A number of months ago, I coined the term “Fuck You” Nation in dealing with the idea that we seem to have a constant sense that anyone who isn’t immediately for us in the way we want them to be should be told to fuck off.
Truth be told, I should have figured this term out decades ago, given the cultural climate of my alma mater.
The arrest of a 21-year-old UW-Madison student has sparked protests on campus, due in part to the circumstances of his arrest and the anti-racism message he was attempting to spread.
Denzel McDonald is accused of spray painting graffiti on 11 spots around campus over the past six months. McDonald is also accused of threatening to kill a bystander who tried to stop him.
The crucial issue at the center of the protests comes down to how McDonald was detained. He was taken from a class for questioning by the UW police department after the class had already started, although it is clear from the bodycam footage, as well as police statements, this wasn’t at the “Law and Order” level of chasing someone through a series of alleys. The police also noted they had tried to find the student in other ways for two weeks prior, but they did apologize for disrupting the class.
In response, a group of individuals has posted a list of demands that includes calls for a series of resignations of administrators and police as well as requiring that the charges against McDonald, both criminal and university, be dropped. The most wide-reaching demand is for “community control over UWPD.”
Chancellor Rebecca Blank’s responses have been fairly metered, give that she has no actual say over the criminal charges, nor can she force the specific resignations while simultaneously turning the police department into a branch of the Mifflin Street Co-op.
If this kind of thing looks familiar, it should.
Not the black man versus the Blue Line, but the red-faced rage against… well… everything around the UW flagship campus.
Madison has served as the central junction point in our state for protests throughout the past half-century. From the anger regarding the Vietnam War to the outrage over Act 10, the student base plus the presence of the Capitol has led to large gatherings of individuals demanding social justice.
Conversely, Madison’s reputation as a meeting place for the permanently socially aggrieved, the “chip-on-my-shoulder” crowd and the self-important elites is also well deserved. The line, “Madison: Where two’s company and three’s a protest” is not an understatement, nor is it impolite to suggest that the constant rage-gasm that seems to be ready to erupt over every perceived slight has led to a marginalization of broader and more important issues.
In my time in Madison 20 years ago, I saw protests over the Cleveland Indians mascot, a misinterpreted cartoon in the student newspaper, grade interpretations, things sold in stores on State Street, the use of the wrong abbreviation during a speech about the LGBTQ community and more. Perhaps my favorite was a protest that had three students pouring Pepsi on the steps of Taco Bell in a “Free Burma” stand. Turns out, they were friends of a kid who needed to cover an event for a reporting class, so they went out there to help create an event for the kid.
And those are just the ones I could recall off the top of my head.
Protests do have value when they are guided toward a coherent goal and based in specific needs. For example, protests on the campus of the University of Missouri brought about resignations, but that situation held with it both a broader base of support as well as a campus not given to such actions. In addition, those who resigned were the sources of long-term concerns. The system president in general had shown himself to be particularly tone deaf in reacting to constant and persistent issues of racism.
A quick check of media coverage on Blank hasn’t revealed a similar sense regarding her handling of these kinds of issues. In addition, the protesters have yet to clearly explain HOW a Civil Rights violation occurred via the arrest. If it’s about freedom of speech, there are limits in terms of time, place and manner, one of which prohibits criminal acts such as vandalism. If it’s about the arrest in the classroom, the argument is somewhat strengthened, although no legal mind with whom I have spoken or who has been quoted in the media can outline exactly what the violation is. In addition, the university copped to this as being a misstep and has taken proper action to apologize and create better policies.
I agree with the narrative outlined by groups that have noted situations like the one involving Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Missouri are not about one cop and one victim, but rather a flashpoint for systemic racism and emblematic of a larger issue.
To that same extent, I am not speaking here about one arrest, one set of demands and one group of damned kids who need to get off of my lawn. The attitude, approach and lack of self-awareness expressed by the students who pasted their list of demands to the statue of Abe Lincoln on Bascom Hill is just a microcosm of the larger Madison experience for me.
For my money, Madison was the most oppressive place in which I have ever lived because people on both sides of the fence of every issue wait with hair-trigger anticipation for any potential slight. We never discussed anything when it came to the important issues. We either loudly voiced our stand, daring others to “express ignorance” or we sat quietly, hoping no one noticed we burned the roast. The minefield of rage was always full of tripwires and walking it guaranteed we would fail.
Even after I left, I got flashbacks to these tales of fury, being told by idiots, signifying nothing. I saw a microcosm of that when Melissa Click stepped into the national spotlight, and it’s one of the many reasons I never liked how her actions overshadowed the purposeful actions of a collective with a cause. I saw it again in this Yale student, who berated a faculty member whose wife had the poor sense to write something the student disliked about Halloween costumes.
If this protest is about racism for these students, it is about speech for me. The protesters want this to be about a broader discussion of the “anti-black movement” that is imbued in every fiber of the campus. I agree with the need for that discussion.
However, there also needs to be a broader discussion about the general protest-based dickbaggery that emerges far too often in Madison and that displays the grace of a feces fight in the monkey cages at Vilas Zoo.
Grow some thicker skin.
Listen instead of waiting to speak.
Assume that people who don’t understand you want to try and are willing to learn.
Give people who fuck up in word choice or approach a chance to make amends.
And move your idle speed back from “constant rage” to something a little less taxing.
Those things will create the kinds of change you seek.