Something Is Stirring

A new generation of student activists turns up the heat and grapples with consequences.

May/June 2015

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Something Is Stirring

Photo: Nick Salazar

Kristian Davis Bailey was sitting on the pavement in handcuffs, surrounded by other Stanford students who had been or soon would be arrested. Stretched before them was a miles-long backup of cars and trucks, a small city of commuters going nowhere.

The scene was the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, where about 70 protesters, including several dozen Stanford students, had positioned themselves on the roadway, blocking westbound lanes. An intermittent symphony of car horns provided a soundtrack while a few angry motorists presented their own version of protest—an extended middle finger.

Bailey, '14, and the other students were on the bridge January 19—Martin Luther King Jr. Day—to express outrage after the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., during encounters with white police officers. "Those of us who are affected by police violence, we wanted to challenge the notion that people could just ignore it. Halting people's movement was an action to force people to confront what they don't necessarily have to," Bailey said in an interview.

The "Black Lives Matter" protest resulted in the arrests of 64 Stanford students and alumni. In the immediate aftermath, reaction focused less on the issues that inspired the demonstration than on the method the protesters employed. One law enforcement officer called it "dangerous and irresponsible." Some Stanford students complained that the protesters were damaging the reputation of all students by association. For their part, the protesters insisted that if others had been more engaged with the issue, the bridge would have been empty that day. Said Bailey: "I would ask people who raise these concerns, do you recognize that there are systemic issues to address, and if you do, why aren't you doing something? It's a little unfair to engage in this criticism if you aren't willing to act in some regard."

Bailey and Thompson hold hands, standing across a bridge. Bailey has his other arm linked into another person's. Behind the two are two protesters with cardboard signs. TROUBLED WATERS: Bailey, left, and Thompson at the San Mateo Bridge protest. (Photo: Nick Salazar)

The bridge episode added a provocative installment to an emerging new chapter of student activism at Stanford, and typified a surge of political engagement on campuses across the country. In recent months, Stanford students have joined a national clamor for action to address police shootings, sexual assault, fossil fuel consumption, water conservation and Israeli government policies affecting Palestinian people. On the Farm and elsewhere, there have been heated student government meetings, raucous rallies, and emotionally charged commentary on websites and in social media. The discourse has included both eloquent conviction and withering condemnation.

The ferocity and scale of the recent activism are arguably greater than at any time in the past 30 years. Whether this signals a new era of student discontent or a temporary phenomenon rooted in recent events remains to be seen. However durable it proves to be, activism in the 21st century looks fairly similar to that from earlier times, yet it feels unfamiliar. Today's students are learning how to disagree—where and when they should push more forcefully or, conversely, draw boundaries in their expression of grievances or eagerness for change. And they are exerting pressure on the comfort zone of a campus that for decades has been relatively serene.

Stanford has passed through tumultuous periods before, especially antiwar and civil rights movements in the late 1960s and early '70s. The intensity—and, in some cases, violence—of the protests at that time far exceeded anything yet displayed by today's student organizers. But there are similarities to efforts aimed at ending apartheid in South Africa in the late '70s through the mid-'80s, a period in which students on the Farm mobilized hundreds of supporters in mass displays of civil disobedience. Since then, most of the activity on campus has involved fewer students for shorter periods of time—examples include initiatives against the Iraq War and in support of gay rights, and a push for better pay for the university's hourly workers. (Not all advocacy is political, of course. Many students participate in altruistic efforts, whether it's a clothing drive for the poor or raising money to help victims of natural disasters.)

"Stanford has a history of being politically engaged, thought-provoking, daringly countercultural, but in recent years, that attitude had faded," says sophomore Josh Lappen, one of the organizers for Fossil Free Stanford, a student group pushing for divestment from energy companies that rely on fossil fuels. "These fledgling activist movements—and Fossil Free Stanford is among them—are waking up the campus by reminding us how to act on our values." 

A student stands, back turned to the camera, wearing a white shirt with an orange X that says 'Fossil Free.' She is speaking into a megaphone.SPEAKING OUT: Student seeking divestment from fossil fuel firms (Photo: Sam Girvin / Stanford Daily)

Recently, the issue that has most animated debate centers on efforts to sanction the government of Israel for its policies toward the Palestinian people. The group Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine sponsored a series of events on campus to build support for a petition calling for Stanford to divest from companies that, according to the petition, cause "substantial social injury by violating international humanitarian law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories."

SOOP collected more than 1,500 signatures from current students and the support of 19 student groups. Many of the students who had participated in the San Mateo Bridge protest were also outspoken advocates for the petition that castigated Israel.

A competing group, Coalition for Peace, collected more than 1,700 signatures of its own as well as support from alumni and faculty. Its petition denounced the divestment effort as divisive and ineffective. "I think automatically, because divestment results in a yes/no vote, people feel like they need to take a side and defend their particular position," says Liana Kadisha, '15, the group's co-founder. "There is no room for learning or questioning your opinions. There is no room for understanding. For Israelis and Palestinians on campus these issues are extremely sensitive and complex, and cannot be captured in slogans."

The battle that ensued divided opinion based not only on the positions each side adopted but also on the tenor of the discourse itself. The merits of the arguments have at times been overshadowed by worries that the divestment effort imperils the community by polarizing it. Similar concerns have been heard at other schools where divestment initiatives were introduced.

At the University of Michigan last spring, the Central Student Government voted against a divestment proposal after weeks of acrimonious debate that included threats and intimidation on both sides. Pro-Palestinian organizers at DePaul University held a student referendum on the divestment question—it passed 575 to 333 amid accusations of questionable tactics by supporters and opponents. And at UCLA, where the Undergraduate Students Association Council passed a pro-divestment proposal, the matter even spilled over into student elections. Student government candidates were asked to sign a pledge that they wouldn't travel to Israel, a de facto litmus test that prompted UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, '70, and UC President Janet Napolitano to weigh in against what Block called efforts to "eliminate selected viewpoints from the discussion."

Stanford's ASSU voted in February on whether to endorse the SOOP petition. The first vote, which came at the end of a contentious meeting attended by hundreds of students, failed to attract the necessary two-thirds support for passage. But a week later, a second vote passed the measure by a vote of 10-4 and set off new rounds of invective about the petition—and the petitioners.

Each side accused the other of being hateful and hurtful. The atmosphere became so charged that President John Hennessy appealed for civility in a statement to the Faculty Senate, noting that no topic has been more divisive in his 15 years as president and 30 years as a faculty member. "As a university, we must remain committed to civil and rational discussion, especially when the issues are highly controversial. An atmosphere of intimidation or vitriol endangers our ability to operate as an intellectual community." (See below.)

President Hennessy's Statement

At Faculty Senate, February 19, 2015

This past Tuesday evening, as many of you know, the ASSU Senate chose to revote on a resolution and approve a request for divestment that focuses on Israel and Palestine.

I have three points I want to make concerning this and the movement for divestment from countries involved in the Middle East conflict.

First, in the nearly 15 years that I have been president, and my 30 years here as a faculty member, I have never seen a topic that has been more divisive within the university community. As a university, we must remain committed to civil and rational discussion, especially when the issues are highly controversial. An atmosphere of intimidation or vitriol endangers our ability to operate as an intellectual community.

Second, you should be aware that our policy on investment responsibility specifically allows the Trustees to not act on any proposal that is likely to have negative consequences for the university community. To quote the policy:

"If the Trustees conclude that a specific Trustee action otherwise indicated under these Guidelines is likely to impair the capacity of the University to carry out its educational mission (for example, by causing significant adverse action on the part of governmental or other external agencies or groups, or by causing deep divisions within the University community), then the Trustees need not take such action."

Finally, our policy does not contain provisions for broad or formulaic divestment. Any divestment request needs to focus on individual companies, including specific evidence that their activities cause direct and substantial social injury.

Thus, contrary to folklore, the Trustees never voted to divest from all companies doing business in South Africa. They approved selectively divesting from a small number of companies over a period of several years. Those companies were individually contacted and either ignored or refused requests by the university to work towards implementing the so-called Sullivan principles. Subsequently, the university made a decision in those cases to divest.

Hopefully, we can continue this discussion in a rational and civil manner in the months ahead.

Alongside concerns about the effects on Stanford's campus community, administration officials are worried that the divestment movement could endanger the university's reputation, especially with Jewish families. The ASSU vote in favor of divestment received widespread coverage in Israel and the United States.

Efforts to get Stanford to divest from fossil fuel companies have been less contentious but equally passionate. Fossil Free Stanford has used a combination of public pronouncements and consciousness-raising events to build support. It even invoked words from the university's founding grant—"promote the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization"—to help make its case.

Four men sit at a curved table. Strewn across the table are water bottles, plastic wrappers, notebooks, and pens. One man has his hands covering his face.TAKING A STAND: ASSU debates divestment from companies linked to Israel (Photo: Nick Salazar).

Investment policies and business contracts have been targets for activists since the 1960s, when antiwar protesters railed against classified research at Stanford's Applied Electronics Laboratory and pushed for greater oversight of the Stanford Research Institute, now an independent entity but then a university affiliate. In 1971, the university adopted a Statement on Investment Responsibility that allows for consideration of practices or policies that may cause "substantial social injury" as a condition for investment. The Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing was formed to make recommendations to trustees about such matters; students and alumni are among its members.

Stanford students lobbied for nearly a decade to get the university to divest from companies doing business in South Africa during the apartheid era. That effort was ultimately successful (see below), and it offered a rare example of a protest movement that persisted through the college careers of half a generation. Former California state comptroller and gubernatorial candidate Steve Westly, '78, MBA '83, was among those involved in a mass sit-in at Old Union in the spring of 1977. He and 293 others were arrested. "I believe this was one of the more important issues that I have ever worked on because there was a moral clarity that you rarely see in the real world," he says. "The question was, what were we going to do about the university's investment policy? The students were largely supportive, and there was general solidarity among students. But this was an awkward issue for the university because a number of Stanford's largest donors, including HP and Chevron, were heavily involved in South Africa." 

Case in Point

Divestment from companies doing business in South Africa was done selectively, case by case, based on explicit new guidelines codified by the Board of Trustees in June 1985. Companies were evaluated in part on their willingness to adopt the Sullivan Principles, a code of conduct conceived by the Rev. Leon Sullivan in 1977 for corporations doing business in South Africa, that required them to treat all employees equally, inside and outside their workplaces.

In some situations, Stanford notified companies of its intent to divest its shares if the company did not satisfy the university's investment guidelines. In one well-known case, Motorola Corporation sold its South African subsidiary. Stanford had earlier threatened to sell its 124,000 shares in Motorola.

 Sophia Raday, '87, says she jumped into activism "with both feet" in 1985 by getting arrested at an antiapartheid sit-in. A police officer roughed her up. "It was a harsh experience, and many of the photographs—particularly of the one African-American student arrested—were rather shocking. In retrospect, I'm quite impressed by the actions of Stanford's administration at the time. I was sent an official letter of apology for the manner in which the arrests were conducted."

A black and white photo in which Raday is being dragged by the arms by two police officers. ARRESTED: Raday in 1985 (Photo: David Kravetz / Stanford Daily)

Fossil Free Stanford has taken a softer approach, preferring persistence and patience to confrontation. And they have had victories. In 2014, the advisory panel recommended that Stanford divest from coal companies, and trustees agreed. Board chair Steve Denning, MBA '78, in an announcement following the vote, acknowledged the students' influence. "Fossil Free Stanford catalyzed an important discussion, and the university has pursued a careful, research-based evaluation of the issues," he said.

That decision made plenty of people unhappy, including alumni who complained that Stanford was acting rashly and unfairly in targeting the coal industry. Denning stood behind the decision. "We believe this action provides leadership on a critical matter facing our world and is an appropriate application of the university's investment responsibility policy."

Students aren't the only ones pushing for change: 369 faculty members signed a letter, presented to President Hennessy in February, calling for divestment from all fossil fuel companies. The signatories included President Emeritus Donald Kennedy.

Challenging the status quo almost always creates rancor and risk to the community, says Seth Foldy, '77, who was active in antiapartheid demonstrations. "Tension is the point of protest. Without discomfort there is never change." Foldy, now a doctor and teacher at the Medical College of Wisconsin, recalls that one of the tactics used by students opposing apartheid was to post "Blacks Only" signs on campus bathrooms to provoke thinking. "In nonviolent protest, a moral tension is created. The targets are policies, not people. . . ."

Westly sees protest as a sign of healthy questioning. "Having a little tension is not a bad thing. The government in China is working very hard to quell any sort of activism. I think most of us would say they would benefit from a little more democracy."

Alumni from earlier eras often express pride when they hear about political engagement on campus today. Raday, now a writer living in Albany, Calif., says she met a student recently who is a leader in Fossil Free Stanford. Her reaction: "Go, next generation!"

However, there is little consensus about how, when and where civil disobedience is appropriate. Raday, for example, was troubled by the San Mateo Bridge protest. "Blocking random traffic on a busy commuter bridge is not targeted. You never know who is in that traffic. There could be an old person, or someone in an ambulance, or a mom with a small child. To me, no matter how deeply you care about a particular issue, it's arrogant to screw with some innocent person's life in its name."

Kristian Bailey points out that, early in the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr.'s activities were considered radical and received strong pushback, including from other black leaders. "The movement faced similar criticisms—'we agree with your goals but not your activities,'" he says.

The passage of time has softened attitudes and "sanitized" the narrative about the methods used to bring about civil rights gains, Bailey adds. "When I respond to these criticisms, it's with that frame in mind. What we're doing isn't necessarily different from direct action [in] the Sixties. We look back at that with a romantic lens, that it was the right thing to do. In 10 or 20 years, my hope is people will look at the actions we're taking now in the same way."

Senior Manny Thompson, who also was on the San Mateo Bridge that day, bristles at the assertion that students pushing for change are dividing Stanford and harming fellow students. "The status quo is painful to many members of the community. It's painful to me, and it's divisive and hostile," says Thompson, who describes himself as black, Asian and low-income. "We've never felt comfortable on this campus. I cannot comfortably sit by in this bastion of privilege while people in the same marginalized community are being shot in the street."

Raday is sympathetic to that point of view. "Like so many others, I was horrified by Eric Garner's death [on Staten Island]," she notes. After being manhandled by a police officer during her sit-in all those years ago, she projected her resentment on all cops. "But in a twist of fate, I ended up marrying a police officer. We've been together for nearly 20 years now. I've come to see how blind I was to the humanity of police officers. Cops were not individuals to me; they were only symbols of power. I was wrong. I'm all for passionate opinions, but it's important to stay open, to hang on to one's sense of curiosity."

Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford, feels a responsibility to bring perspective that can help students figure out how best to express themselves. "Students are going to come to their own positions about where they stand on issues, and it's our obligation to explain that the situation is complex. Actions do have consequences," he says.

"Sometimes people can do things that are counterproductive. I saw that in my own experience. There were things that I did in my 20s that I definitely would not have done in my 30s. That doesn't mean that my political viewpoints have fundamentally changed. It just means that I understand that issues that you think of as fairly simple and 'why can't everyone see it the way I see it?' are actually quite complex."

Carson has counseled students about the difference between "expressive" protest and "instrumental" protest. "Sometimes people want to protest to express how they feel, and they're not that concerned about whether it will have a positive or negative impact on that issue. And that's OK—sometimes you do need to express anger or frustration. But you shouldn't substitute that for protest that is meant to actually change things."

Tom Ehrlich, a former professor and dean at Stanford Law School and now a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Education, is co-author of Educating for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Lives of Responsible Political Engagement. He says universities have a "special responsibility" to teach students to base their arguments on evidence and to root those arguments in reason. "At times, of course, like the rest of us, students find themselves feeling with overwhelming passion that they are right and others are not only wrong, but immoral. It is vital that universities take special care to educate their students to hear the voices of those with whom they disagree—not simply to raise their own voices more loudly—and to respond with reasoned analysis, not simply appeals to emotion."

A wave of students march down a street. One, centered in the photo, holds up a cardboard poster which says "Educate Yourself."DEMONSTRATION: Students protest the Ferguson shooting (Photo: Nick Salazar)

Historically, youthful idealism has provided fuel for change, in the United States and around the world. In Hong Kong, in the Ukraine and during the Arab Spring, it was students who galvanized democracy movements. And on college campuses, such engagement has been valued as a sign of intellectual and moral fitness.

"Young people are raising issues that need to get raised," says Carson. Police violence against African-Americans has been a topic of concern for years, he notes, "but until young people took up that issue, even people like myself, who care about these issues, were not concerned enough to protest and demand change."

Bailey didn't arrive at the Farm expecting to join a movement, but he's glad he did. He says the San Mateo Bridge protest was "one of the more interesting experiences in my Stanford career." Moreover, he feels an obligation to get involved. "I've been given a lot of privilege. I have a duty to be accountable to people who don't have that power or privilege."

Even so, he recognizes that activism now is easier than it will be later. "I loved being a student activist," he says, already sounding a bit wistful. "That's a time when you have the ability to take risks you don't have once you graduate—your meals are taken care of, you know where you're living. We have the ability to think bigger picture or challenge structures that are harder to challenge when you're part of the 'real world.'"

For Josh Lappen, who is majoring in classics and minoring in mechanical engineering, activism is as much a part of his education as his coursework. "I don't think my work with Fossil Free is unrelated to my academic interests at all. I strongly believe that college is my best chance to make myself the kind of person I want to be. Some of that involves learning skills—reading more Latin and getting better at thermodynamic analysis—but the harder part is figuring out how all this knowledge applies to my ethics and the way I live," he says.

"The old notion of college education was that it prepared us for 'direct usefulness in life'—as Jane Stanford charged us—not by giving us the technical skills and connections to live comfortably, but by making us thoughtful, inquisitive and compassionate enough to do good and help each other."

Comments like that must surely warm the hearts of faculty and administrators. Carson puts it most succinctly: "I'm proud of them."

Kevin Cool is the executive editor of Stanford.

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