Last Friday, curious about the protest taking place, I walked up to a few students sitting outside the main office and asked them what exactly they were protesting. I received varied answers – some told me the administration needed to report incidents to the Eugene PD (something they currently do), and some told me they needed to raise more awareness about issues of sexual harassment at South. I expressed agreement – these issues are important, and deserve open discussion – but when I asked them what specific actions they think the administration should enact, I mostly received blank looks or repetitions of the problems they had told me about earlier.
Sexual harassment is not just a problem at South – it is a problem everywhere. Across the nation, students are becoming empowered to share their voices and call out those that have committed heinous acts. In schools, where sexual assault survivors might have to see their abuser daily, taking action after accusations is especially important. I wanted to walk away from my conversations Friday afternoon with optimism and a sense that students knew what needed to be done and had begun advocating for that change. Instead, I left disheartened.
The problem lies in what many settled on as a goal: “raising awareness”. Such a goal might make those involved feel a sense of solidarity or support for each other (certainly good things), but leaves us with more questions than it answers: how should we create awareness? What kind of initiatives should the administration undertake and where should they find the funding for these programs? Whose responsibility is it to act – the South Eugene faculty, the 4J School District, the Eugene PD, or someone else entirely? The answers to these questions exist, but they are challenging ones. They require work – research, writing, and specific advocacy.
Furthermore, “awareness” itself is not such a useful goal. A second question looms: awareness of what? Certainly, students are “aware” that sexual assault is a bad thing and a majority are even aware about what sexual assault is, thanks to many well-run school-sponsored consent education workshops throughout the year. These demands are thus easily dismissed by pointing to these programs. More depressingly, studies have shown that those that commit sexual assault are often very aware that their victims are not consenting.
Even for students who protested for the expulsion of a specific student, there did not seem to be much of an idea about how that should occur. Expulsion of a student is not an easy matter, especially with an investigation already pending. A coherent reason why the school should act preemptively in this way is needed. Talking to these students, this reasoning was sorely missing.
All this points to a simple fact that was missed: politics is about work. It is not easy to create change. You have to face resistance from those who disagree with your movement, those who hate change itself, and even those within your own faction who would rather see that change take place in a different way. It is easy to replace that hard work with simple chants and marches. This strategy, however, can be more harmful than helpful.
Such a strategy is symptomatic of a phenomenon evident in many contemporary activists: identification with the act of protest itself. Just as pride each year turns into a party for teenagers to drink publicly while “showing support” for gay rights or the Women’s March becomes an Instagram photo op, Friday’s walk out became a convenient avenue for students to publicly declare their involvement in politics. As students took pictures of themselves to put on their Snapchat stories, signaling to others that they are part of the “woke” group that participated, real activism became a secondary concern.
Students are perhaps not to blame for this focus on “performing” good politics. Everywhere, we’ve been inundated with messages telling us how important it is to be politically engaged, to “#Resist”, and combat racism and patriarchy at every turn. However, very few of these messages give advice on how that political engagement should occur, not to mention help in understanding how racism or patriarchy operate or how to dismantle those structures. Given that, it’s not surprising that students turn towards visible forms of political engagement that can easily signal that they, too, are doing something about the crises we hear about each day.
Past examples of successful and unsuccessful movements offer further support for the detrimental impacts of this style of protest. 2011’s Occupy Wall Street is a helpful analogy. Much like at South, a clear problem was identified: income inequality. Many people gathered to protest. But, without a clear vision, protests quickly fizzled out and slogans soon left the public memory. Friday’s actions seemed follow along these same lines. Students were left with only a feeling of accomplishment, that “awareness had been raised”.
Contrast this with the successful protests of history. The Civil Rights movement wanted specific legislation passed. Gandhi wanted the British to leave India. Divestiture movements at Universities in the 1990s wanted institutions to sell their stakes in companies involved in South Africa’s apartheid. The color revolutions of the 2000s wanted a specific change in leadership. In Serbia’s Bulldozer Revolution, for example, the objective was to oust the dictator Slobodan Milošević. These clear political goals are critical to getting things done. In Belgrade, movements coalesced around them, Slobodan Milošević was thrown out of power, and the country began to change.
Here at South, we have a chance to accomplish something meaningful. The administration could certainly be doing more about sexual assault. But to demand so – and more importantly, to accomplish this – requires an understanding of what they are currently doing and a plan of action of what should occur. Important, difficult questions, such as how the rights of the accused should be balanced with protections for sexual assault survivors, must be answered. The correct people in power who can make these changes must be identified, singled out, and advocated to.
Solutions beyond “awareness” exist. Infrastructure and policies to help sexual assault survivors can be put into place. For example, current regulation only forces schools to prove that they were not “deliberately indifferent” in investigating claims of sexual assault. This standard, however, makes it difficult to prove that negligence occurred – schools can simply say their inaction was not a deliberate one. Requiring a positive standard, however, such as necessitating schools exercise “due diligence” in following up on sexual assault allegations, would force more a thorough investigation of every allegation and can help ensure that each case is fully addressed. This is just one of many possibilities. A quick survey of current policies at South and those suggested by legal scholars demonstrates much can be done.
Chants and marches fade away all too quickly. Much like in the streets of New York in 2011, students were left with the empty illusion that something had been achieved. A critical moment that could have been capitalized on to create something real was replaced by something far easier – and far less impactful – than what could have been. Ultimately, walking out of third period is only the first step on a long road to change.
Edited 1/22/18 at 10:37PM for grammar and a small but important language change in referring to sexual assault survivors suggested by a friend.