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(Yasmina Martin)– Last Friday April 19th, a group of around fifteen Dartmouth students interrupted an admitted student weekend production called the Dimensions Welcome Show to protest and raise awareness about sexual assault, racism, ableism and homophobia on campus. The students’ shouts of “Dartmouth has a problem!” angered other Dartmouth students who responded with hate-filled comments on Facebook, often slipping into personal attacks related to protestors’ appearances, and sometimes even leading to death threats (some of the most extreme reactions have been captured on the Real Talk blog.) This extreme response from many members of the student body prompted the administration to cancel classes this past Wednesday for a day of talks, speeches and teach-ins meant to bring the campus together. According to Interim President Carol Folt, the day served to help “[foster] debate that promotes respect for individuals, civil and engaged discourse, and the value of diverse opinions.”
Dartmouth student Anna Roth ’13 helped explain the root idea behind the protests, which were not meant to “scare” prospective students away but instead show another dimension of Dartmouth (because, as we know, these incidents can’t be isolated to just one campus) :
“Campus is plastered with posters saying “We ♥ 17s!” and “Welcome Home!” How many of these 17s will be sexually assaulted, hazed, verbally abused, targeted or marginalized because of their identity, or shamed because of their class if Dartmouth does not address bias, prejudice, sex segregation, and rape culture? Most? All? Silence maintains the status quo, and serves only those in power. Honesty and dialogue (#REALTALK) are necessary for change.”
This brand of vocal and subversive activism is most certainly not characteristic to the Dartmouth student body, which (much like Amherst) remains apathetic to many causes. The response to the protests, however, is incredibly telling in its own right and reveals serious social divisions within the Dartmouth student body. I sympathize with the protesters because what they did was incredibly brave and they certainly do not deserve to receive such hateful comments from their peers, both online and in person. Their protest taps into the idea of respecting an institution in order to change it, and the fact that yes, it is possible to criticize an institution and recognize its serious faults while still remaining hopeful about the possibilities for change. The recent events up in New Hampshire got me thinking about our own activist culture, or lack thereof.
I was recently invited to have dinner with an alum from class of ’68 and his family. Other than discussing after-Amherst plans (oh, the horror), my extracurricular activities, and last semester’s events over an incredible chocolate Oreo ice-cream cake, we also discussed Amherst’s history during the late 60s and early 70s. These turbulent times for college students were punctuated with a string of serious events, most notably the Kent State Shooting, the Watts race riots, the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and the continual imperialist violence in Vietnam. Students were struggling with avoiding the draft and reconciling the violence they saw in the news with their own relatively comfortable lives at the College. The alum actually had friends who went straight to Sweden or Canada right after College, giving up their American citizenship in order to ensure that they would not be drafted.
During our talk, I learned that one of Amherst’s former presidents John William Ward (President from 1971 to 1979) is famous for being the only president ever arrested for protesting against the Vietnam War. The former American Studies professor was arrested for demonstrating at the Westover Airforce Base in Chicopee in May of 1972, after Nixon announced the mining of North Vietnam harbors. Proving that the personal is political, he joined 1,000 Amherst College students and 20 faculty to commit civil disobedience and obstruct the roadway, only to get carted onto a Chicopee Police bus and arrested for disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace. Although he got backlash from many trustees and alumni saying he should not have brought his professional life into his personal one—and that he risked his job by protesting—Ward stood by his decision and the trustees voted to support his right to protest.
Of course, times have changed. War has become a more distanced notion to our generation, signaled by all-too common news about bombings and drones rather than constant violent and graphic images on television. Without a draft, war does not have the intensely personal impact that it did during the time of Ward’s protest. Our general culture is more notable for its apathy to current events rather than its rampant activism. Even so, we’ve gone far in mobilizing some small, but highly active sectors of this campus. The recent divestment referendum campaign was very well organized and extremely successful, with over 85% of voters voting yes to divest. More sexual assault activism has occurring this spring focusing on removing perpetrators from campus, with a rally planned for this Friday in front of Converse (3:30 P.M!). But any broad based movement for pragmatic social change needs the success of the entire community, not just the same small body of student activists.
The changing of culture is by no means an easy endeavor; it would be unrealistic for us to shift from Apathetic Amherst to Activist Amherst in a span of weeks. Yet with each new student that becomes interested in a certain movement, with each new volunteer who steps up to lead a rally, we are that much closer to fighting slacktivism and effecting change, even if its sometimes disguised by long-term policy shifts. We’ve made some great steps in becoming more ready to question the status quo, but there’s always room for growth; the recent Amherst hook ups incident serves as proof. We cannot, and should not, remain passive in regards to these issues. Here’s the chance to link the dense theory learned in classrooms to praxis, informed and committed action performed within our own community with the support of campus faculty and staff.
“What can the meaning of a liberal education be if it insists upon standards which are irreconcilable with meeting the most pressing moral and human problem of our time? What hope is there for change in this vast nation if this small privileged community has no will to change?”