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Interview: We Demand

Roderick A. Ferguson is faculty in the Department of African American Studies and the Gender and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the co-director of the Racialized Body research cluster at UIC. In 2018-19, he will serve as president of the American Studies Association. Illinois Academe editor John K. Wilson interviewed him via email about his new book, We Demand: The University and Student Protests (University of California Press, 2017).

Q: A recent survey of students found that 28% of Democrats and 60% of Republicans agree with the idea that they should not have to walk past student protests on campus. Do you think the right to protest is endangered on campus, and who poses the greatest threats to it?
RF: After the police and National Guard killed student protesters at Jackson State and Kent State in 1970, President Richard Nixon convened the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest. The commission issued a report entitled “The Report of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest.” Despite the fact that the police and National Guard killed protesters unjustifiably, the report was designed to frame student activists (rather than the extraordinary use of police powers) as the problem. Nixon’s report exhorted college and university administrations to get in control of student activism through the development of diversity offices and campus security. A year after the Nixon report, the soon-to-be Supreme Court justice Louis Powell wrote a secret memorandum to the private entity known as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The memorandum was called “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System.” It warned business leaders that the “free enterprise system” was being assaulted throughout U.S. society and identified college campuses as one of the places where the assault was taking place, mainly through leftist students and faculty members. The Powell Memorandum then provides step-by-step recommendations for how business leaders could manage and suppress the appeal of progressive faculty and students. So the right to protest and even the right to engage in certain kinds of critique have been endangered for quite a while. The kinds of alliances between university administration, politicians, and corporate leaders that I write about in We Demand are actually the greatest threats to the right to protest.

Q: Critics sometimes worry that division and conflict on college campuses today is worse than ever. Do you think that they forget just how violent and angry some of the 1960s protests were (and how violent and repressive many of the reactions to protest were), or do you believe that campuses today are actually deeply divided with conflicts and that’s a bad thing?
RF: I don’t know that people have forgotten the violence and anger of the 1960s. What has not been confronted in this country with real deliberation is the will to confront the very problems that student protesters were identifying in the sixties. Campus activism has been effectively constructed as a social nuisance rather than an expression of people trying to grapple with issues that bedevil the society. This society is divided with conflicts. To the extent that campus activism attempts to shed light on those conflicts and how they impact places like the university, those protests are performing an enormous civic good. Rather than presume that campus protests are the public expressions of unfounded grouses by spoiled students, we need to ask what are the social and structural referents for those protests. In many ways, constructing students as spoiled and ungrateful obstructionists or criminals who have to be forcibly subdued prevents us from getting at the material cause of their activism. If we look back at the Nixon and Powell documents, that strategy seemed to be intentional.

Q: In the 1960s, a big issue for administrators was whether to call in the local police. Now, colleges have massive police departments, and can spend half a million on policing for one event. Is this a militarization of campuses, and how has it changed protests and the campus response to them?
RF: When dozens of college administrators lobbied their legislators, after Kent and Jackson State, to establish campus police departments, they were effectively asserting that the police are the effective means of engaging campus activism. In many ways, we live in the world that this campaign wrought. The Nixon report explicitly advocates that each campus have a police force that fits that campus’s particular needs given its size and composition. It also advocates that each campus security office have a healthy relationship with the local police force. In a moment in which large college campuses have well-endowed campus security offices, in a moment in which local police forces are equipped with military style weapons, and within an ideological environment in which campus protesters are understood as nuisances and criminals, the situation can easily become militarized. There’s already a militarization of police within the U.S. in terms of not only weapons but also in terms of how folks from people of color and immigrant neighborhoods are regarded as enemies within. That is of a piece with how student activists—as well as people of color in general—are regarded on college campuses.

Q: How has the reaction from college administrators to protest changed over time, and what do you think they should do differently in responding to student protests today?
RF: Looking at President Nixon’s report I don’t know that administrators have changed really. In many ways, today’s administrators seem to be the fulfillment of the visions that were laid out by the Nixon report and the Powell memorandum. What seems to have “changed” is the move to an almost outright prohibition of protest. Take for instance, the recent policies that the University of Wisconsin and Northwestern University just produced on “disruptions” and “demonstrations.” The activists who are charged with disruption are faced with suspension and expulsion for disrupting regularly scheduled events, for obstructing movement around campus, for obstructing views using placards, banners, and signs. In other words, policies such as these outlaw the very strategies and tactics that constitute protest in the first place. With regard to the policy in Wisconsin, there’s an obvious line between that policy and Governor Scott Walker’s administration. So, what should college administrators do differently in responding to student protests? The conscientious few should work to establish institutional cultures that can produce an informed and unshrinking stratum of administrators, one that trains people to have the moral courage to refuse the influence and enticements of internal and external entities that aim to suppress academic freedom as well as the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the constitution.