A friend of mine reached out this week. He was confused. He didn’t understand what had happened at Mizzou, why the president and other administrators stepping down was warranted, or what was accomplished by their ouster. I tried to respond. I told him I’ve now read timelines of the events there, how what lead to what. But, I said, like most people following this story, I don’t know all the specifics. My friend seemed to want to know what had happened that was that bad. I said feces swastika notwithstanding, I don’t think the point is that one specific horrible thing happened. He seemed especially to be struggling with the memory of his college experience, where ugly incidences of racism would occasionally make headlines on campus and then things would simmer back down. How was this any different, he asked? And I said perhaps it was no different. In fact, I said, my sense is that what’s happening on that college campus and on Yale’s (and others and surely more to come) are symptoms of the great social ill that is white supremacy.
The book I’m writing takes place in Berkeley in the 1960s and 70s and as a result I’ve been reading a lot lately about what happened on UC Berkeley’s campus from about 1964 through the next decade. The best book I’ve read on the topic is W.J. Rorabaugh’s Berkeley at War. In it, he traces how what would be come to known as “the Sixties” started as a dispute between students and the administration that eventually resulted in Berkeley’s president stepping down. For years the university Regents (always thusly capitalized) had battled with a group of activists who’d come to call themselves the Free Speech Movement or FSM.
Rorabaugh describes in detail the escalating conflict, which was fought over things like where card tables could or couldn’t be set up. To an outside observer the spats and concessions may have looked trivial. On October 1, 1964 a FSM activist named Jack Weinberg was arrested by campus police and put in the back of a cop car. Students surrounded the car so it couldn’t drive off. More students joined until eventually the crowd numbered in the thousands. For 32 hours they sat like this. It was a protest of a scale so much larger than the particular issue—a single arrest.
This didn’t matter, Rorabaugh writes: “The dispute, at its heart, was about power.”
“… the experience transcended the sum of its parts. From the beginning of the spontaneous sit-down around the police car, deep emotion had gripped the students. That emotion did not rise simply either from anxiety about free speech or from the wish to apply civil rights tactics to the University. It expressed deeper feelings, revealed reservoirs of strength, caused the unlocking of hidden talents, and pushed people toward new ventures. The Free Speech Movement unleashed a restless probing of life.”
So, I told my friend, I don’t think it’s about the specifics. Activism is always about symbolism. And theater. It’s about the powerless demonstrating to the powerful, to others and to themselves, that this doesn’t have to be the way it is.
I told him that maybe the point isn’t that you or I are going to totally understand what’s happened at Mizzou. The point, I think, is that white people need to listen to what these groups of students, and minority Americans in general, are saying.
And we need to believe them.
Especially if you’ve not followed these stories closely, I suggest you read Jelani Cobb’s excellent New Yorker post about it all. In it, he addresses the critiques made of protestors this week in right-leaning media as well as at The Atlantic.
David Simon (yes, that David Simon) decided to Twitterfight Roxane Gay and academic Tressie McMillan Cottom for several hours this week about freedom of speech and the protestors in Missouri, at one point calling the protestors’ actions “fascistic.” I hope you’ll read the blog post McMillan Cottom wrote afterwards:
In the New York Times, Gay published a must-read op-ed about safe spaces and why it’s really easy for white men especially to mock the very idea of them.
Until late this week, I hadn’t actually read the dingus letter that Erika Christakis sent the Yale students unfortunately under her supervision. Read it; it’s wild. Then read this sharp rewrite of it by Michael Oman-Reagan:
At the bottom, he’s also included a great further reading list about the situation at Yale.
I really enjoyed this 1988 Fresh Air interview with legendary New Orleans musician, composer and producer Allen Toussaint, who passed away this week. Their chat is so charming, and he also plays a good number of songs. I especially love when she asks him what kind of music interested him as a kid:
Professor Longhair, foremost for his New Orleans people. Fats Domino, of course. And I listened to everyone. However, as a young child, I thought that all pianists played everything. I mean, I thought anything on piano — any piano music, all pianists played it. So I tried a little Bach, a little Professor Longhair, a little Albert Ammons’s “Boogie Woogie,” some Strauss waltzes, some Liberace. I really came into my senses later to find out that you can’t really do it all. But as an early child, I tried to play every kind of music that I heard. I thought everyone was doing that.
Turkey day cometh, bro. Order your bird. The Times Cooking Thanksgiving menu planner is rad as hell.
Here’s a bunch of great websites. Here’s a Chrome extension that limits the amount of time you spend on certain sites by which I mean Facebook. Here are some bots you should follow. Not mentioned there is my present obsession, Bot-ston:
p.p.p.s. Happy birthday to you.