University Politics

Student protests are on the rise, and SU is part of the trend with THE General Body and Black Lives Matter demonstrations

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Students in THE General Body protest inside Crouse Hinds Hall in November 2014.

Two years after THE General Body protests at Syracuse University, protesting has become a national trend across college campuses — something SU has stayed a part of.

Most recently students on the SU campus held a die-in, which students at Stony Brook University, a part of the State University of New York system, cited as the inspiration for the one they held about two weeks ago.

Exactly two years ago on Nov. 3, THE General Body, a coalition of student organizations seeking to address the issues of marginalized groups on campus, started its occupation of Crouse-Hinds Hall for an 18-day sit-in. Since then, student protests have occurred on different campuses across the country.

Together, members of TGB identified large issues within the university and compiled them into a 45-page document with a list of Grievances, Needs and Solutions. It was first presented on Nov. 3, 2014, after a Diversity and Transparency Rally, organized by TGB, said Danielle Reed, an SU alumna who was involved with TGB.

“They revived the sense that (protesting) is a possibility. … It has reminded students that, ‘Wait, that’s an option,’” said Harriet Brown, an associate professor of magazine journalism in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.


Brown, who has been at SU for nine years, said she doesn’t remember seeing any protests before the year of TGB, but since then there has been a spark in protesting on college campus. She cited the Black Lives Matter protests and the red tape demonstration against sexual assault as examples of this.

While the news of TGB was picked up on a few major national news outlets, she said she does not credit SU as the inspiration for other major campus protests in the United States.

“It’s a tide that’s rising across campuses,” Brown said. “We were just part of a bigger trend.”

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During the fall 2014 semester about 160 student protests were held across college campuses in the U.S., according to a compilation made by Angus Johnston, a history professor who specializes in student activism at Hostos Community College, which is part of the City University of New York system.

“I think it was an explosion triggered by the Black Lives Matter movement and all of the issues that were percolating first on the streets and then on campuses,” said Cheryl Greenberg, a Paul E. Raether distinguished professor of history at Trinity College with an expertise in civil rights and social movements.

As young people started to ask questions about “the system” and its impact on the lives of black people, Greenberg said students started raising similar questions about their own experiences in college and the way their college was or was not dealing with certain issues.

“The same issues that arose around police brutality arose in a slightly different way across college campuses among students who are made to feel marginalized and at best tolerated,” Greenberg said.

In addition to the Black Lives Matter movement, Greenberg credited the very public protests that took place at the University of Missouri. These protests were in part sparked by the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri.

The mobilization at Mizzou countered a tendency that Greenberg said she has seen for the past 20 years of students protesting through remote forms of activism.

“They kind of forgot that protesting means taking to the streets,” Greenberg said. “People thought that signing a petition was going to make that statement, but suddenly people were out there visibly protesting.”

The Mizzou protests showed that physical mobilization is still a possibility and can be even more effective than social media activism, Greenberg said.

The only other time Greenberg said she had seen that level of activism was briefly in the 1990s, but the events of 9/11 quieted the protests down for a while.

“The nation’s attention turned, and colleges’ attention turned,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg noted that some activism occurred before and after the election of President Barack Obama. There was a sense that change was possible, she said, but it was nothing like what she has seen in the current iteration of student protests, which are reminiscent of civil rights protests in the ’60s and ’70s.

She added that colleges are a hotbed for protest because they are one of the safest, most low-risk places to protest.

“You’re not at a job, so you can’t get fired,” Greenberg said. “The worst that can happen to you is you fail your course.”

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Tim Tai, a senior at Mizzou during the time of the school’s protests, said one of the reasons why students on his campus mobilized was because of the proximity to Ferguson. Some students had been involved in the Ferguson protests and brought that activism to the Mizzou campus.

Tai, however, said there is an issue with campus activism: turnover.

“It’s hard to stay in a moment when people are leaving every four or six years,” Tai said.

Matthew Huber, an associate professor of geography in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, noted a trend across campuses is a lack of transparency and an increase of top-down governance.

In the past at institutions such as SU, faculty and staff were much more involved in decision-making, Huber said. Now, more and more of the decision making at universities is being shifted upward in administration and is in the hands of very few people, he said.

America is a country built on protest, said Reed, one of the members of TGB.

“It’s a country that has benefitted from protests,” Reed said. “America has benefitted from the Civil Rights movement. You can take it back to the Boston Tea Party or bring it up to Martin Luther King Jr.”

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