My alma mater was front and center all last week for some of the best and worst reasons. The issue of racism on campus and in Columbia is something that won’t be solved by a couple firings and a hunger strike. Everyone involved knew that, but they also knew that the center couldn’t hold and that this problem wasn’t going to be addressed without an intensifying, public movement. I’ve written about this and others have poured thousands of words into the topic as well, so to look at something else pertaining to this, in my mind, isn’t skipping past the racism. It’s there and we’re still going to be watching and hoping and working until it becomes but a tiny grain of sand washed about on a larger beach of social justice. It might take forever, but nothing worth anything is ever easy to do.
Today, though, I wanted to look at the other element that has emerged from this story: The mob-rule mentality that two MU faculty/staff “adults” promoted as they sought to dictate the rights of others.
I spent the majority of my adult life dealing with journalism and the freedoms provided to all citizens in the First Amendment. Knowing what people have the right to do and where they have the right to do it is a crucial lesson I pound home in every class I offer. In concept, it’s easy to understand. In practice, it occasionally becomes a false front, afforded or denied at the whims of those who yield power. I remember feeling the outrage of my media advising colleagues when a photographer at Virginia Tech was detained, his camera confiscated and his pictures seized during the 2007 massacre. I also remember the anger I felt when I read studies that had citizens saying we should all just shut up and get on “Team Asskicker” during the War on Terror (patent pending). It isn’t just our right to be places, capture events and report on issues. It is our duty.
Yet, somehow, those in power have always managed to say, “Great idea. Now get the fuck out of here before I bust your head.”
On the Mizzou campus this week, we had several bad actors all of whom should have known better. Melissa Click, an assistant professor of communication, confronted a student journalist who had made it inside of the Concerned Student 1950’s “safe space.” She assaulted the student (that’s what you call it when someone grabs you and shakes you) before calling for “some muscle” to haul the kid out of the prescribed “safe” area. In the extended version of the video, she puts her hands on the kid, who protests by explaining the First Amendment rights he has are the same ones that allowed them to peaceably assemble. Click mocks the kid with “Ohh… Good one…” and then notes she’s a faculty member and she doesn’t care. She later confronts the kid again.
Janna Basler, the head of Greek Life on the Mizzou campus, also found herself in hot water when she confronted photographer Tim Tai. As Tai tried to take photographs, Basler led the pushback against him, literally and physically. Tai’s efforts to take photos were met with hostility and anger. Despite his calm demeanor and his attempts to explain how the First Amendment works, Basler and others shouted him down and then used the force of their bodies to press him back from the scene.
The angles on these activities and their association with the overall movement have varied over the past few days. Some argue that this is a case of First Amendment violations and, even worse, a vile assault on student rights by professors. Others, including Tai, have said, “OK, folks, let’s keep our eye on the ball. This is about the pervasive racism on campuses, so don’t get distracted by this sideshow.” A fairly detailed argument has been made to explain why people of color distrust the media and how it’s impossible to accurately detail black pain in the ways in which the media wanted to. Still others argue that this whole thing is concocted liberal plot because no one has been tweeting “poop swastikas” or posting them on Instagram. The positions have varying degrees of merit (that last one is literally and figuratively full of shit), but they all miss the point.
Racism is a systemic use of power to undermine and restrain those targeted by the dominant group. It’s essentially bullying based on a singular trait via an exertion of unrestrained power. The very thing that #ConcernedStudent1950 sought to reveal, in truth, revealed itself in the actions of Click and Basler: When one side grasps power, it often uses that power in a way that diminishes the rights of others.
In the case of Click and Basler, they knew they had a dominant physical advantage based on group size and a heady sense of accomplishment (they had just essentially forced two administrators to resign). Their rights (peaceable assembly) trumped Tai’s right (free press) in their minds and so they pressed that advantage. When you do that, you lose the high ground and you become what you have sought to unseat.
The other arguments are secondary, but worth briefly noting: The “black pain” argument falls a bit short here as a defense of Click and Basler, in that you had two white women pressing the advantage. The “kids were hyped up” argument is a dumb one as these weren’t “kids.” They were adult faculty/staff members, one of whom sat on the student media board. This isn’t “ignoring” racism simply because a second problematic narrative emerged as part of this. The media has the ability, occasionally, to walk and chew gum at the same time, so focusing on what amounted to two assaults, a threat of “muscle” and the violation of civil rights in the name of protecting civil rights shouldn’t be ignored.
What you saw in the case of these people was bullying. We want what we want and we don’t care what you want.
That behavior cannot stand, regardless of who is doing it or what goal they attempt to attain.