Occupying the Cafeteria: More Farce than Freedom

Student movements have been an invaluable mode of social change throughout history. However, it seems that the powerful messages of prior generations have been superseded by cries for attention.
Perhaps the most compelling instance of students making their voices heard was the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. The world watched as brave university students in China drafted a list of complaints and marched on Tiananmen Square to make their demands heard. Cameras snapped as one brave man stood in front of the tanks and refused to move. That man stood his ground for social change against China’s oppressive government.
When I heard about the student occupation of the Kimmel Center at New York University, I hoped that at last the great tradition of student movements and protests had reached our generation. The news media had covered little of the event until a video shot from inside of the occupation’s last minutes reached the Internet.
Instead of inspiring others, these students made a mockery of a great tradition. In the background of the video, one protestor yelled, “You’re going to get sued! We have lawyers!” and then, when given 10 minutes to use what the camera man calls “consensus” to decide to turn over their NYU ID, he told the police to “use earmuffs.” One officer responded by actually placing her hands over her ears. The protest seemed like more of an unorganized circus act than a serious instance of civil unrest.
According to Take Back NYU’s Web site, TakeBackNYU.com, their 2009 demands are for the “public release of NYU’s annual budget and endowment” and that “annual scholarships be provided for 13 Palestinian students.”
The Kimmel 18, as they are now being called, like the protestors in Tiananmen Square, made demands that they hoped would be answered due to their protest, but comparing them to this historical moment feels a bit like comparing the “Don’t tase me bro!” kid to Gandhi.
The main goal of any act of civil unrest is to raise awareness or to bring about change. I’m not sure how much awareness the protest rose about providing scholarships to students in Gaza or how willing the administration will now be to turn over its annual budget.
Unlike student protests at Berkeley or here at UC Irvine that raise student awareness about many causes, the Kimmel 18 received no such awareness. It was entirely unclear from their protest that they were fighting for scholarships to bring education to war-torn Gaza. The efforts of the Muslim Student Union and the Anteaters for Israel do much more to raise awareness for the region’s children than this occupation. The NYU students made a mockery of student protests and delegitimized future student movements.
However, protests can still affect change when done right. One shining example is the UCI service workers, whose protest helped increase wages. While the NYU students had the right idea, based on footage of their protest, it is clear that their leaders were unorganized. The NYU student paper, the Washington Square News, reported that many of the Take Back NYU coalition’s 20 clubs were not even invited. For this type of civil unrest to be effective on a mass level, broad support is key.
Students of our generation can achieve social change, if protest is used sparingly and effectively, not just as a fad to be instituted every time the UC Los Angeles police asks to see your ID in Powell. As a culturally diverse campus affected by international issues, UCI is a place that could lead to the restoration of student movements, and I am not alone in believing this. After all, Jimmy Carter did choose to stop at UCI on his book tour, recognizing our potential in influencing talks on the Middle East. I’m sure the Kimmel 18 will get around to promoting these goals as well, after they make sure their Macbooks are not detained.

Erica Bourdon is a third-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at ebourdon@uci.edu.

See also

NYU Local: Raw Footage From the Last Moments of the Kimmel Occupation