LTE: A Reminder About Activism

Students protested the university's lack of response to the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases. (Arthur Bailin / Heights Editor)

The last few weeks at Boston College have seen a laudable rise in political engagement and a salutary increase in the number of students actively voicing their opinions. Students’ genuine commitment to progressive social action is evident in both issues of local significance and those of national importance. As exemplified by the demonstrations following the Ferguson and Staten Island grand jury decisions, the Dec. 5 “Rights on the Heights” rally, and the recent FACES statement—to name just a few instances—it is clear that Boston College students truly care about the civic issues facing our community and country.

As our university moves toward what will hopefully be a new “culture of engagement,” it is important to pause and reflect on the virtues that characterize constructive protests and activism. While I’m certainly no authority on the subject, I have a few suggestions to offer.

The first virtue I think we ought to consider: respect for those with whom we disagree. Even in the heat of conviction and in the flame of righteous indignation, we do well to remember the words of protestor par excellence Mahatma Gandhi, who famously said, “Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding.” The moment we are most sure we are right—and most sure the other side is wrong—is the moment when respect for one another, despite our disagreements, becomes most important.

The second virtue, which follows from respect, is that of dialogue and reasoned discussion.  Especially on a university campus, coercion should not replace argument, and passion should never fully replace logic. For ultimately, unbridled emotion will not create change; a new consensus will not be molded without well-reasoned arguments to back it up. Certainly, passion and emotion play vital, animating roles in any movement for progress, and I do not argue that they should be sidelined. Rather, I’m suggesting that room be left for communication between disparate viewpoints. As Rev. Martin Luther King said, “People fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” Our nation today is polarized and divided, full of the fear and lack of communication Rev. King warned us about. Let’s make Boston College an exception to this climate—a sanctuary where we live up to his legacy of passionate, yet reasonable, dialogue.

In the past few weeks, our university has seen examples of both the constructive discussion championed by Rev. King and the negative invective he denounced. A model of the former can be found in a Dec. 12 Facebook message by UGBC President Nanci Fiore-Chettiar. “The answers are not simple,” she wrote with reference to Ferguson and Staten Island, “but we have to explore them together—whether you believe the grand juries’ decisions were right or not.” By extending an invitation for disagreement in a message that nonetheless exuded passion and conviction, Fiore-Chettiar demonstrated the virtue of constructive protest. Sadly, her leadership has not been imitated everywhere.

The Dec. 9 “die-in” in St. Mary’s hall was animated by a laudable drive for social justice, but ultimately delivered a confused and counterproductive message to the community. The first problem with the protest was the manner in which some participants of the die-in equated Eric Garner’s death with issues faced here at Boston College. As The Heights reported, “demonstrators…mentioned the die-in was meant [in part] to challenge University policies on free speech.” One student stated that part of the protest’s rationale was to criticize “censorship that is happening on campus, and the rules and the hoops that we have to jump through to actually make some sort of change on campus and actually be the activists that this University wants us to be.” This is certainly a valid perspective, one that was represented at the Dec. 5 rally and is driving ongoing UGBC advocacy. However, by conflating Boston College’s policies with the practices that led to Garner’s death, protestors injected unnecessary and uncalled-for acrimony into a students’ rights conversation that had been relatively respectful. Moreover, by implying that students face problems comparable to Garner’s, they displayed an enormous—if unintentional—lack of sensitivity and respect toward our nation’s recent tragedies. The second problem with the St. Mary’s die-in was the protest’s venue. In choosing to target Boston College’s Jesuit community and prevent them from moving into their new home, protesters attacked a group that has actually been very vocal in the movement for racial justice. To say nothing of the many prayer services they have led nationwide—including one in O’Neill plaza on Dec. 1—Jesuits have also participated in drafting a statement that calls for “a serious examination of both policing and racial injustice in the US.” Over 370 theologians at US Jesuit universities, including Boston College’s James Keenan, S.J., David Hollenbach, S.J., and Kenneth Himes, O.F.M, signed the statement. By choosing to ignore this fact, protestors falsely accused the Jesuit community of indifference to our nation’s racial injustices. Accordingly, they removed respect from the conversation and sabotaged further communication—actions that ultimately hurt the cause for which they advocate.

This letter is not intended to stymie or curb either the battle for justice or the protests it inspires here at Boston College. Rather, it is a reminder that if protests are to have their desired effect, we all have a duty to remember the virtues that characterize constructive activism.

 

Hagop Toghramadjian

A&S ’17

Featured Image by Arthur Bailin / Heights Photo

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16 Comments

  1. Many problems with this LTE; to point out just
    one, the same statement that the author quoted (which, though it is now signed
    by over 370 Catholic theologians has yet to be referenced by Boston College at
    all) includes a commitment “to placing our bodies and/or privilege on the line in visible,
    public solidarity with movements of protest to address the deep-seated racism
    of our nation” and “to further teaching and scholarship on racial
    justice. Our faith teaches us that all persons are created in the image of God
    and have been redeemed in Christ Jesus. In short, our faith proclaims that all
    lives matter, and therefore, Black lives – and Brown lives, the lives of all,
    regardless of color – must matter, too. As part of this commitment, we
    pledge to continue listening to, praying for, and even joining in our streets
    with those struggling for justice through nonviolent protests and peaceful acts
    of civil disobedience.”

    That statement, like the die-in protest, is a wonderful example of faith doing
    justice. BC’s continued silence is a shameful illustration of
    “faith” doing hypocrisy, so if there’s anyone on our campus who needs
    a “reminder” about activism, it’s the administration.

  2. I’ve tried to refrain from commenting on any of the articles, but there are a few things that I would like to address here. I appreciate your opinion piece, but there are several flaws and misunderstandings here that I would like to clear up. First off, I think that a lot of people believe that if those who are participating don’t think you’re standing with us, then you’re on the wrong side. That’s not the case at all and that is where the problem lies. We are upset because the University isn’t providing us with the space or platform to hold these conversations. Whether you agree or disagree with the Ferguson or NY verdict, that space for real dialogue isn’t being made available. Secondly, the protesters weren’t trying to target the Jesuits or prevent them from moving in. We purposefully held a peaceful demonstration outside of the Christmas Carol being held in St. Mary’s to bring awareness to the issues going on as well as to get the attention of administrators because we feel as though the university as a whole needs to address these issues. These recent issues of social injustices may have occurred in MO. and NY, but the university, as well as most students who don’t identify as a student of color fail to realize that these are our lived realities outside of Boston College, and they have a very large impact on our everyday lives that very much parallel with what we go through here at BC. Equally important, please, before you jump to the idea that we targeted the Jesuits and prevented them from moving in, note that there is no evidence that we did as such. The VP stated this at the die in, however, if you go to the Boston College’s Official Facebook page, a Jesuit commented on a photo of St. Mary that they were scheduled to move in on Wednesday and Thursday. Our demonstration was held in the lobby of St. Mary’s on Tuesday. We acknowledge that some of the Jesuits stand in solidarity with us and by no means were we trying to disturb them or The Chorale during their concert, which is why we chose to hold the demonstration outside of the actual concert. We could have easily set up our die in in the actual concert venue and put everything to a halt. However, contrary to popular belief, we do have respect for other student organizations on campus as well as this university.

    • Also, it baffles me that this same author wrote an opinion piece on how we should demand justice for minorities in Syria, which I’m all for, but he doesn’t understand why we’re demanding justice for those who are constantly victims of police brutality and for the University to acknowledge that this does include their very own students? Sir, these are issues in your own country. You don’t have to agree that the officers in both cases should’ve been indicted, but educate yourself first.

      And you stated, “A model of the former can be found in a Dec. 12 Facebook message by UGBC President Nanci Fiore-Chettiar. “The answers are not simple,” she wrote with reference to Ferguson and Staten Island, “but we have to explore them together—whether you believe the grand juries’ decisions were right or not.” By extending an invitation for disagreement in a message that nonetheless exuded passion and conviction, Fiore-Chettiar demonstrated the virtue of constructive protest. Sadly, her leadership has not been imitated everywhere.” This is what we’re protesting for. For the university to say, “This is what’s going on and this is how it is impacting our students of color here.” FACES understands exactly what we are doing and has been on board, but where is UGBC?

      • I think you are certainly misreading my point. I think we SHOULD demand racial justice in the United States. I think Boston College SHOULD take a larger and more explicit stance than it has. However, I think the decision to target the Jesuit community in general–by occupying St. Mary’s Hall, of all the places that could have been chosen–was misguided, because it accused the wrong group of indifference. The other part of my point is that the fight for racial justice should not be linked to the fight for free speech at BC. They are simply different issues, and conflating the two degrades the former.

        • Again, we were not accusing the Jesuits of anything in any way. We knew that administrators, students and alumni would be at the concert, which just so happened to take place in St. Mary’s. Our demonstration was to simply show BC that we too are affected. The link between the idea of free speech and the fight for racial justice is also being misunderstood. It’s not that we want to be able to say what we want here, but we’re calling on BC to speak on this issue and to invite students who aren’t necessarily affected by these injustices to engage in these conversations and to become more aware that these things are happening.

          • I find it hard to believe that the demonstration “just happened to take place in St. Mary’s,” which was still in the process of opening. Moreover, the idea that Jesuits were not targeted strikes me insincere. If a group of people blocked the entrance to your home and prevented you from moving in, wouldn’t you feel targeted? St. Mary’s is not just another campus building; it is the Jesuits’ home. There were plenty of other locations where a die-in could have both had an impact and been acceptable to the University.
            However, your statement that you do not wish to accuse the Jesuits “of anything in any way” is welcome. If such a statement were to be repeated publicly by the leaders of the protest, it would go a long way toward removing the unnecessary tension that’s been created and inviting both students and administrators to engage in further dialogue, solidarity and action

          • You might find the notion that the Jesuits weren’t targeted hard to believe, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

        • I was one of the die in participants and I also went with students to speak with the VP of student affairs, Dr. Barbara Jones about her reaction to the die-in, voice concerns and talk about how we can work with each other to make change at BC. I would also like to point out that “The Jesuit Community” is who is calling for disciplinary action for participants in the protests. If the Jesuit Community is so fully behind our cause, then why are they upset that we used their home as a platform to express the very views they stand for?
          I would also encourage you to approach people who are critiquing your article with the same open mind that you would like the participants in the protest to approach their opponents. I assure you that conversations with Dr. Jones were both emotional and reasoned, on both sides of the conversation. I am super willing to meet with you in person to talk through some of these arguments- I’ll be here until the last day of exams so message me on facebook (my last name is Sciannella) if you want to organize a time to talk!

      • I would like to offer an answer to your question “Where is UGBC?” because it is an important one. We released a statement this morning that outlines where we stand on the issue and how we plan to move forward. Additionally, I attended the panel hosted by the AADS department on the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson. At the panel, I announced that UGBC has been working to address issues of racial injustice in various ways throughout the year, and would love for non-UGBC students to work with us on these policy and programming initiatives. I also recommended to administrators that they not host a conflicting event on that same date as the panel and town hall, as they originally planned. I have met with Dr. Jones, the Vice President of Student Affairs, and have recommended in person and through email that the university release a statement itself. I sent her examples of statements that other universities have released, and will continue to meet with her and other administrators about this issue. Lastly, I was actively involved in writing the script for the FACES response video, recruiting people to participate in the video, and participated myself. Three other UGBC members, including Executive Vice President Connor Bourff, also spoke in the video. If you have any other ideas or suggestions for how we as a student government can support this cause, please feel free to email me directly at [email protected]

        As an active member of FACES and an ally, this is something that is personally very important to me. I will continue to do everything in my power to further the mission of the movement, and ensure that UGBC is involved in the fight against racial injustice. I’ve attached a link to UGBC’s Executive Council statement below!

        http://bcheights.com/opinions/2014/letter-ugbc-executive-council-black-lives-matter/

  3. “Moreover, by implying that students face problems comparable to Garner’s, they displayed an enormous—if unintentional—lack of sensitivity and respect toward our nation’s recent tragedies”.

    To assume, that people at Boston College do not experience police brutality or harassment by police… or understand at all where Eric Garner’s situation is a HUGE assumption. As a black student at BC, I have witnessed my father and my brother both be treated poorly by police on many occasions. I have witnessed my friends harassed by police officers, and myself have been stopped and frisked for no probable cause. SO to assume, that this isn’t personal for some of us, just shows a lack of understanding. For some of us, it isn’t just about Eric Garner.. it is about a SYSTEM that has been letting ALL of us down. And that is why some choose to protest.

    • This is EXACTLY why we need this type of dialogue on campus. Because people like the author don’t realize what people of color may have to go through outside of this bubble. And that type of ignorance is ok for now, as long as you’re willing to sit down and hear our stories. But don’t condemn us and tell us that we’re in the wrong for relating the two. I didn’t even know that NYPD is able to stop you on the street and pat you down for no given reason until the other day.

    • My point was not that BC students do not experience police harassment, nor was it that they do not understand Eric Garner’s situation. It was that linking BC’s free speech policies–an essentially bureaucratic issue–to the deaths of Garner and Brown is disingenuous and counterproductive. I understand that not all protestors did this, but those who did drew a false connection and added unnecessary anger to the free speech conversation, which has thus far been quite productive and civil.

      • The protests constitute speech. BC is threatening to punish students for that speech. In what world is that not a free speech issue? Also, the notion that people shouldn’t be angry about repeated legal declarations that their lives do not matter strikes me, as best, unrealistic, and, at worst, very offensive.

        • My comment identified the free speech conversation as the place where there’s unnecessary anger, not “that people shouldn’t be angry about repeated legal declarations.” This was very clearly stated. However, in order to accuse me of saying something “very offensive,” you’re claiming I’m behind statements I neither made nor support.

          The trend I’m seeing in your comments and others is this: Because I criticized a strategic decision made by protestors, the overall message of my letter is being deliberately obscured. These comments purposely ignore the fact that I support the protestors themselves, as well the cause for which they justly advocate. It’s assumed I’m an enemy simply because I made a tactical suggestion.

          How can Boston College, and the nation as a whole, have reasoned dialogue when we deliberately obscure one another’s positions, when any criticism is taken as an attack, and when–for the sake of scoring cheap emotional points–we choose to emphasize our small differences over our broader agreement?

          • I don’t think it’s your place, or mine, to decide what anger is necessary. When was the last time a grand jury, and through silence, your university, told you your life didn’t matter? There’s a difference between not being an enemy and being an ally.

  4. “The first problem with the protest was the manner in which some participants of the die-in equated Eric Garner’s death with issues faced here at Boston College.” This seems to be the LTE’s main point, a point that I respectfully, but passionately disagree with.

    Eric Garner’s death, and his killer’s non-indictment, and the lack of free speech here on campus are symptoms of the same issue: the systemic devaluation and marginalization of people of color. Not being allowed to speak freely about a very important issue that affects us all, but some more personally than others, is an issue of our voices being cast aside as if it was unimportant. Daniel Pantaleo not being indicted is an example of the criminal justice system deciding not to ask any further questions about Garner’s death, thus casting his life aside as if it was unimportant.

    Systemic marginalization is just that, a system, and cannot be changed without acknowledging that injustices done to people of color, both national and limited to the university, both big and small, have been historically connected and will continue to be unless injustice is acknowledged as a system, rather than a random assortment of cases.

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