Dear President Martin,
On Wednesday, February 1, 2017, after days and nights of meticulous planning, I and many others entered your office to begin a sit-in. Organized in coordination with the rally condemning the College’s inadequate response to Donald Trump’s recent Executive Order referred to by many as the “Muslim ban,” the sit-in sought further to pressure the College to fulfill carefully crafted demands published by AC Voice (‘Protestors Release Their Demands’) and distributed in paper form to various marchers present at the rally. Both events in total mobilized hundreds of students, and both were initiated by a student directly affected by Donald Trump’s Executive Order.
The group that decided to sit-in was meant to make clear to the College the urgency of the situation for many students on this campus. While administrators and the Chief of Amherst College Police attempted to negotiate for our removal by calling our actions a ‘disruption,’ to disrupt was our very purpose. The College has shown itself, time and time again, only to respond substantively to disruption. In fact, one of the administrators acknowledged that this perhaps was the point of our actions. Nonetheless, following failed negotiations, the very same administrators and the Chief of Police began making vague threats regarding ‘consequences’ to our not willingly removing ourselves from the space—threats which, in most students’ minds, evoked images of forcible removal by campus police, or disciplinary action. Students agreed to stay put until one staff worker informed us of a heart condition and recent heart surgery that she had undergone, and that the situation was causing her great stress. As I tried to gather the other students at the sit-in to discuss leaving, you exited your office, interrupting our conversation, to state to us the importance of your staff being able to complete their work unencumbered by silent, sitting protestors; your passion in this moment far exceeded the passions of your initial statement to all students regarding Donald Trump’s recent Executive Order. You displayed more outrage at the sight of students sitting in your office than at the disgraceful executive decision barring human beings from entering the country. I am not naïve enough to consider this a coincidence.
As I said we were leaving, I told you that we as a group would escalate if the demands were not responded to in a timely manner. You then said, “Don’t threaten me, young man.” I said that I wasn’t threatening you, that a collective of concerned students had agreed to escalate action if our very reasonable demands—inspired by the administrative actions of multiple peer institutions—remained unmet. You then interrupted me to say, “That’s fine. Pick the right target. The target is not your administration who agrees with you on every single point.” I repeated that we were leaving, but you continued: “Go after the people who are ready to hurt you, not the people who are ready to support you.” This is all corroborated by witnesses and audio evidence.
As I was leaving, I said to you, “In his ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail,’ MLK said that perhaps his biggest enemy wasn’t the KKK, but the White Moderate.” To this, you could only say, “Well…that was MLK, and you’re not MLK.”
To clarify in full what exactly I was referring to, I’d like to quote Dr. King’s letter in length.
“…I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
I brought up the words of Dr. King not only in response to the specific situation of the sit-in, but also in response to a trend exhibited by the College over recent years. Using the façade of liberalism and vague, heartwarming rhetoric, the College often evades taking concrete action (which would require what one student at the rally called courage) in favor of posturing and keeping up appearances. This systemic approach to social issues is not necessarily one that I think can change. Long ago, I accepted that all universities have inseverable connections to militarism, state violence, professionalization of education, and class pipelines—all of which are wholly inconsistent with my own values and principles. As Stefano Harney and Fred Moten note in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, “It cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment. In the face of these conditions one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can.” As a Black Studies major, I take these words to heart, and know that I can only glean what I can from Amherst College whilst refusing to forget the realities of the institution—past and present. Despite the conservative nature of the American university, as histories of student movements on college campuses have shown, administrations do fold to progressive, even radical, demands in the face of disruption and inconvenience. It is this Black Studies legacy—of fugitive study and direct action protest—which I aim to carry on.
In your Thursday, February 2 campus-wide email titled, “Update: Actions on Immigration Ban,” you responded in detail to student demands—something that I do not believe would have happened without resistance and agitation. In addition, you stated in the email, “I also emphasize that I will not respond to yesterday’s list of demands from the protesters on its terms. To succeed in our opposition to the prejudice and discrimination in the executive order, we have to engage as a community with the sense of purpose I know we share, and with mutual respect. That is the only effective way to accomplish anything meaningful and lasting.” The rhetoric you used in this statement is yet another example of abstract, vague yet heartwarming words that most people would readily accept. It paints student protestors as disrespectful and the College as a force of liberal rationality, only there to help. Such rhetoric is problematized, however, when one realizes that these very same concepts of respectability and cordiality have been used throughout history to silence and delegitimize serious critics of firmly entrenched power structures. Just as Dr. King was called on to fight for justice in a more respectable manner, so too have national organizers for Black Lives Matter been told that they are too extreme, so too was the anti-war movement of the ‘60s decried, so too was the Black Panther Party demonized, and so too will any movement with a backbone be criticized when it deems people’s livelihoods more important than cordial discussions with those who uphold the very structures at the root of oppression. I and other organizers on this campus are not willing to discuss people’s rights and well-being with the patience afforded only to the privileged; as I made clear in your office, our tactics—proven fruitful time and time again—are to demand, disrupt, negotiate, and escalate.
Our protest, contrary to what you stated at the rally surrounding Converse, was not an uncalculated emotional outburst aimed at the “wrong targets.” Organizers were well-aware of the limits and possibilities of administrative action by the College. We were also aware of the extent to which institutions like Amherst College contribute to the very sociopolitical climate which produced a man like Trump in the first place: a man who is rich, entitled, thoughtless, and bigoted, not unlike some members of our very own student body. Despite the shortcomings of the institution, we knew that student pressure would be positively consequential in fulfilling our list of (moderate) demands. This is why we chose to demonstrate.
If you are truly dedicated to equality and freedom, to disrespect student organizers as you did on the day of the walk-out and in your email ought to be your last instinct. If you truly wish you could put forth more progressive College policies, yet feel encumbered by more conservative forces from alumni and current students, student activism ought to feel like a saving grace—a means of changing policy on someone else’s accord rather than your own. With that said, regardless of how you or other administrators feel about it, I and other organizers will continue when necessary to demand, disrupt, negotiate, and escalate for College support as Donald Trump’s fascist regime continues to institute policies of regression and discrimination. Our movement will not be subsumed, as other movements have been, into the bureaucratic arrangements of the College. We will continue to hold you, other administrators, and the College as a whole accountable.
I hope that this letter makes clear why I have no patience with the White Moderate; why the Amherst College administration was the target of our protests; why I do not believe the College’s values truly to be compatible with my own; and why organizers will continue to demonstrate for vulnerable students while fascism ravages the country and, indeed, bends the spine of all too many, including that of our very own institution.
With honesty and great care for justice,
Class of 2019