When Eugene "Bull" Connor set police dogs and fire hoses on hundreds of Birmingham students marching in the 1963 children's crusade, television sets broadcast the graphic images to white suburbanites. Nonviolence began the civil rights movement. Images of violence transmitted through the media made it stick.
Some fifty years later, student protesters at Lewis & Clark College are fighting a slew of racist Yik Yak posts and an assault of a Black student on their campus. They want, among other goals, accountability from college President Barry Glassner. Enter the media to bring the heat, right?
Wrong. When media came calling, the students sealed off campus from reporters like Area 51.
"DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT speak to media reporters," one student wrote on Facebook. "If media does approach you, call Campus Safety at (503) 768-7777 and they will escort them off campus."
Other students from LC Black Lives Matter also directed inquiries to the college's public relations department, the office that represents the official views of the president, then occupied the same president's office. If you're confused, so are we.
Earlier this year, at the University of Missouri, students gathering to celebrate President Tim Wolfe's resignation formed a human chain and chanted, "No comment!" at reporters. Media had no place in their "safe space." When a student photographer freelancing for ESPN arrived at a tent city on the campus quad (a public space) protesters barred his way, chanting, "Hey hey, ho ho, reporters have got to go."
What is stopping students from talking to reporters? They fear the possibility of incorrect, or racist student comments. They want to protect victims of racially motivated hate crimes. They want to appear united under one voice, even if that voice is a public relations professional paid a hefty salary to make the college look good.
Millennials cling to their public relations departments because millennials fear large institutions, especially the media. According to a Harvard Institute of Politics poll released in April, only 11 percent of millennials trust the media, an all-time low. Way more (53%) put their faith in the military, the institution that maintains top-secret enclaves like Area 51 and spends enormous sums of money on questionable projects.
When people with microphones terrify students more than people with nuclear missiles, it makes sense that they seek protection anywhere they can get it. Often, it arrives from the very administrators students seek to protest.
But students don't need administrators and public relations people to speak for them. They have their own voice. The demands of these student movements have enough merit to resist uninformed, racist opposition on their own weight.
Students must demand accountability from administrators who care, but could be doing so much more. Thankfully, the United States devoted a whole "fourth estate" to scrutinizing people in power and holding them accountable. The media.
If the students do not get their message heard, colleges will let the demonstrations fade from public memory. Administrators won't be be pressured to do all that they can to meet the needs of students of color.
Don't get us wrong -- There are plenty of racist, heckling articles online, but these activists cannot let this shoddy journalism control the conversation. Safe, private spaces are vital for students engaging in emotionally challenging work.
But there are many more articles that put pressure on administrators to make real change. The media should be allowed in before any administrator. If the institution the students are fighting controls the narrative, only the institution can win. The institution will be able to use the "support" of student voices as evidence of progress toward diversity and inclusion.
Much more powerful is the voice of the students on the ground, hit by racism on a physical and emotional level. It's time for students to quit hiding behind college PR professionals and speak for themselves.
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