Should Students Protest, Even if it Means War?

There was an echo of protesters I could hear while waiting for my Wednesday afternoon Hebrew class to begin. Our door was shut, students were in their seats and the professor was preparing his papers for the class period. 

Suddenly, the door burst open and a student with a camera draped around his neck began saying something about the protest going on downstairs. I looked up, made eye contact and looked back down at my phone; continuing to scroll through whichever mundane article I was in the midst’s of. 

I had always supported the Black Lives Matter movement, I thought the cause was noble and that the intentions were pure. When Colin Kaepernick, took a stance and supported the movement by kneeling during the National Anthem I thought it was a true statement of solidarity for a something he believed in. I wholeheartedly disagreed with the backlash that he faced from the NFL and fans; after all, this is America where we have the right to exercise freedom of speech. 

Earlier in the afternoon when coming to class, I was forced to walk to the buildings back entrance because the protesters were gathered at the front entrance. I did not want to get caught in the middle of the protest nor did I want to be pressured into joining it. 

All I wanted to do was learn. Get my monies worth of tuition and get on with my day. There were more pressing matters for me at that point in time, even though I supported and sympathized with the cause.   

I fully support social justice movements and protesting; it is a constitutional right to freely speak your mind. Without social justice movements or protests our country would be nonexistent and still under British control. Throughout our country’s history there have been countless political and social justice movements that have successfully utilized the art of the protest to convey their message and make a difference. 

One of the most recent and successful protests and fights for education was the Los Angeles Teachers Union strike. On January 14th, 2019 teachers began striking with the goal of increasing salaries, hiring more support staff, greater amenities and decreased class sizes.

The teacher’s strike in Los Angeles resulted in 30,000 staff members walking out of their jobs, stopping classes and putting a hold on public education throughout all of Los Angeles. A mere six days after the strike began the Teacher’s Union had struck up a deal with the school district, which allowed more than half a million students to return to school. It was a historic win for the teachers and students of Los Angeles who are now being given increased opportunities. 

While the teacher’s strike in LA had the greatest intentions for the students it may also have hurt some students. For six days there were students out of school. Some of these students may have relied on school lunches to be fed, some may have looked forward to the school day as their escape from home and some may have relied on the schools to keep them off the streets. After all this is LA, an enormous area in California that encompasses all demographics. 

While looking at the LA Teacher’s strike I wondered how it was so successful yet the protests at my University resulted in minimal change?

I think one of the reasons for this was the power that the teachers held. As the educators and employees it would be impossible for the school district to operate without their teachers. At a university where students were striking, it would be possible to continue everyday operations.

May 4th, 1970 four students at Kent State University in Ohio were killed by the National Guard during a protest of the Vietnam war. It was a Monday the beginning of the school week, instead of going to class and learning students at Kent State University declared their adversary to the Vietnam War and laid down their lives in protest.  

Although their intention was to save lives and stop the Vietnam war was it is plausible to think that a student protest could make the United States withdraw from an overseas war. Not only could the student protest not stop the Vietnam war it could also not have stopped the University from functioning. 

While this example of American’s exercising the first amendment is similar to the LA Teacher’s strike it also very different. Namely because the students at Kent State did not have the same leverage as the teachers in LA. 

While the protestors may have lost their lives and not accomplished their initial goals a much larger change occurred. 

Today, a student protest would never be met with the same violence as Kent State. People remember the deaths of Kent State students. In addition, our modern era allows for incidents to go viral and the last thing any government office or University wants is to be seen as murderers of students and averse to a constitutionally protected freedom. 

Image of Kent State Tragedy

Another instance of student life being taking for granted was the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing, which shocked the world. Student protestors had been occupying Tiananmen Square, also known as People’s Square when the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) launched a military style assault on protestors. 

The infamous picture of “tank man” is burned into history as a defining image of the repressiveness of the Chinese Government. It was on that day that unimaginable power and force was used against unarmed students who were protesting for their education. While there is no official death count it is estimated that the casualties were between hundreds and thousands of people. Many of the protestors were never heard from again, which is no surprise considering that to this day the Chinese government merely refers to it as the Tiananmen Square Incident and rarely allows it to be taught in classes. 

The View from Tiananmen Square Today

A main difference of the Tiananmen Square Massacre and any protest that has occurred or will occur in the United States is the government. China is a communist dictatorship, regardless of their “official” statement. This makes it impossible for students or teachers freely speak their minds and protest the inequalities and wrongdoings of those in power.  Simply put, the Chinese people have no leverage when it comes to protesting because the government did not and does not value their lives. 

Mary Beth Tinker, 13 and John Tinker, 15 decided to utilize their first amendment right of free speech and protest the Vietnam War in their school in December of 1965. They protested the war by wearing black armbands. They did not disrupt class, inhibit other students from learning or cause a scene on school property. The administration of the Des Moines Independent Community School District responded by sending the siblings home. The same series of events happened the next day when the students returned to school wearing the same armbands. 

Neither of the Tinker siblings returned to school until after the New Year, which was the planned end of the protest. The suspension and ridiculethat the Tinker siblings faced pushed their parents to sue the school district, eventually making their way to the Supreme Court.

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District was heard by the Supreme Court on November 12th, 1968. 

The Court decided in favor of the Tinker Family with a 7-2 ruling. Justice Abe Fortas delivered the majority opinion which stated that the students were within their rights to peacefully protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands. The Court stated that since the Tinker siblings had not disrupted the classroom and had not impeded upon their peer’s rights to learn, they had not violated any laws and did not warrant the treatment they received.

While the Tinker children had a great idea and expressed themselves in a peaceful manner their actions did not stop the Vietnam war, nor did they think their actions would stop the war. The Tinker case proved that students have the right to protest, but it showed that they could not disrupt other student’s right to education. This court ruling was a monumental clarification of the First Amendment in relation to student’s first amendment rights within school. 

I am beginning to think that there is no such thing as a non-disruptive protest that can be successful. Also, is the cost of protesting for better education or social justice worth disrupting our education? 

Looking at the protests of Kent State and Tiananmen Square and the resulting tragedy makes me think the cost might not be worth the reward. As proven by both of these cases and the Tinker vs. Des Moines court case it is possible and likely that very different rewards could result from a protest in the future.

Some might make the argument that working hard and being a motivated individual who utilizes the skills they learned during their time at an institution of higher education and working towards a position of power might afford you the opportunity to make change. At times I might even make this argument, but it would also be foolish to think that everyone has the opportunity to work hard or attend any schooling past state requirements. 

Back at The University of Vermont I was getting nervous that our school was going to end up in turmoil due to student protests. Could these protestors effectively shut down classes if they made enough noise? 

They had already made it difficult to enter through the front doors of the building and during their weeklong protest had even shut down one of the major streets right next to the administration’s building. 

If the protestors continued to interrupt class and make noise to the point where we couldn’t learn were their protests constitutionally protected as free speech? According to the Supreme Court, protests if they impeded upon others right to learn they would not be constitutionally protected. Even if these protests were not protected by the constitution I was doubtful that the administration would shut them down in fear of being seen as an oligarchy who could be compared to the National Guard at Kent State or the Chinese government. 

The fact of the matter is that the protests on campus were not wholly successful. The administration did not overhaul the education system or change their diversity based classes to become as inclusive as the protestors wanted. 

One demand was to change the name of the library due its namesake who played a role in a genetics program that targeted minorities. In response, the university’s Board of Trustees formed a “renaming advisory committee” to tackle the issue and figure out how to change the name. What this “committee” ended up doing was removing one of the two names on the library. Simply changing the name from Bailey/Howe Library to Howe Library… problem solved. 

It is not hard to take one name off of a building, especially when the guy is dead. While this may sound cynical, it’s the truth. The protestors at my University had the right idea, they just did not have the right amount of leverage. The protest did not have full-fledged support from the faculty and staff, they were underfunded and they were disrupting other students right to learn. Only some of their demands were met, had they looked to make incremental changes rather than major demands maybe change would have happened over a period of time. 

In the eyes of many students, myself included they were seen as disruptive and at times extreme. Not because they were fighting for what they believed in, but because they were disrupting others from learning, blocking traffic and knowingly frustrating people around them. 

Students should protest. Even if other students like myself don’t agree with their method of execution they bring awareness to legitimate issues. Had students not made noise on my campus I might not have delved into the history of our university and I would still be ignorant about how the library’s namesake was involved in unethical genetics or how the diversity classes at our school were not effective. 

Had the students who lost their lives at Tiananmen Square not protested the world may not have recognized China’s lack of education, disregard for their students and willingness to use extreme force. 

Had the protestors at Kent State not stood up for what they believed in and protested the Vietnam War then student lives may not have been as valuable as they are today.  

Not every protest is worth the risk, especially when lives are on the line, immediate change is not on the table and those who protest do not have leverage. It is wishful thinking that after a week or two of protesting; whether it means disrupting classes, holding march outs, sleep-ins, or flocking to the streets that immediate change is possible. 

Change is a systematic process that happens over a period of time. In order to create change, students should be supported and encouraged by our education system. They should be able to make their way to the top and execute change from a place of power and authority, using the skills they learned in school. 

At the same time, it is also wishful thinking that those who make it to the top will always remember where they came from.