“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.”
Looking out over our shaken campus today, it’s uncanny to recall the one short week that brought us to this point. Over five years of political and racial passions bubbling through our generation look tame next to these seven odd days, as if all the previous campus outbursts were merely a prolonged first chapter.
The current moment began with the demonstrations at the University of Missouri, when students embittered by a series of racial flare-ups forced their president and chancellor out of office. This shockingly potent deployment of activism was joined by an even less predictable outburst when indignant Yale students mobilized to seek the firing of an administrator who declined to police her students’ Halloween costumes, setting off a round of protests on the school’s broader racial climate.
Watching these events unfold from Hanover, no one could have doubted that the movement would make its way to Dartmouth within the week. But the particular form that our own iteration took on the night of November 12 was a shock, even to the by-now seasoned souls of students who have witnessed the past years. The tactics, tone, and words of the Black Lives Matter protesters eerily mirrored everything they claim to stand against. The long list of their clear oversteps should spark a moment of reckoning for every honest onlooker, and especially those who have sympathized with their movement to this point.
Black-clad protesters gathered in front of Dartmouth Hall, forming a crowd roughly one hundred fifty strong. Ostensibly there to denounce the removal of shirts from a display in Collis, the Black Lives Matter collective began to sing songs and chant their eponymous catchphrase. Not content to merely demonstrate there for the night, the band descended from their high-water mark to march into Baker-Berry Library.
“F*** you, you filthy white f***s!” “F*** you and your comfort!” “F*** you, you racist s***!”
These shouted epithets were the first indication that many students had of the coming storm. The sign-wielding, obscenity-shouting protesters proceeded through the usually quiet backwaters of the library. They surged first through first-floor Berry, then up the stairs to the normally undisturbed floors of the building, before coming back down to the ground floor of Novack.
Throngs of protesters converged around fellow students who had not joined in their long march. They confronted students who bore “symbols of oppression”: “gangster hats” and Beats-brand headphones. The flood of demonstrators self-consciously overstepped every boundary, opening the doors of study spaces with students reviewing for exams. Those who tried to close their doors were harassed further. One student abandoned the study room and ran out of the library. The protesters followed her out of the library, shouting obscenities the whole way.
Students who refused to listen to or join their outbursts were shouted down. “Stand the f*** up!” “You filthy racist white piece of s***!” Men and women alike were pushed and shoved by the group. “If we can’t have it, shut it down!” they cried. Another woman was pinned to a wall by protesters who unleashed their insults, shouting “filthy white b****!” in her face.
In the immediate aftermath of the demonstration, social media was abuzz with comments condemning the protesters for their tactics. Many students who had experienced the protests took advantage of YikYak’s anonymity to air their grievances. Some students reached out to The Dartmouth Review to provide additional details.
An anonymous ‘19 explained that while working on a group project in a private study room, his UGA came in and expressed his virulent disappointment that the he was not joining in the protest. The UGA then demanded that he and the other members of his group project to leave the room and join in.
Another ‘19 recalled clapping after a protester said, “let’s give a round of applause for the beautiful people of color who were here for this protest.” The protester then turned on her saying, “for all of you that are sitting down and applauding right now, ‘we don’t care about you’.”
Of course, the protesters themselves have also spoken out in the aftermath of their march. One woman, identifying herself as one of the protesters in a lengthy post to Facebook, wrote, “we raised hell, we caused discomfort, and we made our voices heard all throughout this campus in the name of standing up for our brothers and sisters across the country who are staring terrorism and assault directly in the face.” She went on to accuse those she thought were insincere in their support for the movement of “faking allyship,” and called the activities an “occupation of Baker Berry.”
…and the Big Picture
Few observers outside of the protesters’ inner circle will deny the horror of the worst bits of their behavior and speech. Their march through the library was an intentional exercise in every disgraceful behavior they claim to endure themselves, from insults and physical force, to racial barbs tossed out with disgust. But in the view of many sympathetic commentators, their brutal tactics could never overshadow the basic justice of their cause. For seemingly every overzealous protest, you can find a thinkpiece on the web that argues just this point.
One such article, penned by Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker, defends campus protesters’ zeal by suggesting that incidents like the Missouri “fecal swastika” are merely the most visible instances of the smothering, systematic racism on America’s campuses. Dartmouth’s own circle of activists constantly echoes this line, asking us to connect the dots between the racial issues that we can see to form the full picture of overt racism at the College that must be railed against. If they’re right, and Dartmouth is indeed ridden with racism that grounds down its most vulnerable students, how could one sobbing white girl in Novack stand in the way of the protesters’ noble march of resistance?
The kicker, of course, is that this crystal clear picture of Dartmouth’s deep-seeded racism never quite seems to come into focus, no matter how far we step back. From the protesters, we hear anecdotes about insensitive party themes, and reminders of our lack of black professors. And of course, these issues fit into the broader context of a school characterized by historical wealth and whiteness, which can make students from other backgrounds feel forlorn outside the cultural mainstream. But as Dartmouth’s protesters swept through the library, bellowing at every student who dared not to stand for the cause, they were accusing our community of something much graver than insufficient attention to minorities’ concerns. Every time a protester looked a fellow a student in the eye and cursed her for her passivity or privilege, he did so under the pretense that our school is in the grasp of racism so severe that it’s suffocating. Despite this pretense, not once during the march did the protesters raise a specific concern about the College’s climate that was dire and widespread enough to implicate each and every Dartmouth student, or justify the protest’s boundless hostility.
In the absence of concrete examples of systematic racism – specific incidents that show that Dartmouth’s customs and culture actively oppress our minority students – the protesters have asked onlookers to trust in their “experience.” The idea here is that what seems like a minor issue to a privileged observer may actually be a life-altering burden for a disadvantaged student. The broad range of perspectives on our campus guarantees that this is true to a certain point, and navigating our four years of thrown-together pluralism requires us to strive for this type of empathy.
But when empathy cuts against reason – that is, when we are asked to believe that ignorant costumes are oppressive, or that hurling obscenities at sympathetic students is a display of brave resistance – we should realize that empathy has it’s limits. The desire to side with self-described victims is rooted in a spirit of charity. But the habit of doing so even when every ounce of evidence suggests that we ought not to amounts to a total forfeiture of our own ability to discern. In the case of Dartmouth’s most recent Black Lives Matter protest, let’s not convince ourselves that the wrongs that we witnessed were anything other than wrong.
The protest certainly represented a new peak for the passions and tactics that define the current moment in student activism at Dartmouth. But this chapter will go on, with more outbursts that will shake the campus and prompt us to think through what this all means. As Dartmouth students prepare to make sense of race relations at the College, as well as form our perspective on social justice that we’ll carry long after commencement, we should hold the November 12 protest as a reminder that reflexive sympathy doesn’t always cut it. Open eyes and attuned minds will let us spot the difference between legitimate efforts to spark racial progress, and outbursts of the aimless antipathy that dozens of our peers of all races were subjected to.
Mene O. Ukueberuwa, Brandon G. Gill, Charles C. W. Jang, & Vibhor Khanna contributed to this report.