How should students advance change on campus?
February 21, 2018
The Kneeling Man
I come from a fairly rural town compared to the hustle and bustle of Ann Arbor, so it shouldn’t be difficult to imagine how overwhelmed I felt at the beginning of my very first semester at Michigan. I’ve always loved the city but felt disconnected, as if I was out of touch with the student body and the culture of our university. I had always marvelled at Michigan for its seeming inclusivity and diversity, but I soon realized my naïvety. It became clear that Michigan was not the idealistic school my mind had made it out to be after several racist incidents occured within the first month of school. Dorm room doors were scrawled with racial slurs and a building downtown was smeared with support for the white supremacist murderer, Dylann Roof. It was shameful behavior, and it most certainly had always been bubbling under the surface of the University’s populace. How could I have felt alienated in Ann Arbor, when my black peers were being subjected to derisive attacks in their city, on campus, and in their residences?
The University of Michigan often proclaims how this campus is a “microcosm of diversity,” but with a population that is
comprised of only 5% black students, it’s clear to see the isolation and difficulty they face, especially after the recent racist incidents that occurred on campus. The blatant hatred affecting black students across our campus stirred one man to take a stand, or rather, a knee. What this led to was an impactful protesting event that inspired hundreds of students to join in solidarity with Dana Greene Jr., a graduate student at our University. The feeling of exclusion that students were suffering from was his main reason for protesting, stating he knelt for “every student on this campus that has ever felt that they didn’t belong here.”
As I walked to my first class the morning of September 25th, 2017, there was the usual passerbys on the Diag. Everyone was to and fro, rushing to their 9am classes just the same as me. No one batted an eye at the man that knelt in front of the symbolic M, including myself, being too wrapped up in our own thoughts and directive. By that time, he had already been kneeling for two hours. As the day wore on and the temperatures rose feverishly high, I returned to the Diag to find several tents and a multitude of people sitting and kneeling, facing the United States flag. It was a curious sight. Before long I read Dana’s manifesto “Why I Kneel,” and was awed by his tenacity and determination to force discourse from our university’s president and create an inclusive space for those affected by campus racism. He promised to kneel until he bled to bring awareness to the injustices inflicted upon minorities on campus. I wholeheartedly agreed with his mission, but I was momentarily hesitant to join. Did I belong in this moment? Was I wanted, or needed? What would others think? I soon brushed aside these questions
knowing it was right to support this man, who was sacrificing his time and health on this sweltering September day, and knelt beside my fellow students. As the day wore on and the sun beat down over our heads, my friends and I tried to imagine what being cool felt like. But the suffering we endured for the hours we were there paled in comparison to Dana’s and the marginalized groups he knelt for. Dana had been periodically interviewed by numerous news outlets and student-led newspapers and magazines, which goes to show the publicity this sort of protest garnered. Over the course of the day, a solid group of protestors had amassed around Dana, and supplies from food and water to yoga mats and umbrellas had been brought to alleviate any discomfort of the protestors. At 3:30am the next morning, the protest had ended and all the supporters dispersed, but the renewed sense of hope and accomplishment remained.
The infectious nature of this protest is what made it so influential and important to the history of the University of Michigan. Outward, public protests led by students such as Dana force attention and dialogue from the ground up, and start the momentum to drive change. Protests can start in the mundane, everyday world by one impassioned person. Not everyone is capable of making the first move like Dana did, but figures such as him can allow a movement to begin. They serve as examples for others and attracts others to join these causes, whether due to some admission of guilt or feeling of obligation. For me, seeing a man putting his health and education on the line to try and ensure that Michigan students feel welcome, included, and safe on campus made me feel like I couldn’t walk away. His publicized protest allowed his message to reach a far wider audience than what was likely intended, from its central location on the Diag to it being plastered over local and state news. Even social media social justice figureheads like Shaun King and DeRay Mckesson commented on it, bringing more attention to the movement. Dana’s success, attributed to his initial bravery and sacrifice, has spread through the student body as well as the local citizens of Ann Arbor, creating dialogue to improve the campus racial climate.
Kellee Byard is a freshman majoring in Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. Through her experiences in high school, from taking an AP Environmental Science class to meeting passionate environmentalists, she has come to developed a passion for the environment herself.
Fundamental Attribution Error
On a cold, rainy day in mid-October, I found myself sitting in a USB stairwell watching a crappy Facebook livestream of a protest taking place in a building less than 100 yards away from me. Next to me, with a disgruntled disposition, was my friend Solomon; earlier that day he asked me if I’d be interested in attending a protest of Charles Murray with him at Palmer Commons. Unlike Solomon, I had never been part of a protested event before and had little idea of what that would entail. But some background information quickly made it clear that Charles Murray and I see things very differently on the topic of social welfare and education efforts for underprivileged populations. I told Solomon I’d meet him outside Palmer Commons.
U of M Police had barred us from entering the building, due to safety concerns in regards to the protest, hence the USB stairwell and the Facebook livestream. After watching the event unfold on Solomon’s computer screen for about ten minutes, he turned to me and said, “This sucks man”. Thinking he was referring to the fact that we couldn’t get into the event, I asked him if he was saying he wanted to stop watching and get dinner instead. “I think U of M protesters are just dumb, that’s what I’m saying.” It wasn’t at all what I was expecting from someone who agreed with, and wanted to stand with, the people protesting Charles Murray. But having watched the protest as it unfolded, I understood the root of his comment. The protest was a cacophony of angry students, filled with interspersed shouting matches between those in the room present to hear the speaker and those in the room present to prevent him from speaking.
In my experience, discussions of free speech often encompass a discussion of intent versus impact . Most people I’ve spoken to will agree that when it comes to their own actions, the impact does not always line up with the intent for what they said or did. But when it comes to the words and actions of others, particularly those who hold beliefs that contradict with our own, it seems to be an innate human quality to allow others’ impact on us to dictate the intent of those we disagree with. As we do this, we have a tendency to associate specific words and actions with labels that we use to describe and/or implicate the moral character of people different than us. I didn’t come up with this stuff; it’s called Fundamental Attribution Error and it was coined by social Psychologist Lee Ross in 1967.
In the context of the Charles Murray event, we can understand how this tendency causes our discourse to break down and prevents issues from being solved. Solomon, sympathetic to the cause of the protestors and aware of the negative effects of Murray’s writings on minority populations, was put off by how protesters conducted themselves and their attempt to infringe upon Murray’s 1 st amendment rights. This led him to generalize about the protesters with the label dumb. The public, most likely less educated on this issue, would have an even worse image of the crowd. Unfortunately, people removed from the issue tend to take the side of the group that appears less radical, and overall I believe that hurts the cause of the victims (i.e. blame shifting).
The visceral feelings of anger associated with Charles Murray and Richard Spencer are incredibly real and valid, especially for marginalized groups. Therefore the right to protest cannot and should not go anywhere. So where do we go from here, given that we reside at a public university in a country that upholds the right to intellectual freedom above all else? The solution comes from initiatives that work in the name of understanding the opposite side; institutions that stand for people taking themselves out their ideological bubbles that the overwhelming majority of us fall into. WeListen is a newly-formed student org that does just that. Using a methodology based on personal reflection about what each individual has experienced and why they hold the views they do, WeListen organizes people of opposing viewpoints together in groups to facilitate healthy discourse and hopefully gain a better understanding of the other side. I’m not naïve enough to believe an organization like We Listen will alone fix the deep-seeded divide we face today. But I believe civil discourse promotes the kind of behavior that helps fight against our instincts of Fundamental Attribution Error, increasing our understanding of people different from ourselves.
Eli Rachlin is a LSA Junior studying Cognitive Science. He is an elected representative on the LSA student government, running on a platform dedicated towards getting students of different backgrounds together. He asks that anyone interested in speaking abou these topics email him at email@example.com
Stand Up, Fight Back
A little over a year ago, about 700,000 people, myself included, marched on our nation’s capital. This march brought awareness to the new White House, it let them know that we were upset, and it demanded change. This year, I marched again, but in Ann Arbor, alongside my peers and fellow community members. Being a part of one of the most widespread protests in history, which received national and worldwide news coverage, was one of the greatest moments of my life. I truly felt as though my presence made a difference, and that one person can make a real impact. Margaret Mead, a famous American cultural anthropologist, once said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” This quote has always stuck with me and it continues to inspire me in everything I do, especially when it comes to social change. I firmly believe in the power of one, and I think that every student who wants to advance change on campus should understand that any large change always starts with one person.
Many students are under the impression that the only way to protest is to march through campus holding a cardboard sign on a yardstick. This is the furthest thing from the truth. Pushing for change can and should come in many different forms. Some people are uncomfortable protesting in the diag or petitioning for signatures. So blogs or posts on social media pop up instead, expressing creative and passionate writing that moves their audience. Another way to protest, which may seem quite unconventional, is through art. Not only is art symbolic, but it is extremely powerful and there have been many examples from history where art was one of the best means of protest. Sometimes, the easiest thing to do to show that you want change is to talk. Talk to friends, talk to classmates, even talk to professors. Voicing concerns and opinions is something that seems obvious, but it can never be done enough. Sparking thoughtful, engaging dialogue with peers is undervalued and easy to do!
While all of these means of protest are different, there is one common thread that runs through each of them. Peace. Protesting can and should come in all different shapes and sizes but any type of protest that is not conducted peacefully is intolerable and unacceptable. I encourage very student at the University of Michigan to stand up for what they believe in, but the only way that things will get done is if their means of protest is respectful and peaceful. In my opinion, there is not one single way that is the “best” way to protest on campus. Of course, there may be more people that notice an issue being protested in the diag, but as long as students are talking about the things they are passionate about, every means of protesting can take off and expand with energy and life. And with the plethora of debates and discussions regarding free speech on college campuses in the current news, it’s on us as students to prove to the administration of the universities that protesting can and will be done peacefully. Yes, each protest has a base–a cause that fronts the protest–but they can mean many different things to many different people. Similarly, the protest itself usually has different purposes depending on how people interpret it. It can educate a group of people, or it can capture the attention of people who may not be listening. It can bring people together, and it can demonstrate democracy. However, a protest’s most important purpose is that it holds great power to spark change.
Sometimes protesting gets a bad rep, but in my opinion it is an essential part of life, especially college life. The intellectual nature that every university upholds is not limited to the classroom. Intellect stems far outside of textbooks and laboratories. Allowing and encouraging students to stand up for what they believe in is something that will go a long way in affecting the campus of the University of Michigan and the city of Ann Arbor.
Maeve Skelly is a freshman at the University of Michigan who grew up around the Ann Arbor area. She is considering studying public policy and mathematics in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. Her involvement spans from interning on the Gretchen Whitmer campaign to the Women in Science and Engineering Residence Program on campus.