This 1st of October marks the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement that began at the University of California, Berkeley. On that day, thousands of Berkeley students surrounded a police car on Sproul Plaza and held it captive for 33 hours in protest of university bans against political activities on campus. The Free Speech Movement was an arm of the larger Civil Rights Movement, and it marked the nonviolent beginning of a decade of rebellion. The students and their movement reshaped national politics and planted universities as battlegrounds for public policy.
On this 50th anniversary, it is important to reflect on student activism at USC over the last few years. Why? Having experienced student cultures at different universities, it seems to us that USC students suffer from a moral and intellectual crisis with unorthodox politics. While classes consistently emphasize politics outside formal institutions, the day-to-day campus is disappointedly empty of any substantive political activity. Challenges and protests do occur, yet they seem to be passive, temporary and even isolated in nature.
Take sexual harassment and assault as examples. They occur constantly, yet University officials continue to lag on any real change that will punish those responsible for it. On their side, students supporting stricter punishments and change of school policy find themselves alone and even go unnoticed. Ari Mostov and Kaya Masler should be names familiar to USC students, as should be Emma Sulkowicz at Columbia University. Are they? But where were the large protests of students in response to the many rape incidents? Why wasn’t Bovard occupied? Why didn’t students walk out of class in protest? Perhaps we just don’t care enough.
Or take the incident regarding the controversial response of the Los Angeles Police Department towards the graduation party consisting mostly of blacks and Latinos last academic year. Regardless of the details, there were accusations of racial profiling towards the party, something that presumably would have not happened to its white counterpart. To protest the actions of LAPD and the subsequent responses by USC, students participated in a sit-in at Tommy Trojan and LAPD and DPS held a forum the following day to discuss racial profiling. While the forum was well-attended (which was great news), the sit-in was surprisingly small and composed of mostly black students. While sitting there, we asked ourselves: Why aren’t there more students here? Where are the members of other groups who suffer discrimination in other ways? What is causing USC students to be so apolitical in the face of clear abuses of power?
Our point is not to call out specific students who didn’t participate. Instead, it is to demonstrate that these social groups continue their fight alone, delaying any substantive change. At the risk of sounding controversial, where were all the black students who so eagerly attended the sit-in at Tommy Trojan, during events against sexual harrassment? Or where were all the Latino students during the event “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes”? Why don’t these groups work together and join as one in protest? Numbers are important.
Both students and administrators need to do their part. Former UC system president Clark Kerr famously stated, “The University is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas.” Administrators and officials at USC have much to learn from these wise words. Our university seems to continually stumble when it comes to student safety and substantive policy change. Instead of seeking the next multimillion dollar gift, perhaps university officials need to pay more attention to the heart and soul of the campus, the students.
For their part, students need to understand that none of us are alone in our struggles. Pundits and academics alike continue to place solidarity and a broad support base as key in bringing about change. As a lesson, the Free Speech Movement would not have been successful if it hadn’t been for their inclusion of many student groups, including the Young Socialists and the Young Republicans (something we believe USC students might find unthinkable). Just as students at Berkeley joined together against an indifferent administrative apparatus, USC students need to do the same. All of this, of course, should be done in a peaceful, but united manner.
The clever ones among us will, of course, realize that the apolitical nature of our campus actually signifies the extremely political nature of our campus. Therein lies the problem.
Juve J. Cortes
Department of Political Science