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Student Voices Articulating Themselves at Haverford College: Refocus the Debate to Birgeneau’s Role in Police Brutality

In the past few days, national ‘media’ successfully picked up a news story on a small college’s decision not to honor Dr. Birgeneau with a degree at their Commencement Ceremony. Big names such as the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post commented on where Haverford College found itself in the larger “trend” around student protest. Many “conservative” pundits have used this moment as an opportunity to dismiss “liberal” concerns as intolerant and totalitarian. I am compelled to join this conversation as a Haverford College student, a graduating senior, and one of the co-signers of the original letter to Birgeneau. If other news outlets want to represent my peers or myself, instead of grabbing for sound bites, I highly recommend that they publish this perspective.

First, I am disgusted by the way that the national media felt that it had a legitimate authority over our local politics. The distilled and distant nature of these outlets prevented them from engaging in the process that Haverford went through before Birgeneau declined the invitation; the media is failing on several counts. I refer you back to when President Weiss first announced that it would honor Birgeneau with a degree. Considering Birgeneau’s role in generating the violent tension between police and protesters, his dismissal of Occupy as violent, dismissing the protesters’ beatings as unfortunate, his seemingly insecure apology, and his current lack of admission in a lawsuit, we students felt that it was necessary to bring our concerns to light. Biregeneau had the opportunity to engage us, however frustrated we appeared, but chose, once again, to dismiss student protest as violent and unfortunate.

Even after this, students continued to engage in free speech when the college held a two-hour community forum, hearing countless voices both dissenting against Biregeneau, as well as those honoring him. The conversation even went as far as to spill over into the next week, as students continued to meet up and discuss the issue. We very much participated in the free exchange of ideas and encouraged engagement, whereas Robert Birgeneau simply chose not to engage us, thus stifling the conversation with his violent and aggressive words.

But the national media has distilled all of this into “student protesters shut down free speech”. This ought to be a teaching moment demonstrating the limits of the national media we consume: how it destructively objectifies, pacifies, and spins issues intimate to any given community. Let us forever be paranoid of such media-journalism, and let those in journalism forever be responsible for their power. But where is the role for national news outlets?

While it is understandable that newspapers are taking a superficial role (the WSJ won’t send a correspondent to our two-hour long community forum), it does not dismiss their responsibility to resist globalizing urges which themselves stifle the conversation (such as labeling student protests as indicative of the left’s “intolerance”). If this is the example that such media platforms are setting, then it is no surprise why that same poison is used against them. The news has lost its respect to the term “media”, a service that historically has perpetuated stereotypes instead of investigating problems. For example, post-9/11, the appropriate response to global frustration against the US was not “let’s vilify, torture, and go to war with brown bodies for expressing anger,” but instead, “how is US foreign policy generating such extreme responses and how is our jerk reaction perpetuating the initial problem?” Similarly, the WSJ probably should have developed a nuanced understanding of the power politics involved in our student protests. Perhaps the speaker’s crimes were disgusting enough to prompt anger, perhaps certain colleges have a flawed selection process for appointing speakers, or perhaps this was one of many issues related to student frustration with power. These questions come easily, considering the explicit concerns that the student protesters expressed.

In a similar vein to those student protests, I hope that this article brings to light the right way for those in power to play their roles. In the case of journalism in particular, I urge national news outlets to re-examine their role in local politics. Moving forward, instead of distracting themselves with catch-all trend reports that aim to be critical to those without power, perhaps there are more socially constructive ways of doing justice to important local issues (such as in 2011, when some news outlets did justice to Occupy Protests by questioning the role of “the one percent”). Furthermore, in the case of national op-eds, perhaps journalists could have approached our protests by demanding that institutions work towards nomination processes that are considerate and responsive to the student body, so that colleges don’t honor politicians considered war criminals or supporters of police brutality. Furthermore, following our protest, perhaps these journalists should have demanded that student groups rest unsatisfied until those alienated voices in their community are heard and respected.

Moving forward, I ask reporters and outlets to please clarify the following:

We are not trying to shut down free speech. We do not want to be vilified nor glorified. We are trying to articulate ourselves, along with the voices of the marginalized that we are in solidarity with, in order to engage those in power by whatever manner effectively holds them accountable. While we student groups continue to learn and respond, we ask for space, support, and affirmation. We hope that such demands may teach more than they jar. 

I finish by guiding national journalism back to the place that local politics initially wanted to bring them; this is their chance to do justice to the conversation that student protesters began. In what ways are Robert Birgeneau, Linda P.B. Katehi, Ray Kelly, and other officials responsible for brutal police beatings of Occupy Protesters? In what ways are Condoleezza Rice, President Bush, Dick Cheney, and others politicians responsible for war crimes? In what ways are Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Pamela Geller, Sean Hannity, and other talking heads responsible for hate crimes and torture against Muslim Americans?