all over the country — all over the world — and they’re going to bring that information with them, and that’s when changes will be made,” Vitolo-Haddad said. “It’s not about what happens while we’re college students.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that College Republicans were against an opt-out option for student segregated fees. They are for a student opt-out option for segregated fees. The Badger Herald regrets this error.