Burn It Down, Again

The New Mass Movement Against Institutional Oppression

by Francis Torres

Illustration by Juan Tang Hon

published December 4, 2015

On November 2, Jonathan Butler, a black graduate student at the University of Missouri, began a hunger strike and promised not to eat until Tim Wolfe, the university’s president, resigned from his post. Butler, a founding member of the Concerned Student 1950 activist group, almost immediately became one of the most recognizable actors in the current wave of protests advocating racial justice on college campuses. As Butler gained visibility, so did a recent slew of racist acts, bigoted speech, and threats of violence directed at students of color at Mizzou. Concerned Student 1950, which draws its name from the first year that black students were accepted to Mizzou, has likewise garnered national recognition as the focal point of student activism against racism in Missouri. The group began peaceful protests in September, in response to an episode in which a group of white students used a racial epithet to refer to Payton Head, the President of the Missouri Students’ Association, who is Black. Their demonstrations intensified when the university’s president refused to address protesters’ concerns about white students who yelled racial slurs at members of Mizzou’s Legion of Black Collegians. Concerned Student 1950 organized student walkouts and rallies that, along with Butler’s hunger strike, managed to attract the support and participation of graduate students and faculty. Members of the university’s football team announced their support for the movement on November 7, pledging not to play any games until Tim Wolfe resigned as president. Bolstered by the economic pressure of student athletes, Concerned Student 1950 achieved the resignation of the university’s president and chancellor within the first week of Butler’s strike. 

While students at Missouri mobilized to oust their president, others at Yale directed their own protest against Erika Christakis. The Associate Master—or residential counselors—of the school’s Silliman College came under fire for writing a letter contesting the logic of racially appropriative Halloween costumes and suggesting that students “just look away” if they found them offensive. The letter was just one in a string of racially charged events including swastikas drawn on campus and a fraternity’s alleged barring of black female students from a party. The episode also exacerbated pre-existing tensions over symbols of the university’s racist past—such as the suggestive title of ‘Master’ and the naming of Calhoun College after a proponent of slavery. Student’s countered with a “March of Resilience” that brought together over 1,000 supporters.  

As hashtags like #ConcernedStudent1950, #InSolidarityWithYale and #BlackOnCampus flooded Facebook and Twitter feeds, student activists around the country organized their own protests in solidarity with Mizzou and Yale. In a recent map of “Mizzou solidarity” protests published by Mother Jones magazine, blue dots representing campus action have spread from a cluster in the Northeast to the West Coast, the South, and the Midwest. Local struggles with racism at over 40 campuses have also garnered national attention in the wake of these events. Students at Princeton, Amherst, Claremont McKenna, Ithaca, Brown, and beyond are filling the airwaves and the pages of newspapers around the country. Something akin to a national anti-racism student movement is materializing.  



In an article for the New Republic, author Roxanne Gay compared this emerging movement to the formation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, an anti-racism organization that brought the struggles of the civil rights movement to campuses in the 1960s. The increasingly linked campus protests provide, in Gay’s words, “…new cause to think about student activism, race, and the continuation of the civil rights movement.”    

The historic parallel Gay makes goes beyond a similarity in motivations or goals. Like SNCC, today’s campus protesters employ peaceful civil disobedience, make demands of university administrators, and seek to effect progress both within their student communities and beyond them. They mobilize against oppression within efforts that transcend the university.

If groups like Concerned Student 1950 can be thought of as the current generation’s SNCC, then the contemporary parallel for national-level civil rights movement organizations lies in the Black Lives Matter movement. In a Politico piece titled “The Birth of the New Civil Rights Movement,” NPR’s Gene Demby gives credit to Black Lives Matter for “…a new birth of passion and energy to a civil rights movement that had almost faded into history, and which had been in the throes of a slow comeback since the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012.”

The growing campus protest movement has deeper ties to BLM than a confluence of historical parallels. Many campus organizers, Mizzou’s Jonathan Butler among them, first came into contact with activism by participating in Black Lives Matter protests. Additionally, both BLM and campus activist groups organize around several intersecting identities. BLM’s website states that the movement is “transgender affirming,” “queer affirming,” and “anti-patriarchal.” It explicitly weaves the struggles of undocumented, working-class, and disabled black folks into its protest narrative. Its original founders—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—are all black women, and at least one of them identifies as queer. 

Campus protesters also acknowledge intersectionality in their movement. 35 graduate students at Brown University, organizing as “Concerned Graduate Students of Color” in a recent campus protest, issued a statement in which they affirmed “…our own commitment to resist and speak out against anti-Blackness, racism, sexism and gender-based violence, transphobia, classism, and queerphobia, especially at the interstices,” echoing the positionality and demands of student protesters across institutions of higher education.  

Despite countering oppression at different institutional levels, BLM and groups like Concerned Student 1905 don’t conform to a traditional main movement/youth wing relationship. The diffuse nature of national-level and college movements blurs the boundaries between both. Student protesters and BLM organizers—who are often the same people—read each other’s statements, share each other’s hashtags, and chant each other’s slogans. They are all nodes in a greater network of action that is beginning to have political effects both at the local and national levels, as recent Black Lives Matter interventions in primary candidate political rallies demonstrate. 



The diffuse nature of current student movements tends to work in their favor, but it can also be a tool for adversaries. As protesters move to make nuanced demands around representation, employing a structured discourse of harm and safety, their detractors answer back in the same cyberspace. The result has been an escalating conflict waged in the trenches of social media as well as in dorms and classrooms. 

As people fight fire with fire, posting and re-posting articles from allies, centrists, and detractors, a pattern has emerged. The staunchest opposition to the new politics comes not from conservatives—who tend to lambast university activism so frequently they no longer surprise anyone—but rather from an older generation of liberals. The planners of yesterday’s anti-war protests are the writers and editors of today’s liberal media, and it’s clear that many feel that their staunch support for freedom of expression is being betrayed. In the words of the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf: “Insofar as free speech is invoked during such controversies about racism on university campuses, it is because many leftist activists believe one necessary remedy for racism is for administrators to punish speech that they regard as problematic.”

Friedersdorf, perhaps the most vocal defender of the free speech camp, has written pieces criticizing protesters at Mizzou, Amherst, Yale, Princeton, and Brown for “weaponizing safe spaces” and “catastrophizing”—or “claiming that easily bearable events are too awful to bear.” On the other side, writers like Roxanne Gay and Jelani Cobb—both black college professors—have published defenses of campus protests that take into consideration the greater realities of structural racism, and that emphasize the importance of deepening connections between outside activism and the campus. 

In a recent speech at Brown University, Dominican-American author Junot Diaz argued, “there is no such thing as a safe space,” neither within nor outside academia. Diaz was not echoing the mainstream-liberal critique of student activist rhetoric, but rather describing the inherent precariousness of being a person of color in America. He later gave a small concession, adding that the only way to build safe space is through united, long-term action against the structures of oppression that lead to the initial need for safe spaces. As with any protest movement, this campaign is messy work that will necessarily transgress the boundaries of currently acceptable discourse.  

Criticizing the typecasting of students as immature, sheltered and fragile, Roxanne Gay echoes Diaz’s point in her New Republic piece: “students do not abandon their class background or sexuality or race or ethnicity when they matriculate, and their issues do not vanish when they register for courses.” She makes the point that students that struggle against oppression—particularly black students—are protesting against a reality that afflicts them always, both within the walls of their colleges as well as in the world outside. They are using the university as a space to shape a movement that transcends campus. 


FRANCIS TORRES B’16 transgresses the boundaries of acceptable discourse.