“They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom,” Leonard Cohen once sang, “for trying to change the system from within.” It’s a killer opening line, but it’s also an allusion to one of the more vexed questions of activism: just how much can one effect change from within existing power structures, while at the same time calling for those structures to be dismantled?
This is a question that’s never really been answered to anyone’s satisfaction, and one that’s especially relevant in America, where power structures are actively oppressing a large segment of the population, and have done so for centuries. I’ve written about the balance of pragmatism and idealism here recently; this week, the issue manifested again, in the context of the protests at the University of Missouri, and specifically the ill-advised decision of students and several staff to block ESPN photographer (and fellow student) Tim Tai’s access to their demonstration.
As I wrote in September: “As a white man, I don’t have an opinion on whether respectability politics are valuable in a pragmatic sense; I wouldn’t presume to tell black Americans what they should or shouldn’t do in their attempts to survive and/or bring centuries of oppression to an end.” Similarly, I don’t presume to tell black American students how they should or shouldn’t protest the way they’re treated on a campus where people draw swastikas in actual human shit on the walls of shared bathrooms.
I do, however, have something to say about the necessity of, at the very least, understanding the power structures within which you’re working — because if you watch the video of the incident in question, it’s clear that the students involved (and, more worryingly, the professor, who really should know better given that she’s a Professor of Mass Media) lack an understanding of the rights of journalists. Several of them insist on “privacy,” and tell the photographer that he doesn’t have the right to be there taking pictures. This isn’t entirely surprising, given that these days the term is used most often in relation to online privacy, which is an entirely different matter.
The thing is, though, the protesters are wrong in this case. Gawker’s Gabrielle Bluestone wrote a fairly comprehensive explanation of why — the whole thing is worth reading, but the key point is this: “The protestors are doing what they’re doing in a public space. That’s an important distinction, because in most, if not all, jurisdictions, a public space is by its very definition a place where someone has no reasonable expectation of privacy.”
If the activists are worried about how they’re going to be portrayed in the media — which is presumably the case, since they went to such trouble to prevent Tai from covering the story — then forcibly restraining a photojournalist has turned out to be an ineffective counterstrategy, considering the coverage that decision has received. (It seems like an IRL version of the Streisand effect, whereby trying to suppress information has led to more unwanted publicity than would have been generated in the first place.) The fact that the university’s Director of Greek Life was also trying to discourage journalists suggests the school itself was attempting to get the mainstream media off the story, which means that activists are playing straight into their hands.
To their credit, activist group Concerned Student 1950 now appear to realize this:
But there are other issues at play here, primarily the fact that the media hasn’t exactly portrayed activists in a positive — or even necessarily fair — light in the past. People have been quick to make the argument that, apart from anything else, trying to keep the press away from Missouri is dumb: If you want publicity for your grievances, why lock out journalists? Look at coverage of protests in the past — Occupy, for example — and you tend to see the same cluster of clichés: photos of the same five crust punks who turn up and form a drum circle, an account of the inevitable “clash” with police (ignoring the fact that the police tend to catalyze these things, and do so quite deliberately), etc. If a protest is peaceful, it’s often completely ignored, no matter how sizable or newsworthy it might happen to be.
Even in this case, reporting has focused disproportionately on controversy: after all, there are a whole lot of things to talk about in relation to the Missouri case, the most important of which is that the students protesting have a perfectly legitimate reason to protest — and yet, here we are. Even in historically liberal publications, the story over the last couple of days has been the professor calling for muscle. In one respect, this is an indictment on the media; in another, it’s a lesson for activists that every little misstep they make will be scrutinized disproportionately. (A “teachable moment,” if you will.)
And this comes back to the question about operating within existing power structures. In one respect, the way that the media in general covers activism should change — as Roxane Gay wrote in The New Republic today, “There is often condescension in examinations of these supposedly fragile young people who don’t understand the real world. College students do, however, understand the real world, because they aren’t just students: They do not abandon their class background or sexuality or race or ethnicity when they matriculate, and their issues do not vanish when they register for courses.”
There’s also the fact that “the media” clearly isn’t a monolithic entity. Tai was photographing the event for ESPN (or trying to, anyway); would the reaction to his treatment have been the same if he’d come from, say, Breitbart? Or Fox News? If you know, as opposed to suspecting, that a media outlet is there for the purpose of discrediting your movement, how do you react? I suspect that plenty of activists would say, well, this is a moment when you actively challenge an existing power structure by denying the reporter access anyway, despite the fact that doing so is illegal and in violation of the First Amendment.
The question of where you draw that line is, as I’ve said, a difficult one. You can’t change existing power structures entirely from within, and those who try to do so often end up neutered and ineffective. But equally, if you spend all your time outside the law, you rob yourself of any possibility of mainstream support. Those condemning the actions of students (and, more appositely, faculty and staff) have a point in this case. Deciding you want to act outside the scrutiny of the press is a) a slippery slope and b) a tactic favored by exactly the sort of people that the students in question purport to oppose. But as with pretty much everything else that’s reared its head in this week of heightened scrutiny on student activism, it’s not a simple question of right and wrong. Everyone — journalists, activists, commentators, everyone — has things to think about here.