Six months ago, I attended a march in Manhattan protesting the long freeze of negotiations between CUNY and various levels of unionized workers under their employ. My motivation was largely self-interested. As an adjunct teacher, I am only paid for the hours I spend in front of a classroom but factoring in time spent grading, preparing and reading for class, working and corresponding with students, the hourly rate suddenly seems much closer to poverty wages and after six years, there had been no increase of wages, even to match inflation. Additionally, the system is set where I have to work a minimum of six semesters (about three years) before being considered for full-time employment or benefits, and even then, I may not receive them. There’s also an issue concerning flexibility of hours, specifically that adjuncts are allowed to teach no more than nine credit hours (about three classes) on a single campus, which forces many of us (myself included) to travel all around the city and state to teach enough classes in order to survive.
Some of my hardship is my own fault. First, I don’t have to teach. I worked in marketing for years. I could get a normal 40 hour a week job and be fine. I could also spend less time grading and preparing for class, cutting down on my hours dedicated to the job. But I am a teacher. I love it. And I want to be really good at it so I spend time on it.
I was nervous about going to the march. I wondered if it could be bad for me if I was seen as a troublemaker. But I also felt I had to go because the teacher’s Union was dangerously close to a strike. This scared me even more.
First, the state of New York has a law that makes it illegal for certain jobs to strike. Police and rescue workers are not surprisingly part of this group. But so are college teachers. This was worrisome, but secondary in my mind. My really worry was that if I stopped teaching my class, someone else would. The brilliance and terror of the adjunct system is that all teachers know they are replaceable. But I love my students. Would I be willing to sacrifice the quality of education they get from me in order to benefit myself and people in my position? I wasn’t sure I could. So I went to the march in hopes that that effort might spur negotiations again and keep me from the more extreme measure of striking.
The march was fine. I didn’t get in trouble. In fact, with the exception of the people who attended, no one cared.
Negotiations did start again, but only because of a strike approval vote. The new deal is still being approved, but once again, adjunct faculty suffer where administrative and classified positions benefit. Despite making up over 50% of the faculty at most schools, adjuncts still fail to have the visibility and leverage to make a difference against institutional power.
But I can’t help what I am or what I love to do.
The experience also taught me that there are two kinds of protest in the modern world. The first is the kind that can be easily ignored. The second is the kind that violates rules and offends those on the outside.
I’ve seen a lot of discussion online about Colin Kaepernick's choice to sit during the National Anthem before a game. He later claimed that it was in protest of the nation’s systemic mistreatment of minorities, specifically in connection to the concerns of Black Lives Matter and the high level of violence and killings of black people by police across this nation.
The nation seems oddly torn on these concerns. The data and evidence and history all indicate that there is a problem and that it is systemic. This does not mean that all cops are bad (my dad was a good cop), but that the system protects those who are and often tends toward bias and discrimination in the application of law, leading to an environment of mistrust, persecution and brutality. This also doesn’t mean that all lives don’t matter equally, but that until these issues are addressed, all lives are not perceived as having equal value. And yet, rather than looking at these problems and possible steps toward resolution, many have entrenched themselves, become defensive, or ignore the issue entirely. It is my belief that Kaepernick and the athletes who joined in similar efforts over the last week chose to use their platform to draw the attention of those who choose to ignore.
And many are offended. Many want to drag out veterans and say that this protest is disrespectful to them. It is disrespectful to the symbol of the flag. It is anti-American.
This makes me question what being an American means to people. When early patriots tossed tea into Boston harbor, it was protest. When violent skirmishes broke out pre-dating the Revolutionary War, it was protest. It helped bring the country into existence against tyranny. When white middle America talks about the Civil Rights movement of the 60's and 70's, the focus is almost always on the non-violence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. without recalling that other more extreme methods of protest often made reaction necessary. Still, King’s efforts included boycotts and sit-ins and is pretty widely held as an example of American protest. So Kaepernick sits. Brandon Marshall of my hometown Denver Broncos kneels. They are called “anti-American” and they sacrifice their own benefit (Marshall lost a endorsement deal after Denver’s first game). People who have a problem with these athletes seem to forget Muhammad Ali’s refusal to participate in the draft during the Vietnam war. They forget the power of sitting in protest. Instead, they focus on the players themselves. They talk about multi-million dollar contracts and if they tiptoe toward discussion regarding the issues being protested, they proclaim things aren’t that bad. It comes from a position of privilege that has a hard time understanding that there are problems.
My attempt at protest is no where nearly as important as those being discussed by activists today. I get that. But it was important to me and those in my position and I did it in hopes of drawing attention before things got worse. I did it because my right to a decent life as an American is just as important as the systems that were set up to administer those concerns and that, along the way, stopped being accountable to those they served.
My point is the same as what I try to teach my students — if you are engaging in an argument, it’s important to consider all sides with a sense of empathy and history and then support that information with pertinent data and information. Stay on topic. Don’t try to disregard the concept based solely on personal attacks on the speaker.
My question becomes then, what is the right kind of protest? What is the difference, beyond the causes, between my marching through Manhattan and athletes sitting out a song? The last responses on our lips should be our right, implied patriotism, or validity in doing so.