Political activism takes different form at William & Mary

Ryan McKinnon
Contact Reporterjmckinnon@vagazette.com

When President Obama went to George Mason University in January to talk about gun control laws, the George Mason College Republicans staged a protest.

Such an event would be unlikely at the College of William and Mary, says William and Mary College Republican President Phebe Meyer.

“We would not do something like that,” said Meyer.

It is not just the College Republicans. As students at Yale demanded a professor’s resignation and the football team at University of Missouri refused to play until the college president stepped down, the collegians in Williamsburg have been decidedly less vocal than their peers.

And while the presidential election has driven student activism, leading to the creation of organizations for both libertarians and socialists, the activists at Williams and Mary tends to play it safe, according to several student leaders.

“The political organizations here tend to think more intellectually and less emotionally,” Meyer said. “As a club we want to engage on an intellectual level – talk about policy issues and not just scream rhetoric.”

Not a ‘protest school’

Students mentioned a handful of incidents over the past few years as the most memorable moments where activism seized the campus. Students pointed to a Black Lives Matters march in 2014, a sit-in for mental health last year and the sticky-note incident of 2015, when the Thomas Jefferson statue was covered in yellow sticky notes describing him as a racist and rapist.

But beyond that, many students say political activism is not part of William and Mary’s culture.

Black Lives Matter Organizer Travis Harris is a 32-year-old graduate student at William and Mary. Harris said he thinks the lack of activism in the area is largely due to how issues are presented by school and town leadership.

“The college and Williamsburg are great at sweeping things under the rug,” Harris said. “They are smart -- they know how to make things look a certain way. The administration started a race task force, so now administration always just says, ‘Hey, we have a task force.’”

But Harris said the Black Lives Matter march in 2014 demonstrated the need for the movement. When a grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Harris organized the event that drew supporters from all over the region.

Harris said he wants more political activism at William and Mary, but he said the focus on academics at William and Mary can make students resent the disruptive nature of an organic movement.

He described the student response during a “die-in” the Black Lives Matters movement staged in the Swem library. Rather than pricking the social consciences of students on campus, Harris said, students were annoyed at the distraction.

“There were all these students that were upset,” he said. “They were saying, ‘I’m trying to study.’”

Culture of rules

Billy Bearden, the founder and president of the College Socialists at William and Mary, said even some of the activist students are too concerned about following the rules to stage effective protests.

He pointed to last year’s protest at Wren Portico for better mental health services.

“They got approval from the school beforehand,” he said. “A sit-in is supposed to be an inconvenience to the school to make them take notice, and they got the school’s approval for it.”

The event’s Facebook page said, “This is in no way a protest of the Counseling Center. We recognize the CC is invaluable on our campus and has amazing people working within it; however, it is our right as students to demand better care and resources from administration and to elevate student voices.”

Brian Whitson, the Associate Vice President for Communications and University Relations, said the university tries to work in advance with student organizers.

“This is a fairly small community so we do our best to keep the lines of communication open,” Whitson wrote in an email.

But Bearden saw the collaboration between the demonstrators and the administration as a troubling sign.

“Our education goes unmolested,” Bearden said. “But any future resistance would be much more difficult for our future alumni to combat. We would be so used to, even though we might not like, accepting authority.”

Approach to change

Aine Cane, the former editor of the student newspaper, The Flat Hat, rejected the conclusion that academics kept students from speaking their minds.

“I think it is just different campus cultures,” she said. “We get self-deprecating at times and we say, ‘Yeah people here are just more bookish.’ But I think people here try to enact change in different ways.”

And Whitson said the absence of headline-grabbing protests did not mean William and Mary students weren’t plugged in to the issues of the day.

“There is activism but I would not necessarily describe it as ‘disruptive activism,’” Whitson said. “We talk a lot about the importance of civil discourse and debate. A university setting is the very place you should be able to have difficult and important conversations.”

Several student leaders agreed with Whitson’s assessment.

In February, leaders from the four main political organizations on campus – the College Libertarians, College Republicans, College Socialists, and Young Democrats – debated fiscal policy.

And students from the Republicans, Democrats and Socialists all spoke about the effect the 2016 election was having on their organizations.

“There certainly is a lot of excitement generated. There is a lot of discussion among students,” said Meyer, about the Republicans.

“Our club is passionate about making progressive change on issues,” said Jakob Stalnaker, the president of the Young Democrats

And Bearden, the president of the campus socialist organization, said the liberals on campus were “near cannibalizing themselves” over the debate of Hillary Clinton versus Bernie Sanders.

“There is a lot riding on this particular race,” said Bearden. “For some, it takes the character of a life a death scenario.”

McKinnon can be reached at 757-345-2341.

Copyright © 2018, The Virginia Gazette
50°