The political climate in Ithaca this past week has been characterized by protests. On Friday, about 50 Ithacans gathered in front of Tompkins County Courthouse to support Rose de Groat and Cadji Ferguson over a controversial arrest in April. On campus, hundreds of Cornellians marched for action on climate change, calling for reforms such as the Green New Deal and divestment from fossil fuels.
These protests are important to change the political lens on our campus. They can inform students and Ithacans about the problems in our community and lead to sustained conversations about the response. But if the rallying cries of these protests aren’t portable outside of Cornell’s insular community, they are meaningless.
The loudest voices in the Cornell community on issues like racism or the climate change are often the most easily heard. But, there is a large sector of the population — your average Cornellian not involved in student organizations and only marginally informed on the issues — ignoring these pertinent problems. If you asked a random student outside of Mann Library their thoughts on abortion, they would be able to forward an opinion. No matter how strong that opinion is, however, it’s likely that the student wouldn’t be found leading, participating or even associating with a protest.
After all, the protest Downtown had 50 individuals (few Cornellians) and the climate protest had hundreds of participants. Neither of these had anywhere close to a majority of the over 20,000 students on campus, indicating that these issues didn’t reach the threshold of action for Cornell students. Why is this the case? If we have opinions, shouldn’t we motivated to pursue action that forwards these opinions?
The efficacy of social protest has often been undersold and denigrated in unfair ways in the university community. I’ve personally heard comments by people wondering whether protestors actually care about the issue or wash themselves of any responsibility in their “one protest of the year.” Second, many of these social protests don’t make demands on the state that warrant participation.
American history is rife with examples of “successful” social protests. The actions of the Civil Rights Movement, ADAPT and anti-war protests all culminated in some change in U.S. federal government policy. The modern-day examples include Parkland students like David Hogg. Florida gun laws changed significantly because of his work along with the activism of several Parkland survivors. Black Lives Matter also critically raised questions about police brutality and anti-blackness.
Cornell’s history is also filled with examples of protest, including the sit-in at Willard Straight and the divest from Israel resolution that was nearly passed in the student government last year. Yet, the narrative during the two most recent protests was negative. Comments on The Sun’s social media feature criticism from readers who thought that the climate march was contradictory. One reader even wrote “Hundreds? Sad,” clearly belittling climate change protests using an asinine argument. I heard comments on campus that bemoaned the noise the students were making and wondered why this march was necessary in the first place: “Governments and corporations won’t ever care about student protests,” I heard.
Protest in a vacuum is a strategy of escapism. As many protests as there are that succeeded, there have been just as many protests that have failed. The view of many Cornell students reflects the low probability of success for social movements. Although the divest from Israel bill nearly passed last year, it was stopped by last-minute politicking, like the successful attempt to switch to a secret ballot. Cornell still hasn’t divested from fossil fuels, even though various campus groups like Climate Justice Cornell have demanded that President Pollack (and previous presidents) cease ties with major drivers of greenhouse gas emissions and affirm the goal of making Cornell carbon neutral.
None of this is a call to stop protest. Rather, I’m persuaded that calls to change tied to specific and enumerated demands on people in positions of power are the key reason why protests translate into change. Policy change at any level simply occurs slowly. In a university setting, the president and Board of Trustees’ hegemony over the operation and goals of Cornell challenge any power students have to make decisions.
Although abolition activism started as early as the beginning of the 19th century, the Civil Rights Act wasn’t passed until 1964. And, African-Americans still experience the aftermath of slavery today. In the same way, the Willard Straight sit-in was over 50 years ago. Yet, a swastika was drawn on campus just last year. Even if activism isn’t perfect (which it rarely is), we should not take short-term failures as determinants of the second-order results of protest.
If, at the end of a protest, we can explain neither who we are demanding concessions or changes from nor what exactly we are demanding from them, the efficacy of a protest and its actual implementation decreases. I don’t think the climate change protesters were wrong in protesting. But, I struggle to find a way forward: When students chant “system change, not climate change,” there has to be an answer to what systems should change and who the actors are to change it. Without an outline for this, the chances of success for protests sink.
We cannot allow folks in Day Hall to determine the direction of resistance: Instead, we must define it — in bills to pass, resolutions to propose and different representatives to elect.
Darren Chang is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Swamp Snorkeling runs every other Monday this semester.