The Need for More Protests

By Divesh "Parli" Rizal, Middlebury Student

The remarkable series of events that followed the announcement of Charles Murray’s visit to campus contains more than a few lessons for both the community and the individuals. The debate of free speech and Murray’s legitimacy in Middlebury’s liberal academic setting will, and should, continue. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the rare protest that resulted from it. Middlebury seldom sees the kind of mass opposition that we saw against Murray, and there is a point to be made on the literal ‘turning-of-the-back’ protest on a campus that routinely churns students out year after year without much commotion. Defiance of this sort keeps alive the democracy in the bubble we inhabit.

Mostly, protest is a manifestation of a dissatisfaction with a dominating entity. It is and always will be the weapon of those with less political and social power. Thus it was last Thursday when the AEI club invited Charles Murray. We learned that the political science department co-sponsored the talk which they stood by even after further deliberation. Furthermore, Laurie Patton agreed to introduce the controversial speaker giving him inherent legitimacy in an academic setting. These three parties occupied the judicial role by giving Charles Murray a stage at Middlebury College despite students’ call for devaluation of the event. This pushed the students to a lower political level. Protest, therefore, was not only an appropriate response, it was the only option left.

Naturally, institutions like Middlebury are wary of protests, as the two are often in opposition to each other. They write ‘regulations’ in the student handbook about ‘designated protest areas’ and other rules that attempt to diminish the energy of a protest. Which is why the expectation that those rules and regulations will be honored during a manifestation of disapproval against that same institution that wrote those rules is hopeless. I argue that the task of writing rules of a protest, if they need to be written at all, belongs instead to the protestors — to those who feel marginalized or discriminated against. I have a feeling that is non-negotiable for now.

Our current handbook regulations, ironically, make the protest even more powerful as they provide additional rules to break, resulting in additional defiance. If these minor protest rules are broken, and they were, then where is the line where more significant rules, like the ones against violence, start to get breached. This might be the kind of slippery slope that led to the physical violence.

So here is my advice to Middlebury: current rules on protest are unhelpful; understand that protest regulations are inherently problematic and some, if not most, cannot be honored. If rules must be written, Middlebury should make it easier for protesters to get their message across without disempowering them. Instead, teach students about effective and powerful protesting.

The protest we saw last Thursday was one of the few and impressive student-led displays of activism Middlebury has seen in years. Certainly, the protest could have gone better. Protests are rare here and students didn’t have much experience. But, this is precisely why there needs to be more protests. This art needs to be honed and perfected so that when Middlebury students go out into the ‘real world’ and face more extreme setbacks, they have the tools to counter it.

So here is my advice to the young aspiring protesters: Protest!