Was the protest at Convocation controversial?

PHOTO BY KELLY PIEN ’20 | PHOTO EDITOR  Opinions Editor Zoya Azhar ’20 wonders if the Convocation protest was controversial or if most students were merely apathetic.

PHOTO BY KELLY PIEN ’20 | PHOTO EDITOR

Opinions Editor Zoya Azhar ’20 wonders if the Convocation protest was controversial or if most students were merely apathetic.

Zoya Azhar ’20 | Associate Editor

I’ve only ever participated in two “political” demonstrations during my time at Smith. The first was a public prayer during my sophomore year, when students of all faiths gathered on the main floor of the Campus Center and prayed together. The second time was during Convocation this year.

Activism that involves physical protest has never been what I feel most comfortable putting my energy into. It’s not that I don’t think it’s a worthy cause — I just prefer other ways of calling attention to issues I care about and which affect me.

I attended the meeting the Black Students Alliance (BSA) and the Smith African and Caribbean Students Association (SACSA) organized to discuss the protest, a few hours before Convocation, because I felt it was my responsibility as a student journalist to be present there. I was also very curious.

Being an international student from a country where my skin color is the norm, race relations are a new kind of discrimination to me. Or, at least, the dynamics in the United States are very different from what I am used to back home. And so, when the 911 call was placed on July 31, I followed the train of events as much out of horror as I did out of curiosity.

There was controversy every step of the way, from Jeff Jacoby’s opinion piece in the Boston Globe on how the incident was not a matter of racism to extensive heated debates in Facebook comment sections about whether or not the lives of dining hall workers accused of being the caller were being disrupted.

I can understand the controversy. Many people do not see eye to eye when it comes to racial issues. It’s why racism still persists.

But was the protest at Convocation controversial?

I did not intend to participate in the protest during Convocation, but I agreed with the protest and the beliefs motivating it. I thought it was natural for there to be a protest; the incident had shaken the Smith community, and it made absolute sense that people would want to use Convocation as an opportunity to raise their voice. It’s what Convocation is for, quite literally.

Protestors, dressed in black, met at the Mwangi Cultural Center and marched over to John M. Greene Hall, crossing the street with no attention to the crosswalk. They entered the hall and stationed themselves around the perimeter of the building. They linked arms and chanted: “When Black students are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back.”

It was powerful.

I was so struck by how powerful it was, in fact, that I linked arms with the protestor closest to me and joined in. How could I not? I agreed with them.

Other students noticed the protestors and began to abandon their seats to join them. Soon enough, the entire auditorium was either standing at the perimeter with the protestors or standing in their seats, shouting the words, “Black students matter; Black lives matter.” It was obvious that people cared, and this show of solidarity was heartening.

When students marched out of John M. Greene Hall, cutting the speaker off, they gathered outside. Amanda Nwankwo ’20, member of SACSA’s executive board, then addressed the crowd.

It looked like the protest had been a success. The event had been disrupted, and the protestors had made their point. But standing in the crowd, I saw looks on people’s faces which worried me.

Boredom. Ambivalence. Couldn’t-care-less-ness.

I overheard one student say, speaking over Nwankwo, “So, what now? Do we go back in, or what?”

I should have known better. There is a reason Black students are so tired of constantly arguing that racism exists and affects them. There is a reason they are so angry.

It’s because people don’t have the patience to listen and understand.

Of course, plenty of students were also completely taken with, and truly interested in the protest. But it was disturbing to see some students remain unmoved, nonetheless.

And then there was the outpouring of hate on online platforms like the Smith Confessional. The Confessional is a forum where Smith students can anonymously share thoughts, opinions and questions. It is an unofficial and uncensored insight into student life and campus climate. Typically, the anonymity has enabled some troubling thoughts and beliefs to surface on the Confessional.

When I (on a whim) found myself skimming through it a few nights after Convocation, the recent posts made me worried the same way I was worried during the protest.

There were vehement complaints how the protest was a surprise, no information about it was communicated beforehand and about how Convocation was an inappropriate opportunity for the protest, since the ceremony is supposed to be a time for celebration. I think the former thought is a very weak argument to make against the protest, so I won’t linger on it too much. The latter is a subjective matter; students shout and make their voices heard at Convocation anyway. If enough students feel there is a worthwhile cause to be shouted about, which they are angry about and which they think deserves the school’s attention, why not? Everyone’s in their underwear, for heaven’s sake. Nobody’s coming up to you to convey how much they don’t want to see your private parts because it disrupts their idea of the ideal Convocation.

Why should something as useful and productive as protest be so incompatible with Convocation, then?

The third, and most worrying, thought which I read was how people felt pressured to protest. ‘Everyone was getting up and walking out, what else was I supposed to do?’

I was stumped.

Here I was, moved enough to join the protest, and on the flip side, there were those who felt pressured into doing something they were not comfortable with.

My initial reaction was to be annoyance: “Don’t you have the guts to do what you want? Is it really the protestors’ problem that they unwittingly pressured you into protesting?”

But then, that isn’t quite fair, is it?

The problem this exposed to me is that students who would — like me (on most days) — prefer to make themselves heard in ways other than protest worry that they may be labeled unfairly by the campus community if they do not join in. While I am not claiming that this is the general strategy employed by Smith students, I do think it’s a real fear.

I do not have a conclusive, all-encompassing thought to end my piece on, but I will say I am much less worried about all the conflicting opinions and controversy that popped up after the protest.