Student Life Column

Charlottesville shows us how much student protests matter

Courtesy of Ellen Meyers

Even though it ended in tragedy, Charlottesville is yet another step in redefining what student protests look like.

It seems easy to say a situation like the racially motivated riots in Charlottesville, Virginia could never happen in Syracuse. Here, with deep roots in activist movements, we know how to have a peaceful protest. A white supremacist rally that results in fatalities seems unfathomable.

We couldn’t be Charlottesville. We are Orange. We are not racists, we are not full of hatred — unless you count for Duke basketball. We wouldn’t stand for injustice because we never have.

Then again, someone tried to start a White Cultural Club at Syracuse University in 2015, and the Twitter account associated with the group — which was never officially recognized by SU — was active earlier this year. While the voices of those who aim to oppress remain whispers right now, hate can still thrive on a college campus, and it can’t be ignored.

College campuses are where we are supposed to be made uncomfortable, not fearful, by ideas that are not our own. It’s why students live on campus — because at college, we understand learning does not stop at the end of a class. And it’s why college students will feel compelled to foster another year of protests and activism.

In the wake of a nationwide wake-up call, in the face of a tragedy, we are lucky to be in this place.

New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo and more than 125 leaders of faith from around the state published an open letter standing up for tolerance, strength and action in a way that President Donald Trump could not. The city of Syracuse’s Common Council denied a permit for an America First rally for “health and safety reasons.” SU Chancellor Kent Syverud sent an email to the student body reaffirming that hate has no place on the SU campus and that everyone is welcome.

On college campuses, we are privileged to agree or disagree with all these actions at virtually no cost. Colleges are age-old institutions that are expected to foster innovation. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile the two, which is where the conflict begins.

Throughout history, however, college campuses have become notorious for the growth and momentum of youth movements. In the 1960s, students found ways to fight back against civil rights violations. Even last year at the University of California, Berkeley or in 2015 at the University of Missouri campuses, groups of people were energized by what was going on in their worlds.

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But fighting for what you believe should not be a chore. Getting involved with activism groups and coalitions is not for everyone, and people shouldn’t be ridiculed for staying out of it, said John Burdick, anthropology professor at SU’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

 

“I think that one of the ways that we kill political energy is by being judgmental to people who are not involved. It kind of feeds on itself,” Burdick said. “There’s a lot of responsibility on the part of groups and organizations to create welcoming spaces. These are very serious issues but there needs to be dance and music and humor and joy, then the movement will grow.”

While the South has a more nuanced identity crisis plagued by slavery, racism and a Civil War, no city is without a problematic history. Some places are able to keep their seedy underbellies under wraps. But on a college campus, students are less likely to be tied to the place they’re studying and more eager to call out an area’s problematic past.

The University of Virginia turned into a battleground because it acknowledged its history. The environment created as the byproduct of an elite college campus — where liberal thought and cultural enlightenment is prevalent — led to Charlottesville’s City Council voting to take down a statue of Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee. Those who saw the removal of this statue as an attack on their heritage were naturally angered by this decision. After all, if someone tried to tear down a statue in your hometown, you might be surprised at how defensive you’d get.

The quest for justice and peace is not easy. As students, we’re just trying to enjoy the last few years we have to be kids. But we’re also responsible for learning about what has been done before so we can build upon it and for seeing the world we will inherit so we can shape it in the best way possible.

Campuses are truly the perfect environments for this evaluation, and there are plenty of options for making change. Carol Faulkner, a history professor in the Maxwell School, has a few suggestions.

“Students should do what they are meant to do: study, learn, and understand. Knowledge is power, and I hope they will do something with the knowledge they gain in the classroom and from their peers,” Faulkner said in an email. “The options are many: write, debate, speak out, get involved, volunteer, organize, start a charity or company, or run for office.”

With the start of this new school year, we are at a crossroads. As students, we should stand up for ourselves and those we’ve never met, whether that’s in the classroom or on the front lines.

Joanna Orland is a junior newspaper and online journalism major. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached at jorland@syr.edu.

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