Student protest at the Sather Gate on the campus of U.C. Berkeley.

Back to Campus, Back to Activism

by Maya Pascal

Looking back to predict the future of campus activism

Maya Pascal
Maya Pascal is a New York-based writer and the editor of Wade in the Water, an oral history project tracking the progress of the movement for Black lives. With a degree in Women's Studies from Columbia University, she can hold forth on the gender dynamics of just about anything, but still keeps Rae Sremmurd on blast. Find her on Twitter at @meetyourm.

Over the past year, America has watched with a unique mixture of awe and derision as protests over racial diversity and inclusion rocked college campuses across the country. We witnessed the president of the University of Missouri step down after a graduate student’s hunger strike over hate speech on campus escalated to the point that the school’s football team threatened to forfeit a game. We saw Yale students explode over a debate about Halloween costumes, while Harvard and Princeton students asked their schools to reconsider traditions that carried racist legacies. Meanwhile, the media bickered over whether these students were entitled millennials unable to appreciate freedom of speech, or if they carried a legitimate burden.

Not surprisingly, prevailing coverage of the protests has been lacking in scope. While we followed the battles at a handful of schools, over 80 student groups in the U.S. delivered demands to their universities—and their fights did not start and end in the past school year. In fact, they are part of a continuum of campus activism, which has drawn inspiration and tactics from both the contemporary movement for Black lives and the student movements of the New Left in the 1960s. The students recognize this legacy, and consciously work to ensure that their activism will carry past one or two semesters. In taking a closer look at these student protesters, we can learn a little something about how activist communities are built to last.

Columbia University, a school with a history of activism so infamous it has its own lightbulb joke, is one place to start. Hundreds of Columbia students protested in solidarity with the University of Missouri last November as action there peaked, leading students to coalesce into a group called Mobilized African Diaspora (MAD) to address race issues on their own campus. But pressure on these issues had been building over the past couple of years. In early 2014, Columbia Prison Divest (CPD) ignited campus conversation about African-American incarceration in the U.S. by demanding the school divest from private prisons. Their campaign, which encompassed extensive talks with the school’s administration, awareness weeks on campus, rallies, and sit-ins, stretched through the summer and into the following school year.

Near the end of the fall 2014 semester, after grand juries voted not to indict the officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Columbia students criticized the school’s administration for failing to quickly mobilize psychological and academic resources for those experiencing trauma. They went on to conduct a die-in during the annual winter tree-lighting ceremony on campus to highlight the emotional turmoil Black students were enduring in the midst of a season of celebration. These activities were led by organizers from the Black Student Organization and Students Against Mass Incarceration while CPD’s divestment talks were still ongoing. In the summer of 2015, months after escalating protests and extended negotiations resulted in the approval of the University’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, Columbia finally became the first university to divest from private prisons. Students involved in both the divestment campaign and police brutality activism would go on to spearhead the activism in the following school year.

Just as many have identified parallels between today’s movement for Black lives and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, the ties between the recent campus protests and the student movements of the late 1960s and early ‘70s are hard to miss. tweet

On the other side of the country, students at the University of California at Berkeley started the fall 2015 semester presenting demands to the university’s administration to address the needs of African-American students, through initiatives such as hiring psychologists experienced in treating the African-American community and a scholarship endowment targeted at African-American undergraduates. Though they could easily be counted as another school following the example set by Mizzou, these demands were just one new development in an ongoing campaign to aid Black students on campus. During the previous school year, Berkeley saw two shut downs of campus landmarks, with a presentation of demands sandwiched in between.

Like their peers on the opposite coast, students at Berkeley were driven by the rash of police brutality and failure of grand juries to issue indictments in the fall of 2014 to create a space for Black students to grieve, demonstrate, and attempt to heal. In early December 2014, the Black Student Union coordinated a takeover of the Golden Bear Cafe, a major campus eatery, for four and a half hours, in reference to the length of time Michael Brown’s body was left in the street in Ferguson after he was killed. The protest, meant to both interrupt “business as usual” on campus and empower the Black student body, would have a spiritual partner in April when the school’s Stop Mass Incarceration Network barred entry to Sather Gate, a landmark near the center of campus, to protest both police brutality and the hostile climate Black students experienced at the school.

The Sather Gate protest was conducted on Cal Day, part of the campus preview for incoming students. And as these groups worked to make their mark on Berkeley’s future, they were referencing the school’s past: the protest mimics an iconic image from the Free Speech Movement which overtook Berkeley’s campus in the early 1960s, when student protesters working to lift the school’s ban of on-campus political activity banded together to carry a banner through the gate.

Just as many have identified parallels between today’s movement for Black lives and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, the ties between the recent campus protests and the student movements of the late 1960s and early ‘70s are hard to miss. In the past, students forced their universities to confront their responsibilities to the marginalized communities that often surrounded them by demanding expanded admission of Black students and diverse faculty hires, the creation of African-American/African studies departments, and engagement with neighboring communities of color. Today, students demand that these admissions and hires are maintained or increased, and that space is made for Black students to grow and succeed on campus through the allocation of physical space for Black student groups, support for ethnic studies departments, diversity and inclusion programming, special counseling, and other services.

The students at Columbia and Berkeley have a deep awareness of the work of activists that came before. “These issues were always there,” says Darializa Chevalier, a recent Columbia graduate and member of MAD. She notes that in the 1960s and ‘70s, “people did protest South African apartheid. People did protest Columbia’s expansion into Harlem. People did protest gender inequality here. But because they’re now framed in a new light, people are saying ‘that’s not the same thing.’ When it actually is.”

“The university definitely banks on the fact that people graduate and people leave, and the fact that students come in as freshmen not really sure where they stand politically, and so it takes some time to get their feet wet.” tweet

MAD’s current list of demands include calls for increased hires of faculty of color, increased resource allocation for departments that study marginalized communities and non-Western traditions, and admission and retention of students of color, “emphasizing low-income and local students directly affected by Columbia’s expansion” into Harlem, which lies directly north of the main campus. MAD also demands that Columbia “invest in and actively secure jobs and affordable housing for those affected by its expansion.” By holding the university accountable for the surrounding Black community whose land it encroaches on, they echo students in the late 1960s who fought to halt University expansion outright.

The Afrikan Black Coalition (ABC), an organization which works with the Black Student Unions of 16 schools across the University of California and California State University systems, is proud to take inspiration directly from some of the most prominent groups of the 1960s student movements: the Black Panther Party and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In fact, many members of ABC, which is based in Oakland, are related to former Black Panthers and frequently discuss organizational operations with them. As a result, they espouse a particularly radical politics that incorporates Black Nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and intersectional feminism, and rejects non-violence as a protest philosophy.

Blake Simons, the group’s Communications Director and a recent graduate of UC Berkeley, sees ABC’s work as directly descending from the activists of the past. “Let’s have a real historical account for what’s going on,” he says,  “student demands didn’t just start with Missouri…This has been going on since the Third World Liberation Front,” a pan-ethnic coalition that embroiled the campus of San Francisco State University in 1968 and by many accounts kicked off the Black student protests that would soon spread across the U.S.

Of course, the protests of the past are remembered best by their most striking actions—such as the blocking of Berkeley’s Sather Gate—and today’s students understand how to harness this same power. But they also understand that the effects of direct action go beyond putting pressure on administrators.

As Eniola Abioye, a recent graduate of UC Berkeley who helped coordinate the Golden Bear Cafe takeover in winter of 2014, explains, “it was about communicating that this shit is not okay and we’re not going to stand for it, but also bringing people in the Black community together who hadn’t necessarily felt like they were involved in the Black community, or felt like they were welcome in the Black community.”

“Student demands didn’t just start with Missouri…This has been going on since the Third World Liberation Front,” a pan-ethnic coalition that embroiled the campus of San Francisco State University in 1968 and by many accounts kicked off the Black student protests that would soon spread across the U.S. tweet

Coming together to create displays of power generates a snowball effect. As the number of like-minded students grows larger, they are able to carry out more audacious protests and apply more manpower to negotiations with administrators. After the takeover, “there was this little cadre of Black students who were all about direct action,” says Abioye. “We kept going. We got bigger and we got better. We learned lessons about what not to do and what to do.”

As activist groups grow, students also consciously mentor incoming members in order to prepare them to take the mantle as leaders graduate and leave campus. “It’s really important to start young,” says Chevalier. “The university definitely banks on the fact that people graduate and people leave, and the fact that students come in as freshmen not really sure where they stand politically, and so it takes some time to get their feet wet. By the time they are more comfortable in the political sphere, they’re juniors”—at which point the administration only has to wait two years for the problem students to leave.

This past year, MAD prepared for these potential losses by directly training its members in best practices. As she approached graduation, Chevalier was “concerned most with what tools and resources to leave behind,” in order to allow underclassmen to steer the ship in her absence. “We had so many teach-ins this semester to talk about the various issues we were trying to tackle,” she explains, “and to provide basic background on what these issues were, why we’re focused on them, and how Black students have historically engaged in them at Columbia. And then, moving forward, what we can do about them.”

ABC builds an extra layer of security into this process by electing directors who are graduated students. Says Simons, “through organizing we realized that a lot of students will say, ‘we’re having this political campaign, but shoot, I got a midterm, I got another test, I need to take care of this, I gotta do my laundry’ and their work will kind of fall off.” Because the directors are no longer in school, “they will ideally have more time.” Leadership throughout ABC is carefully recruited to ensure that members “have demonstrated that they’re ready to put the work in, and have the right politics to be in the organization,” giving them the tools to grow the group’s reach.

Far from a flash in the pan, Black student activism today is a torch being passed—in a relay that stretches in more directions across the country than we can see at a glance. tweet

In order to continue to carry out complex demonstrations and negotiate with school administrators, students require tightly built and well-connected organizations. After her work in the shut-downs at UC Berkeley, Eniola Abioye went on to join ABC and become the group’s director of field operations. Together, ABC and the UC Berkeley Black Student Union have achieved victories for a few of the Berkeley demands, including the creation of the Fannie Lou Hamer Resource Center as an organizing space for the African-American student community and the hiring of psychologists trained to meet the needs of Black students, with others, such as the creation of an endowment for a scholarship for Black students, in progress. Over at Columbia, MAD grew from a group of concerned students to a formal organization through joining the Barnard Columbia Solidarity Network, a collection of other groups agitating for change on campus. Together, this coalition drafted demands recognizing the intersections of oppression related to gender, class, and the environment in addition to race, and they negotiate with the administration as a united front.

Through these coalitions, students are able to share resources and advice within the campus and across campuses, growing both their capabilities and their base of support even further. And through national networks like the Black Liberation Collective, which works to build infrastructure for student protesters across the country, they are able to learn from their peers and adapt their demands and tactics accordingly.

This inter-campus networking can prove to be just as important as intra-campus coalitions, as the campaigns of one school can provide opportunities for another. The many schools that rose up in solidarity with Mizzou in fall 2015 and recognized their power to change their own campuses is the most obvious example of this, but one school’s victories can have even more direct effects. A few months after Columbia’s private prison divestment in the summer of 2015, ABC announced a resolution for the schools in the University of California system to divest. The resulting campaign focused on media, including a press release on UC’s investments, and did not even reach the stage of direct action—within two months, UC announced a decision to divest.

Far from a flash in the pan, Black student activism today is a torch being passed—in a relay that stretches in more directions across the country than we can see at a glance. When we see students rise up in solidarity with schools like Mizzou and Yale, we should recognize that the flame is being carried not only across campuses, but also across graduating classes and even generations of activists. Today’s protesters become tomorrow’s mentors, inspiring and instructing the next groups of students to take power and create change that will last far longer than a news cycle.

About the Authors:
Published by Maya Pascal
Maya Pascal is a New York-based writer and the editor of Wade in the Water, an oral history project tracking the progress of the movement for Black lives. With a degree in Women's Studies from Columbia University, she can hold forth on the gender dynamics of just about anything, but still keeps Rae Sremmurd on blast. Find her on Twitter at @meetyourm. View all posts by Maya Pascal

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