Finding Leverage: The State of Protest at BC

A demonstration that might be difficult for today’s Boston College students to fathom is the student body-wide class boycott that occurred in the spring of 1970. According to the April 21, 1970 edition of The Heights, in response to a series of tuition increases enacted by University leaders, “pickets were set up at 16 locations on campus, including all gates and building entrances. Students marched around campus closing classes and disrupting activity in administrative offices…By Friday, every registrar’s office on campus was closed, and nearly every other administrative office was shut down.” The boycott continued throughout the month of April, forcing the University to cancel formal classes for the remainder of the semester, make all final examinations pass/fail, and hold academic reform seminars. Ultimately, the boycott prompted more student inclusion in the University’s budgetary decision making.

Yes, you are reading that correctly: There was a time when BC’s  student body was able to band together to successfully alter a University policy through protest. The unified front of the 1970s does not seem feasible at BC today, when strict University protest policy makes it difficult for student movements to garner the critical mass of support necessary to incite real action by administration. That said, it seems that student activists, namely the Eradicate Boston College Racism movement, have effectively circumvented the need for a critical mass of participants, instead using tactics that threaten to tarnish the University’s reputation as leverage to have their demands met.

In recent years, student activists have experienced difficulty engaging wide participation from students on issues regarding race, and therefore their requests for greater faculty diversity have lacked clout. An active student leader, Daniel Park, MCAS ’16, cites apathy as an overarching problem that leaves people inactive throughout the world and on Boston College’s campus. In his eyes, the first step to engaging students is informing them that diversity—and racism—exists on campus. In his current position as co-director of policy and political initiatives for the Asian Caucus, Park has conducted extensive research on Asian-American identity at BC,  with the goal of dismantling pervasive, racially charged stereotypes. While his educational, student-oriented approach is necessary to foster a more inclusive campus atmosphere, alone it lacks the power  to provoke change from the administration.

Eradicate Boston College Racism works to educate students about the existence of racism at BC , but has ultimately turned to pressuring leading members of the administration to make change. The group believes that students are afraid to speak out, citing the post-die-in disciplinary action as a looming fear.

“The administration has been loud and clear that they think institutional racism is not a thing and that they think nonviolent protest is uncivil, and that they disapprove,” Eradicate representatives wrote. “That doesn’t sound like an environment that encourages people to actively confront these issues.”

The constraints and requirements for a student protest were minimal in 1970 compared to those imposed on students’ freedom of speech today. University policy now requires that a group of student protesters be formally registered as a student organization and must apply for permission to hold  its  protest. If its application is accepted, the student organization is subject to the rules of the administration, which disallow the use of microphone or any voice-amplifying tool, as to not disturb the peace, and require compliance with the assigned protest location and time slot, which seem to be conveniently scheduled during low-traffic periods. Undergraduate Government of Boston College has enacted a comprehensive process whereby groups of students can effectively leapfrog the necessity of being a student organization by organizing protests under UGBC’s sponsorship, but liability concerns begin to surface when the protests are especially controversial.

On Friday, Eradicate’s demonstration during the Board of Trustees’ lunch was a violation of  University policy. The group is not a formally registered student organization and was not sponsored by UGBC. Still, dozens of students belted racially charged lyrics transposed onto Christmas carols in Gasson’s atrium and across campus to call attention to institutional racism, and could face disciplinary action for it.

Despite the constraints of a lack of student apathy and a fear of protesting, Eradicate still found leverage: the University’s image. The common notion that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” does not apply to BC if University leaders decide to take disciplinary action against protesters. With more than 1,000 likes on Facebook and a Twelve Days of BC Racism Facebook campaign in full swing, further action to silence the group’s voice will only hurt BC’s reputation. Times have changed since 1970, and it could be argued that social media is a more effective tool for students to connect than the Quad–and also has the power to reach those beyond the BC community.

Eradicate’s Friday protest effectively worked to illuminate two issues through one demonstration. It does not bode well for the University to suspend dozens of students for protesting racism when the protesting policies themselves are absurd and flawed. Rather than inflicting punishments, University leaders should instead feel encouraged to meet Eradicate’s demands, as well as redraft the University’s protest policies.

While bold moves such as Friday’s illegal protest gain attention, the power of numbers should not be forgotten. Widespread student participation is not only inevitable, but also respectable. The University may comply with Eradicate’s demands in order to dodge public scrutiny, but it will take involvement from a large student body to bring leaders to internalize the fact that racism exists at BC. As Park suggests, sustained improvement requires widespread, empathetic  involvement and student-oriented education. Cultivating a unified, multiracial front requires understanding and action from all students, which might  give administrators a glimpse into what the future looks like once it’s our turn to run the show.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins