As I reported in my previous post, students at my college organized an event last Monday night, the Rhodes Solidarity Vigil, which was meant to demonstrate solidarity with the nonviolent student protesters at UC-Davis (and elsewhere) who were brutalized by police while peacefully exercising their right to assemble. This is why I stood with the Rhodes students that night:
For at least the last 50 years, college and university campuses have served as cultural, moral, and political crucibles, where the often white-hot heat of our nation's collective values are tested, refined, sometimes challenged, and sometimes changed. There are, I imagine, a myriad of ways to explain why this is the case, but I'd like to think that chief among them is the fact that students constitute a rather unique sub-population, the characteristics of which make them uniquely capable of apprehending more directly the systemic injustices that plague our body politic. College and university students exist, for the most part, as a community of shared interest, age, and vocation. They are, for the most part, sheltered from the burdensome weights of adult life, like disease, death and (until quite recently) debt. They are engaged with one another in the difficult tasks of educating themselves, of training and disciplining themselves, of fabricating for themselves a place and a purpose in the world. And, for the most part, they have not yet had their ability to imagine more and different possibilities restricted.
It is that last characteristic-- their unrestricted imagination-- that I find the most inspirational in my day to day interactions with students. If given the resources and freedom to imagine their world otherwise, they can and they do. College and university campuses have been, and ought to be, safe spaces for that imaginative work. Recently, however, some campuses have not been so. Most dramatically demonstrated at UC-Davis and UC-Berkeley, where students were beaten with batons and pepper-sprayed by police while peacefully assembling, campuses have not only become focal points for an ideological struggle taking place in our country, but battlegrounds for that struggle. The scenes of that battle, disseminated as they were through the viral network of our new media, are disturbing. Students, armed with nothing other than their grievances and their nonviolent discipline, have been met with the unjust and unjustifiable violence of police force. Inexcusably, administrators charged with protecting those campuses and the students who inhabit them have turned a blind eye.
I am so very thankful that my campus has not been host to such violence, that my students have not been quieted or harmed, and that our collective space remains safe for the free expression of ideas, even unorthodox, unpopular or dissenting ideas. Ours remains, thankfully, a campus that has maintained its integrity and, more importantly, its hospitality to critical discourse, civic engagement and democratic action. So, when our students gathered to show solidarity with their peers at UC-Davis and UC-Berkeley, I stood with them and for them. I saw it as my moral obligation to do so, inasmuch as I find the deployment of brute force against nonviolent protesters to be a gross moral transgression. I saw it as my political obligation to do so, inasmuch as I find the exercise of police violence against the citizenry it is charged to serve and protect, the violation of basic constitutional rights to assemble and to dissent, and the suppression of free and open democratic discourse to be gross political transgressions. And I saw it as my professional obligation to do so, inasmuch as I consider it my charge to protect my students' freedom to insist on a better world for themselves, to call into question the values of those who govern and discipline them, to put the intellectual resources they have gained in the course of their education to practical use, and to not be beaten or violated for doing so.
As a member of the faculty at a liberal arts college, I wish that we had the courage and conviction to lead and not follow on this issue. I am, quite frankly, embarrassed that we haven't done so. Even if there are those among us who are unconvinced of the merits of the grievances voiced by the larger Occupy Movement-- which I am not-- I cannot understand how one can, in good conscience, not publicly and resolutely oppose the suppression of students' opportunity to participate in the long and virtuous tradition of using campus spaces as safe spaces for positive forms of dissent, where visions of moral, political, social and economic alternatives can be given fair consideration.
There are brave, disciplined, informed, reflective, convicted and committed students in this country who are exercising precisely the sort of imagination that we try to cultivate in them and on which our collective future depends. I stand in solidarity with them. And whenever my students stand with them, I will stand in solidarity with my students, too.