Student protests continue to rise at SU, across country

Activism among college students is the highest it has been in more than 50 years, according to a 2015 report – and Syracuse University is no exception.

Bea Gonzalez can recall the scene vividly: the protests, the marches, the signs, the chants – all of it.

It began on Nov. 3, 2014, when a group of more than 100 Syracuse University students, most of whom were members of the newly-founded student organization THE General Body, marched to Crouse-Hinds Hall as part of the Diversity and Transparency Rally to deliver a 43-page list of grievances to the university administration. After initially finding the doors locked and being refused entry, nearly 50 students were eventually let in and allowed to occupy the lobby of Crouse-Hinds Hall to stage a sit-in.

Photo: Provided by Alexis Rinck.
Alexis Rinck, second from the left, poses with fellow protesters at the Mattresses on the Quad demonstration.

The protest would last 17 days and accompany five more rallies on campus by THE General Body during that time. It was the largest student activism movement at SU in more than a decade, and would also serve as a catalyst for a rise of recent student protests on campuses across the country.

Gonzalez, SU's vice president for community engagement, served as the liaison between the administration and THE General Body and remembers the uneasiness around campus and the stress that came with her new role following the students’ sit-in and continued protests.

“I lost weight during that process,” Gonzalez said. “It was intense. It was intense for lots of reasons.”

A 2015 graduate, Christine Edgeworth, was one of the organizers of the protests. She said the 17-day demonstration was more strenuous than most movements she had previously been a part of, not just because of the physical demands of the sit-in, but also because of the drastically different viewpoints THE General Body and the administration had.

"Naturally it’s stressful, especially when your administration – we didn’t really agree with what the chancellor was doing," Edgeworth said. "That in itself made it stressful."

While Edgeworth described the protests as an "eye-opening experience" that helped lead to some change on campus, she also added there will always be more work that needs to be done.

"In terms of did we accomplish what we wanted to, I think that depends on who you ask," Edgeworth said. "I think in terms of a lot of these issues, there is still a lot more to work towards. There is no one golden end goal, we need to work little by little."

Although THE General Body’s 17-day occupation of Crouse-Hinds Hall and accompanied rallies drew national attention, it was just one of several protests that have occurred at SU in recent years. Student activism has increased not only at Syracuse, but across the entire country as well – evident by the number of demonstrations following the presidential election.

From March 2007 to April 2017, there were 56 protests at SU (or nearby with a large number of students participating), according to articles published by The NewsHouse and The Daily Orange. However, there has been a sharp uptick recently, as 40 of those 56 protests occurred within the last five years, compared to just 16 that took place from 2007-2012.

SU communications and rhetorical studies professor Dana Cloud said the increase in student activism can largely be attributed to the vast number of issues in the United States many Americans believe need to be addressed.

“There is much to protest and our moment is one of particular urgency: the scapegoating of immigrants, persecution of Muslims, erosion of union protections, imminent environmental cataclysm, violence against women, pointless, devastating war, escalating refugee crisis, and so on,” Cloud wrote in an email.

Cloud, who has participated in a number of demonstrations on campus since she came to Syracuse in Fall 2015, said she herself has noticed a dramatic increase in activism among students after President Donald Trump announced his controversial campaign for office in June 2015.

Since the election results were announced, there have been five rallies on campus protesting Trump and his policies. Many SU students also attended the travel ban demonstration at Syracuse Hancock International Airport in late January to protest Trump’s immigration executive order.

Political science and sociology senior Alexis Rinck helped organize several of the anti-Trump protests at SU. Rinck said she has been shocked by the amount of student involvement over the past few months, particularly for the Sanctuary Campus Walk-Out in November. Rinck, who helped plan the walk-out, said she didn’t expect many students to attend. Instead, more than 1,000 students and faculty members participated.

“I didn’t think anybody was going to show up, if we’re being honest,” Rinck said. “I literally told my friend Amy, ‘I would be happy if just 100 people came.’ And it became so much bigger.”

While Rinck was referring to a specific protest, she very well could have been describing student activism on campus as a whole, as college students are more politically engaged and prone to protest than they have been in more than 50 years, according to a 2015 study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.

The study, which polled more than 140,000 incoming college students, found that nearly 8.5 percent of freshmen believe there is a “very good chance” they will participate in a student protest during their time in college. That figure is up from 5.6 percent in 2014, and is the highest number in the study’s history, which dates back to 1967.

The study also found that incoming college students are more aware of protests and political movements taking place, as nearly 97 percent of respondents said they witnessed increasing activism among both high school and college students.

Rinck said by seeing others take a stand for certain issues they believe in, younger students are now more aware of what is going on around them and will be more inclined to participate in a protest themselves.

“I see it in the younger people now,” Rinck said. “The high school seniors now, they’re ‘woke.’ They’re with it.”

Gonzalez concurred with Rinck’s sentiment. Gonzalez said throughout her nearly 40-year career in education, she hasn’t seen students this involved in political movements on campus since the '60s and ‘70s.

“Students are getting connected and engaged in ways they haven’t been doing for awhile,” Gonzalez said.

One component that could be considered a root cause of the recent rise of student activism is the fact students feel more comfortable exercising their First Amendment rights than adults do, according to a 2016 study by the Knight Foundation and Newseum Institute.


While Rinck and others were taken aback by this finding, Gonzalez said she wasn’t surprised, saying it was something she, herself, had always assumed to be true.

“I spent my entire career on a college campus so I’ve always believed that,” Gonzalez said. “That is the beauty of working on a college campus and being with students, is they exercise their rights in a way adults won’t, or feel they can’t.

"Adults worry they’re going to lose their jobs, they worry about their stability. But students are in a different place so they can challenge things in a way others cannot.”

Not everyone is embracing the changing student activism landscape, however. Many students, in fact, say they are annoyed by the constant string of marches, rallies and demonstrations that have occurred on campus over the last few years.

Information and technology junior Steven Simons said he has grown frustrated with the increasing number of protests that have repeatedly interrupted his day, for reasons, he believes, are pointless. Simons said he understands students are exercising their rights, but believes doing so on on a college campus rather than in a larger environment like New York City or Washington D.C. won't achieve much.

“I understand people want to defend their rights and fight for what they believe in, but I just don’t think it accomplishes anything,” Simons said. “Especially on campus, I just don’t think – at the end of the day – you’re really making a difference. You’re just kind of disrupting campus and disrupting the flow of things that people need to have a normal day.”

Simons' criticism of student demonstrations is one Edgeworth said she heard during her time at SU. She said she understands this thinking, but urges those who view protesting as an annoyance to try to look at the underlying reason as to why people are protesting to begin with.

“I think it’s important to remember, while it may seem a disruption to you, people are protesting disruptions that make their own lives unfair and unjust," Edgeworth said. "It’s important to take yourself out of your own situation and try to better understand what their lives and realities are and to see the bigger picture of what people are fighting for."

Mechanical engineer sophomore Danny Ring agreed with Edgeworth's sentiment and claims any student activist movement should be viewed with respect, rather than disdain. Ring was one of the students who attended a rally at Syracuse Hancock International Airport to protest Trump’s executive order on immigration in late January.

“I think no matter what you’re protesting, you have the right to,” Ring said. “It’s just you expressing your constitutional right to do so.”

If recent events are any indication, many more college students will be exercising their First Amendment rights and doing just that.

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