What happened when Black student protesters blocked traffic last semester as they sought to call eyes and ears to the deaths of fellow Black citizens slain in the streets of our hometowns? Confusion, fear — What’s going on? Why are “they” so angry? — or the ugly, cold shoulder of apathy. And what happened when the name of the racist presidential candidate was chalked around campus in a way that left little room for dialogue and response? Some protested, many balked. Still others — some from outside our campus — heaped on ridicule.
The stakes are high. We must all do better.
How can we? We can take more opportunities to step outside the lines. We can, and should, break more laws, especially when they disturb our moral consciences. I am speaking of conscientious civil disobedience. In the face of so much misunderstanding and misinterpretation of campus protest — willful or otherwise — I will continue to stand up for what my conscience tells me is just.
I raise my voice in the interest of a stranger, more questioning, freer Emory. I stand with all others who possess the courage to speak — those protesting white supremacy, imperial occupation in Palestine, homophobia, the patriarchy, anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-semitism, transphobia, capitalism and classism, militarism, 21st century colonialism and the list, unfortunately, goes on.
These structures manifest themselves in the smallest orders of my daily life, and I have the right — no, the responsibility — to question their authority, to question the pundits who write and imply that we should keep quiet, to question the faculty who hope I distill my societal and cultural critiques with positive sentiments, to question even the signs that say to stay off the grass.
What are we afraid of? Strange looks? My ability to look squarely back at myself matters more. To lose friends? Camaraderie within myself will last me a lifetime. To neglect our studies? Humankind is our study. To miss out on a career path, an eventual payoff for staying in line? I find no spiritual satisfaction in punching a clock. Are we afraid we will not get laid if we have too many opinions? Well, I have a lot of those and seem to be doing alright (thank you very much, Clay Travis). I believe our fears and doubts can be overcome with a dose of courage.
So that is why I step into public spaces with a megaphone in my hand and poems on my tongue. To me, poetry itself is not the protest — it is Art —but the act of public Art can be disruptive. It reminds us to imagine alternatives to life as it is. I am the first to admit what I can do is only a small act of breaking social laws, but I feel left with few other options in a place that tolerates so little aberrance. Besides, if one can no longer read poetry out loud on a college campus, what is the point of a college campus?
Only a semester ago, I studied in two Latin American countries — Nicaragua and Cuba — where student power played a crucial role in the reshaping of entire social orders. We, the students of North America, can rise to the same occasion. I call especially on all artists — poets, dancers, singers, visual artists, playwrights, novelists and musicians — to join me in filling public spaces with possibilities for a different future.
Just for a moment, picture 14,000 university students on Emory’s Quad, fists and voices raised in unison. They could ask for whatever they wanted — a change in direction for a new generation, a change of direction only we can dream of. How about 7,000? 2,000? But really, we don’t need the University to empower us, although it is always to our mutual benefit when it does. Student power is already ours; we have only to lose it or underuse it.
Stay in line, be this way, queue up. That is the strong undercurrent of our culture here at Emory and beyond. Too strong. My attitude? I doth protest.
Peter Witzig is a College senior from Duluth, MN