Op-ed: Wash. U. must address double standards around protest

Christian Ralph | Class of 2017

In response to U.S. high schools threatening disciplinary action against students protesting gun violence, universities—including Washington University—released statements promising that applicants would not be penalized for their demonstrations. High school students should not be punished for exercising their fundamental rights, and it is important for Washington University to follow the lead of other institutions. However, Washington University’s policy ignores black and brown students fighting against unjust systems who failed in the past and even the present to receive institutional protection.

The high school students who decided to take a stand against gun violence were not only willing to disregard the threats leveled against them by their own high schools, but they were also willing to take a stand against the National Rifle Association, as well as politicians wanting to maintain the status quo. However, what gets ignored in the larger debate about gun control are the voices of activists fighting against gun violence in predominately black and brown communities. We fail to discuss gun violence in the context of an increasingly militarized police and how that impacts some of the most marginalized individuals. Where was the offer of institutional protection for high school students who risked their physical safety to protest the deaths of Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile and others? Where was this protection when Washington University’s own students protesting the death of Michael Brown were viciously gassed by local law enforcement?

Washington University is not only guilty of ignoring other valid causes but also of blatant hypocrisy. In 2014, during my freshman year at Washington University, seven students protested the University’s relationship to Peabody Energy by trying to deliver a letter to Greg Boyce, CEO of Peabody Energy and a member of Washington University’s board of trustees. Unfortunately, they were quickly arrested outside of Knight Hall. Washington University’s current policy on free speech and protest prohibits “disruptive” (yet peaceful) protest, threatening violators with fines, termination of employment, expulsion and even arrest. Washington University preserves incoming students’ right to peacefully protest while remain willing to punish University students for non-violent protest. And while I applaud Wash. U.’s stance in this particular case, one could argue that this policy reeks of hypocritical opportunism.

This new policy uses the phrase “peaceful demonstration” to ensure high school students that they will not be negatively impacted by any actions taken by their high school. However, that term has a racialized component. While protests over school shootings rarely elicit a militarized police response, Black Lives Matter protests often do not fare as well. Since the first days of the Ferguson Uprising, protestors were confronted by fully militarized police outfitted with tear gas, automatic weapons, riot gear and tanks. Often, protestors are nonviolent until the police target individuals in the crowd for violent arrest, a well-known instigative tactic. The ensuing backlash allows the police to label the entire protest “violent,” justifying the use of tear gas and other violent measures. Within this promise Washington University issued to the class of 2022, will black and brown students again be systemically excluded from policies based on what issues they choose to champion?

To deflect from these critiques, the University has advocated for apolitical neutrality. In reality, the University acts as a self-interested body, wading into politics when it suits them. For decades, Washington University has intervened in politics when it proved beneficial. In the 2016 St. Louis election, Washington University was in strong opposition to Amendment 3, a measure that would have impacted research funds for the University. Extending beyond policy, the University has demonstrated its willingness to pursue a partisan and self-interested agenda in the fight against adjuncts, lecturers and now graduate students for union representation. But the University was unwilling to intervene in local and national issues involving Black Lives Matter, because ultimately, it did not see these issues as vital to its self-interest. Herein lies the problem: Intervention by Washington University is deemed necessary when it is done to protect research funds and their bottom lines, but it is perceived as secondary when it comes to taking a principled stand for black lives and other marginalized groups. The University must work to protect all members of their community and should build on these newfound measures to further support the most marginalized and disenfranchised groups in continuingly meaningful and concrete ways.