Hungry for Human Rights

There are crimes which no one would commit as an individual which he willingly and bravely commits when acting in the name of his society, because he has been (too easily) convinced that evil is entirely different when it is done 'for the common good.' As an example, one might point to the way in which racial hatreds and even persecution are admitted by people who consider themselves, and perhaps in some sense are, kind, tolerant, civilized and even humane. But they have acquired a special deformity of conscience as a result of their identification with their group, their immersion in their particular society. This deformation is the price they pay to forget and to exorcise that solitude which seems to them to be a demon. --Disputed Questions by Thomas Merton

On November 9, 2015, Jonathan L. Butler, 25, a University of Missouri student in Columbia, MO was seven days into a hunger strike. His goal was to bring attention to deeply entrenched racism on campus and the lack of accountability for the problem by the president of the university. Butler asked for the president's resignation as a condition of terminating his hunger strike. State and local leaders were beginning to press upon the president for his resignation and the football team was considering a boycott for the rest of the season. Their coaches indicated that they were in solidarity with the players.

Jonathan turned a worldwide microscope on the University of Missouri with his one-man vote of no confidence. He cast that vote in a way that is now indelibly etched in the hearts and minds of his community and all of us.

The president met with him five days into Butler's hunger strike, expressed concern for Butler's health, acknowledged the problems defined by Butler and recognized Butler's role in bringing attention to the lack of effective response. The president did not resign and Jonathan did not eat. The president then met with the leadership of the university in an all-night session. He said they got no sleep as they tried to determine best responses. Jonathan is getting no sleep and he did not eat.

I hope Jonathan survives. Despair feeds dissent in ways that most of us will never understand or express as he has. Most of us are not young black men for whom racial profiling is the norm. Most of us don't walk across our campuses at homecoming while our peers and neighbors shout out the n-word at us. Jonathan is doing what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, suffragettes and hundreds of thousands of people around the world have done when no relief comes for them. Hunger strikes are part of the portfolio of non-violent acts of resistance. Hunger strikes are typically used long after everything else has failed to produce meaningful change.

The University of Missouri is not the only place where students and others are reaching the end of their patience with institutionalized racism and its attendants, white supremacy, white privilege and power, whiteness, patriarchy, misogyny and poverty.

In the last fifteen months since Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., universities around the country have been sites for protests similar to those of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the protests of the Vietnam War. Jonathan's hunger strike is the tinder that can burst into a crown-fire. Our campuses are all over the map in how they have planned or not planned to support freedom of expression and assembly. There are some trends that are concerning.

Some campuses and communities are more militarized than 40+ years ago. Some campuses have approved concealed gun carry by students. Some administrators are hyper-sensitive to negative publicity headlines and the impact of negative press on already stressed enrollments. We have social media to fan flames of protests across the nation and the world. We live with its viral reality every waking moment. And, there is a catalytic synergy that develops quickly when the right conditions align -- one type of justice-seeking movement tends to inspire others even when there is no obvious connection between them.

The universe seems to be aligning for a history making moment for activism. Here are two examples:

In 2013 inmates organized a strike in long term solitary in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay Prison. It was the largest hunger strike in the history of California and possibly in world history. It stopped when State lawmakers agreed to hold public hearings on the conditions in its maximum-security prisons, and the use of long-term isolation.

In 2014, more than 100,000 students and citizens in Hong Kong engaged in mass sit-ins 26 September to 15 December. The protests began after the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPCSC) came to a decision regarding proposed reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system. The protests precipitated a rift in Hong Kong society, and galvanized youth - a previously apolitical section of society - into political activism or heightened awareness of their civil rights and responsibilities. It also triggered an assault on academic freedoms and civil liberties of activists.

How should we view these two extraordinary events in the context of US campus based activism in 2014-2015? Allow me to draw from some of the ideas that informed my early days of non-violent resistance.

  1. Structural conduciveness - people come to believe their society has problems
  2. Structural strain - people experience deprivation
  3. Growth and spread of a solution - a solution to the problems people are experiencing is proposed and spreads
  4. Precipitating factors - discontent usually requires a catalyst (often a specific event) to turn it into a social movement
  5. Lack of social control - the entity that is to be changed must be at least somewhat open to the change; if the social movement is quickly and powerfully repressed, it may never materialize
  6. Mobilization - this is the actual organizing and active component of the movement; people do what needs to be done

Smelser did not suggest how much strain a society must have for collective behavior to take place. #BlackLivesMatter is certainly a litmus test of that strain today.

Nothing will change the trajectory of the social movement expressed by Jonathan's protest except meaningful and measurable change that improves life for those who are suffering most. The growling belly of the marginalized grows hungrier each day.

White supremacy, white power, white privilege & whiteness satiate only those who have them and starve the rest. They create a false belief system that everything can stay the same--as Merton described--a special deformity of conscience as a result of (our) identification with (our) group, (our) immersion in their particular society.

We must heal ourselves of this deep and pervasive sickness, not when people around us are pushed beyond their limits of tolerance and acceptance, but because we reject racism within our very souls--because we hunger for human rights and human dignity for everyone as core to the democratic mission of public higher education.

Part of that healing comes out of our own work on ourselves and our ownership of white privilege.

Part of that healing comes from understanding the principles of non-violent resistance on our campuses and effective support of the process and the people in the midst of it as well as those who object to the protesting and everyone on the continuum of the work that is underway.

I recently spoke to a group of senior student affairs professionals at a meeting. The topic was roles, responsibilities and risks of senior student affairs professionals in a rapidly growing climate of student activism.

The majority of the attendees felt that their campuses were not prepared for a situation like University of Missouri, that the most senior leadership on their campuses would take a very conservative approach to activism and that the governors of their states would call out the national guard in a heart beat. Granted, this was a small sample but I felt deep empathy for these extraordinary student affairs leaders who are held responsible for doing the right thing for students and for their institutions.

I made some recommendations based on my experience as an activist who once successfully protested campuses when I was the Executive Director of Soulforce. Our task was to increase awareness, understanding and change about marginalization of LGBT students as well as students of color and women.

Since I came to ACPA--College Student Educators International in DC, I've been interviewing Senior Student Affairs Officers (SSAO) on campuses where militarization has been avoided, no one got hurt and change is underway. Some of the best responses came to me from Dr. Kent Porterfield, past president of ACPA. He is the SSAO of Saint Louis University, neighbor to Ferguson.

If you haven't watched any of the Racism series on ACPA Video On Demand about their experiences there over the last eighteen months, I recommend that you do I've paraphrased Dr. Porterfield's reflectioins and added my own.

  1. Don't hide out or hang back. Engage with students as students not as protesters which can be intimidating.
  2. Don't overthink everything that can go wrong or worry too deeply about saying or doing the wrong things. You will talk yourself into delaying or not engaging. You will make mistakes.
  3. Dig into your institutional mission and core values as well as your own. Are there gaps between what you know we are supposed to be doing and what we are doing? Is the democratic mission of higher education being fulfilled? If you are at a private institution, what is the mission? At a religiously affiliated institution? What is the mission? At a community college? What is the mission? Sometimes we get lost along the way.
  4. There is a lot of "noise" and emotion involved with contested issues and campus activism. Try not to get caught up in the emotion.
  5. Lots of people will want to tell you what to do and how to do it. Review history. Kent State is a good start.
  6. Show vulnerability, acknowledge your own privilege and name the issues without soft pedaling or making excuses. People will look to you to provide context, to remind the community of its values and give some direction about how to move forward.
  7. Create opportunities for open dialogue everywhere you can. If you cannot name it and discuss it, you cannot solve it. Focusing on process and communication often reveals a pathway forward. Some of the biggest mistakes occur when we are not as thoughtful and deliberate as we need to be with process and communication.