- Campus Protests
The protests that embroiled American college campuses in 2015 were a culmination of several factors. First, the rise of Black Lives Matter as a campaign influenced thousands of college students, many of whom were startled, like everyone else, by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. The Dylan Roof terrorist attack on Charleston in the summer of 2015, no doubt, also gave African American college students a new sense of urgency. Second, the battle over multiculturalism on college campuses—a debate that has gone on since the 1980s—has entered a new and uncertain phase. Finally, other protest movements, such as Occupy Wall Street, Fight for $15, and the left-led battle against a right-wing backlash aimed at the Obama administration has also pushed college students to become active on campuses from Missouri to Yale.
The campus protests of 2015 have some similarities to those of the 1960s. Then, as now, college students were not oblivious to the changing world around them. College students joined the Civil Rights Movement in the South through organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or the Congress of Racial Equality. The Port Huron Statement of 1962 solidified a new ethos for college students born and raised during the post-World War II economic boom. At the same time, the Cold War backdrop and the potential of nuclear annihilation added an urgency to everything college students protested.
Today’s campus protestors, as a generation, have also experienced considerable upheaval in the United States and around the world. Consider that this 18-to-21-year-old demographic was old enough to vaguely remember the September 11th terrorist attacks, the divisive 2004 election, and the 2007-2008 economic crash. By the time many college students entered college, they were also accustomed to a divided government and an embattled incumbent president in Barack Obama. Perhaps they had older siblings who voted for Senator Obama in 2008; by 2012, such voters would have been less inspired, but more grimly determined to stop Mitt Romney.
Add to this growing up with near-constant warfare for the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a wider fear of terrorism across the country, and young Americans in college know a world different from that of their parents or even their older brothers and sisters. Modern college students are known for social media and selfies. But it might be more accurate to think of them as an economically distressed generation, worried about job prospects in the future. When the lens shifts to African American college students, then there is no surprise that campus protests occurred last semester.
The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland have served to galvanize a young African American population already on edge about the place of blacks in American society. President Obama’s two terms in the White House witnessed a conservative backlash not expected by even the most pessimistic liberals. Much of this came with a racial tinge—the uproar over President Obama’s calling the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates “stupid;” the firing of Shirley Sherrod by the Obama Administration due to Andrew Brietbart’s editing of a video where Mrs. Sherrod spoke about her struggle with racism in the Deep South; and South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson’s shouting “You Lie!” during a State of the Union address—all of these events, and more, dampened hopes for better race relations during the “Age of Obama.”
Then came the death of Trayvon Martin. His murder by George Zimmerman in February 2012 became one of the early examples of social media pushing a national story. Zimmerman’s acquittal in July 2013 touched off a national debate about race and racism—something young African American college students would remember all too well. If the high-profile murders of young African American men and women stopped with Trayvon Martin, it is possible America may have moved on while African Americans, once again, were left to reflect on the needless murder of a young African American.
Of course, the year 2014 and the death of Michael Brown at the hands of officer Darren...