“Action expresses priorities.” – M.K. Gandhi
Since Nov 3 an average of 40 Syracuse University students have been peacefully occupying the basement floor of Crouse- Hinds Hall on the main SU campus. THE General Body (as they refer to themselves) are calling for reforms that will make their university community more participatory, diverse, accessible, equitable, and transparent. Many of these students are concerned about the overall climate on campus which seems to be growing increasingly hostile to students of different ethnicities, sexualities, and physical abilities. Citing numerous micro and macro examples of race and gender charged aggression, these students report feeling targeted by the campus authorities and generally excluded from community engagement initiatives started by the administration. In the past year alone they have watched vital resources on campus like the Advocacy Center either shut down or suffer from chronic under-funding. As one student put it, “buildings are going up and scholarships are going down.”
Furthermore, there are many students who are deeply concerned about the symbiotic relationship between defense industry corporations such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing and the research & development priorities of Syracuse University. The M-9 Reaper Drone not only flies out of nearby Hancock Air National Guard Base, it is engineered inside SU’s laboratories. Included in the student’s 11-point list of needs is a deliberate attempt by the administration to make available a breakdown of how tuition dollars are spent, providing salary data, and other details.
What makes THE General Body a truly global movement is their push for divestment from fossil fuels. Along with other high profile institutions like Stanford University, these students know that global warming is real. They are counting on their school to take bold and immediate action. In March 2014 the Divest SU campaign sent a formal request for divestment to the SU administration. The nine member “Socially Responsible Investment Matters Committee” held a meeting at which they declined to divest in fossil fuels. The meeting was closed door and no representatives from the Divest SU campaign were invited. This negligence prompted the students to use street protesting as a form of airing their public grievances, and eight months later they would take a building for the same purpose.
From failing to provide basic accessibility services and woefully understaffing the mental health services on campus to cutting popular service learning scholarships the administration is tarnishing its strong legacy as a pioneer in diversity awareness. The SU campus used to be one of the most progressive in the world on this issue. Today diversity is no longer a point of pride. Instead of championing world-class curricula, and setting ambitious goals like holding students accountable for hate speech, the current administration appears to be more impressed with building remote controlled assassination machines and winning basketball games. As one student organizer participating in the Sit-in put it, “there is a crisis of priorities here.”
Of course not everyone agrees with this assessment. The majority of the student body is either indifferent or antagonistic to their activist peers. But that’s why they are called grievances. It doesn’t matter if outsiders agree with these students or not. This is how they feel and they have a right to express themselves in a safe, democratic space. Although critics both within and outside the University community have called this act of nonviolent civil disobedience a radical and irresponsible move, one must ask what constitutes radical. Is it radical to mistakenly drop a hellfire cruise missile on a wedding ceremony in Afghanistan? Is it radical to pour millions of dollars into the black hole of big oil when the planet is teetering on the brink of ecological collapse? Is it radical to turn away a suicidal student because there is a shortage of councilors? Is it radical to have staff trained in diversity in order to prevent hate crimes from being committed by drunken frat “boys” and ignorant professors? Is it radical to expect accessible gender-neutral bathrooms on campus?
What is truly radical is that a 21st century American university with the prestigious credentials of SU is unwilling to abide by the moral vision of its founders. The men and women who started this school were people of faith, compassion and integrity. They would make every effort to provide mental health aid to their students, they would have invested in their faculty, library, and scholarships; and they would have been transparent about administrative budget decisions. Put simply: they would have treated their students with respect.
Today, faculty and staff are forced to choose sides, remain quiet, or support each other in subtle ways. Everyone at this level of responsibility appears to be involved. The only group that seems oblivious to what is at stake is the majority of the student body. One of clearest explanations for why so many students are apathetic came from a young man alert to the omnipresent role of class. He said, “People from the outside support what we are doing. It’s the students who are ignoring us. I think this has to do with the fact that Syracuse as a city is very underprivileged, whereas many of the students at SU come from privilege.”
Regardless of their background, it’s a shame that they haven’t gotten involved yet. As far as sit-ins go, THE General Body is equipped with a cozy environ for sure. They have Hi- definition TV’s, access to bathrooms, plush furniture, WIFI, hot water for tea and coffee, endless snacks, and the option to leave and return whenever somebody feels like it. These luxuries could be seen as a perversion of their message if they didn’t make for such effective tactics in the larger battle to have their grievances ultimately resolved. Never underestimate the appeal of convenience for a new generation of activists just now finding their voice in arenas like Cairo, Hong Kong, Kiev, Manitoba, DC, St. Louis, and even a small community like Syracuse. The more convenient a movement is, the more students the movement will attract; and the more students who get involved in the movement, the more positive and long-lasting the results of the movement will be. The fact that students can do their homework, take showers in their dorm room, engage freely with their friends and family, and communicate on social media means that they are in a position to take this demonstration as far as it can possibly go. Theoretically, they can continue expressing their needs until the chancellor either makes changes or sends in the Syracuse City Police Department. The latter would be a public relations and legal nightmare for the school.
We live in an age when obedience to authority comes far too naturally for most young people. It can sometimes appear as if they care more about their Facebook status than transforming societal problems like racism, militarism and classism. So it is refreshing to see students expressing their collective power in a spontaneous and somewhat risky way. To witness young people who could coast by on their privilege without paying attention to these systemic acts of immorality on campus choosing instead to sacrifice their time, energy, and reputation for social justice is more than a little heartening. In the words of M.K. Gandhi: "Actions express priorities." THE General Body are making their priorities known through actions that are changing their campus forever. How will the administration express its priorities? Will it be with compassion and integrity or with violent force?