Student Thoughts: Mizzou protests highlight the power of student activism

Kaan Ocbe / Contributing Writer

A maelstrom has swept through the University of Missouri campus, culminating in the resignation of university president, Tim Wolfe, on Monday morning. Wolfes resignation was followed shortly by the resignation of Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. These high profile resignations came after a firestorm of student activity over the weekend taking place on a campus that has been simmering with tension for months.

This past weekend the black players of the University of Missouri football team announced that they would be going on strike. The strike included abstaining from all games, trainings and practices until the President tendered his resignation. The announcement by the Mizzou football players soon triggered the announcement of a faculty walkout in solidarity with the football players.

This chain of events came as a result of the presidents lack of response to a string of racial problems, including an incident of racial abuse reported by Mizzous Student Government President. There was also an incident where racial slurs were shouted at the Mizzou chapter of the Legion of Black Collegians as they rehearsed for a play. Later, an episode of racist vandalism involving a swastika drawn in feces occurred in one of the dorms.

In response, students at the University of Missouri organized a protest called Concerned Student 1950 which subsequently demanded the president of the universitys resignation. The president of the Student Government also went on hunger strike to call for the presidents resignation.

This pervasive racial tension comes amid numerous other concerns for the Mizzou community. Grad students have organized themselves in opposition to healthcare cuts and have staged a walkout. In addition, a fight around the universitys recent restriction of abortion rights has flared up. These tensions combined with the ongoing and historic racial tension at the University of Missouri produced one of the most audacious environments for student activism in the country. All of this going down in a place that is only a two hour car ride from Ferguson.

What the students at the University of Missouri have done, particularly the striking football players, is re-teach students around the country one of historys oldest lessons in fighting injustice and addressing those in power. They taught us this lesson through the withdrawal of labor. What the striking players of the Mizzou football team did was realize that they were positioned within the university power structure, at the heart of its economic engine; at any moment they could turn that engine off.

Though universities are public institutions and are supposed to operate with the public benefit as their primary purpose, lets not delude ourselves into thinking there isnt a lot of money being made. Universities have become these strange Dickensian enclaves where top administrators make six to seven figure salaries while the grad students and adjuncts on the front lines apply for food stamps.

This exploitative dynamic is even more pronounced at schools that have strong sports brands, like the University of Missouri, where something like a football team can be a multi-million dollar industry but the actual football player goes uncompensated. It probably doesnt need to be pointed out, but in most cases, the ones making the money are white and the ones working for free are black.

The Mizzou players reasoned that if their university and its power structure wasnt going to respect black bodies and black identities, then they could also do without the black labor that was keeping the entire thing running. The experience at the University of Missouri further showed what can happen when the disparate strands of struggle involving race, gender, education and labor begin interacting and people mobilize around them at once. It creates a heady mix  and produces an atmosphere where new things become possible. Even the sacking of a university president.

Its also telling that the student government president decided to engage in a hunger strike to attempt to bring about actual change in the structure of university power. The head of the body that is supposed to be the vehicle for addressing student concerns needed to engage in direct action to have an impact. The strike was a demonstration of the effectiveness of direct action and the power of student organizing.

This whole episode should be thought of as a teachable moment for students all over the country and show them their power as students. Typically, commands in a university system are top down and one way communications: the administrators make a decision and the students abide by it. What the events on the University of Missouri campus should illuminate for everyone is that sometimes this process can be reversed, and the students can make a command of their university if theyre willing to think outside of the box that the status quo has built for them.

[Image from Flickr]

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