Student Life Column

Sukesh: Violence has no place in activism because words are weapon enough

Colin Davy | Asst. Photo Editor

In a demonstration of student activism, Syracuse University students peacefully protested on Nov. 10 the election of President Donald Trump.

The importance of activism cannot be understated, but its impact is tainted when violence and unlawful activity take its place — a trend that has bubbled up on college campuses across the country.

College students have used their voices to publicly declare their opposition to critical issues and authoritative declarations. While the fact that students care enough to take a stand is commendable, what’s not acceptable is the violence and criminal activity that sometimes accompanies these protests. Words are weapon enough.

Earlier this month, New York University students protested an on-campus appearance of the comedian and commentator Gavin McInnes, who describes himself as pro-Trump, pro-West, anti-feminist and anti-Islam, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Both NYU students and members of the greater New York City community gathered with signs and protested the appearance of the controversial, conservative speaker. But the protest took an unnecessarily chaotic turn when McInnes was pepper-sprayed and police immediately got involved. Eleven people were arrested at the protest, according to Inside Higher Ed.

The media was quick to spotlight NYU students as entirely responsible for the unruly protest. But the reality of the situation is that NYU’s campus in smack-dab in the middle of a huge city, and anyone could’ve participated. Regardless of whose fault the violence was, those who instigated the chaos are individually responsible.

Activism in general shouldn’t be blamed for the misjudgment and temperament of certain groups of people. If active voices don’t exist, change can’t be accomplished. What happened was terrible, but it’s just as unfair that student voices are taking all the blame.

“It’s certainly sad to see speakers silenced and violence occur simply when somebody wants to give a speech,” said Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “Shutting somebody down simply because you don’t like them or having a riot because you don’t like their viewpoints really doesn’t flow well in the marketplace of ideas.”

The day before the NYU incident, protests at the University of California, Berkeley deviated to chaos and property damage. Agitators smashed property and started fires in response to the scheduled on-campus visit of provocative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, according to The Los Angeles Times.

In a message to the university community, Berkeley’s public affairs team attributed the unfortunate events to members outside the campus body. UC Berkeley students were not the instigators of violence, but due to the actions of a certain group of anarchists, the students’ right to protest was portrayed as anarchy.

“They have created incredible divisions and disagreements and problems for organizers of non-violent protests,” said Jackie Orr, associate professor of sociology at SU, about the anarchists. “I have great respect and great support for the forms of student activism that are trying to hold on and recreate tradition of social justice in the face of the extraordinary threats to social justice.”

Even President Donald Trump reacted in such a way that blamed the students for doing what they had the right to do. Trump threatened on Twitter to withdraw federal funding from the public university, writing: “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”

It’s unfortunate to see the actions of a few negatively impact the opportunity of many. There is an incredible amount of opportunity to discuss and protest issues of these scopes. But people who decide words aren’t good enough threaten the lives of others and ruin the image of what activism should be: speaking out about something you believe in.

Aishwarya Sukesh is a freshman magazine journalism and psychology dual major. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached at and followed on Twitter @AishuSukesh.


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