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College Protests

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OberlinCollegeProtesters

Most colleges and universities are still on their winter break. So the 2015 new pastime of complaining about college protesters no matter what they do is on break. I know the National Review will always spin myths about out of control liberal campuses. But that doesn’t mean we need to be nitpicking every college protest to make fun of it and say they are doing it wrong.

This includes when the protest might seem silly at the outset, such as the Oberlin College authentic food protest movement that so amused and outraged people in early December. It may be true that a properly made bahn mi is not the most pressing issue in the world. But as Oberlin alumni Alice Ollstein states, students need space to experiment in organizing as they figure out who they are and how they want to change the world.

When I was a Latin American Studies major back at Oberlin, I learned about the role Chiquita Bananas (then United Fruit) had in the 1954 coup in Guatemala, and about the company’s much more recent payments to paramilitary groups who killed workers in Colombia. Along with some other students, I formed a campaign to push the campus to stop buying and selling Chiquita bananas. This involved researching the history of the banana industry, creating educational pamphlets, organizing documentary screenings and panel discussions, coming to a consensus on our objectives, and presenting a clear argument to the head of campus dining services. She agreed with our request, and began buying only Fair Trade bananas.

Did we change the world? No. Did we save oppressed banana workers from tyranny? Hardly. Did we tackle the most pressing social-justice issue of our time? Not a chance. But we built on what we had learned in the classroom and tried to translate it to real-world action.

Our work attracted its share of critics. Some students accused us of trying to take away their bananas, while college officials warned that our demands would drive up dining costs for students. Neither charge proved true, but the critiques pushed us to do still more research and outreach to win hearts and minds. Yet if I had thought the national news media would be watching my every move—that my little campaign, my first foray into collective action, would be picked apart by the very publications for which I wanted to work someday and then blasted to everyone I know on social media, I might have hesitated to rock the boat. For students more vulnerable than me, first-generation college students or members of traditionally marginalized groups, I assume this attention would be even more stifling. Imagine trying to get your first job to support your family when the top hit in a web search of your name is a scathing Daily Caller article. Should the price of student action be so high that only the very privileged can afford to participate?

It’s totally ridiculous for us to be exposing every campus protest to national scrutiny. College students are going to do things that aren’t fully thought out or have particularly sophisticated analyses around them–they are 18 to 22 years old after all. And maybe instead of pointing and laughing at them or raising our eyebrows, we need to be asking why we aren’t doing more outreach on college campuses to bring young people into established organizations or providing more assistance to college students to help direct their discontent and outrage into more useful channels. Jobs With Justice has long done a pretty good job on this with its Student Labor Action Projects, although these are pretty spotty in effectiveness, which is always a problem with student organizing because of the inherently transient nature of it.

In any case, pointing and laughing is just damaging. Plus maybe they can build on this and organize for the banning of ketchup from the campus. That would do everyone a world of good.

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