Op-ed: Unpacking the events at Mizzou
You may have heard there is a lot going on at the University of Missouri-Columbia these days. Racial incidents and the university’s response, or lack thereof, to them have caused tensions to reach a peak. A graduate student, Jonathon Butler, started a hunger strike with the goal of forcing Tim Wolfe, the president of the university system to resign. The football team went on boycott of all football activities on Saturday with the same goal. On Monday, the school’s faculty canceled classes in solidarity with the protests, led by student group ConcernedStudent1950. The actions worked. Wolfe and the Chancellor of the Columbia campus, R. Bowen Loftin, resigned late Monday morning. Some rejoiced. Some lamented. The narrative of the events have become, no pun intended, very black and white. Each side has set up a binary way of framing it all so that a person can only be for or against. You either support Butler and ConcernedStudent1950 or you support racism and systematic oppression. You either support Wolfe, or you support spoiled brats run amok. That grey region of reason has become an uninhabitable place.
Full disclosure, I’m a 2014 graduate of “Mizzou”. As an alum, I have an interest in seeing the school do well. The recent events at my alma mater have pained me. They also don’t completely surprise me. As a freshman in 2010, I remember one kid in my dormitory was caught spray painting a swastika and a racial epithet on a statue outside of the food hall. He was expelled. As a sophomore two students dumped cotton balls on the lawn of the Black Culture Center. These two students were also expelled.
Now jump to the present day, where similar events have taken place. Several incidents of white students using racial slurs towards black students were reported, including one directed toward Student Body President Payton Head. In late October, a swastika drawn with feces was found in one of the residence halls. That proved to be the final straw. As far as I know, the students responsible were not caught.
Let’s get one thing straight off the bat. All of the acts just named are disgusting. They are indefensible. They have no place in a civilized world, let alone a college campus. The question becomes though, what was Wolfe supposed to do? It doesn’t seem fair to expect Wolfe to somehow be able to eliminate the hate in a person’s heart. No number of policies, forums, and diversity training could have stopped these incidents from happening. So were these inspired protests looking to bring about real change or was it simply misplaced activism. The answer, probably, is a little bit of both. See how that grey area works? It’s easy to see Wolfe as the victim of a witch hunt here, his resignation the result of a personal vendetta against him. It’s been suggested to me that his offense was his inability to recognize a problem even existed. The evidence to support this is shaky. Wolfe was responsive, just not sufficiently so in the eyes of protestors. He and Loftin mandated diversity training for faculty, staff and students. ConcernedStudent1950’s response was to issue a list of eight “demands”. That’s not how a process like this should work. One side doesn’t simply get to make demands, with an “or else” implication. As Wolfe presumably mulled over the list, the “or else” came in the form of Butler’s hunger strike, which began November 2, the only stated goal being that Wolfe resign. That’s right, a man’s job was held hostage by a student’s willingness to starve himself, because that man didn’t immediately acquiesce to the demands of that student and his supporters. Seems kind of unfair, doesn’t it?
Which brings us to last Saturday night, five days into Butler’s hunger strike, and the Mizzou football team’s decision to join in the protest and suspend all football activities until Wolfe’s resignation. This, more than anything else, was a powerful move and I applaud the football team for flexing its collective muscle, even if the cause they chose to flex for may be a weak one. As many of you know, collegiate football teams, especially members of the SEC, have a lot of power within their school. By now we’ve become accustomed to Republicans talking about the “power of the purse” and their desire to utilize this power when confronting President Obama; the Missouri football team boycott was them flexing their power of the purse. Football teams, to put it clumsily, rake in a lot of dough. For a team to understand this and to utilize this power sets an interesting and powerful precedent. Yes, they did so going into an off-week in an already lost season. They may have made the decision with this in mind but it doesn’t make the decision any less important. Once the decision was made, Wolfe’s tenure was effectively over. You lose the football team and you lose a lot of support.
All of this brought us to Monday and the faculty’s decision to cancel classes and the resignation of Wolfe and Loftin. This led to what possibly may be the most infuriating event to take place throughout the entire thing. If there’s one thing Mizzou prides itself on, it’s the journalism school. I am a proud graduate of this school. You can’t spend more than ten minutes on campus without being told it’s the best “J-School” in the country. Which is what makes the events of Monday afternoon so hard to understand. A video began circulating on the internet of a reporter, Tim Tai, being aggressively pushed back from the protest encampment. He was trying to take pictures for ESPN. The protestors didn’t care. In the most disturbing part of the video an assistant professor of mass media, Melissa Click, tries to grab at the videographer’s camera before yelling:
“Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.”
That’s right, a woman employed to teach mass media was shown on camera encouraging intimidation of the media. It’s hard to fathom. Sorry, Ms. Click, but the moment this protest reached the levels it did (hunger strike, football team, faculty strike, etc) the media had a right to report on it. A protest of this sort is asking for media coverage is it not? ConcernedStudent1950 doesn’t get to control the narrative and disseminate it as they please. How can a school so proud of its journalism program allow such an egregious violation of First Amendment rights to take place? If you’re not comfortable with the attention your protest is going to get then maybe you should check the premises of your protest. This sort of hostility towards the media fits right in with the “demands” given to Wolfe. I think that the protest is less interested in having a conversation than it is about control. Control of the narrative, control of a person’s job, control of all opinion on the subject. With us or against us is admittedly an effective strategy, but it doesn’t work with the media. The media’s job is to be neither with you or against you, it’s to report what is happening. By shutting off this access and resorting to confrontation and intimidation, all you’re doing is preventing your story from being told.
In the end, the future at Mizzou is murky. Wolfe and Loftin are gone so no more racist incidents will ever happen again right? Presumably, ConcernedStudent1950 will now turn their attention to exerting their desire to control the next selection for president and chancellor. What if they don’t like the decisions? They’ve already learned a hunger strike is an effective tool to get their way. What’s going to stop them from using that tool every time they have a disagreement. The thing is, ConcernedStudent1950 has real concerns they can focus their attention on and Wolfe was no saint. During his tenure graduate students lost their access to health care and had their access to Planned Parenthood clinics stripped. These, like systematic oppression, are real issues. They deserve attention. Racism on campus deserves attention. But they deserve to be done so in a reasonable manner. My way or the highway protests are not reasonable. Hunger strikes are not reasonable. Intimidation of the press is not reasonable.
On the other side of the issue, don’t let this cause more division. An unfortunate number of racist social media posts have flowed towards the black student body at Mizzou this past week. That is very unreasonable and it only adds fuel to the fire. Listen to your fellow students, acknowledge that white students can't understand the experience of a black student. Conversate. Empathize. The scary part of this whole thing is it has the power to divide the Mizzou student body from both sides. Fight that urge. Get off your high horse ConcernedStudent1950. Get off your high horse white students who look down upon them. Come together. Become a united student body that doesn’t make demands of each other. Admit your flaws and admit when the other side is right. For the small minority of bigoted students looking for a chance to commit the next racist act, eliminate the hate from your heart.
Come together Mizzou. The country is watching.
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