Student activism, its repercussions are important to campus life

Claire Smith

Tuesday was the 26th anniversary of the day 10,000 Chinese students gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to mourn reform leader Hu Yaobang in the now-infamous Tiananmen Square protests and massacre. 

As many as 1.2 million people gathered over the course of the student-led movement before the Chinese government ordered a military crackdown against the peaceful protesters, which killed an unknown number of its participants and purged as many as 10,000 of their supporters afterward. Though the Tiananmen Square protests ended in tragedy, they are remembered today as a powerful moment when young people stood up for their beliefs against an iron system.

Though half a world away, the 40 Acres has a similarly poignant history of student activism. The first University protest took place in 1897, and there have been dozens if not hundreds of student demonstrations since.

According to John Woodrow Storey ad Mary L. Kelley’s Twentieth-Century Texas: A Social and Cultural History, student activism was the catalyst for the University’s full racial integration in 1965, and the fear of Vietnam War protesters rushing the Tower brought about the installation of the hedges and groves now decorating the West Mall in the late 1960s. Last December’s “die-in” for Eric Garner, the black man killed by a white police officer in New York over the summer, was another example of the bold activist spirit ingrained in the culture of the student body.

The recent debate between Unify Texas and UTDivest is the most recent incarnation of student activism on UT’s campus. On April 7, the first debate about the BDS movement, or Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, took place in the weekly Student Government meeting between student groups UTDivest and Unify Texas. Since then, our campus and this opinion page have been alight with powerful and well argued statements to the virtues of both causes.

The vibrancy of character, passion of purpose and dedication to an issue whose complexity frightens most away from serious consideration was a powerful and inspiring experience for me as a student. During one of the most formative times in all of our lives, where we spend our days learning and becoming our truest selves in four years devoted to self-discovery, the BDS debate often left me wondering: What more could I do for this campus, for this world?

For this reason and many others, I feel blessed that this movement happened on campus. It is imperative that more debates on campus happen, too. Though the issue was decided by Student Government Tuesday night against the resolution, I hope that an environment of open discourse is nurtured by this University. It is important for students to be able to speak freely about the issues that matter and be challenged so that we as a student body may grow stronger in our personal convictions, which only an environment of open discourse can ensure. So, to all of my fellow students who contributed to that, please let me say thank you.

However, in future on-campus debates, I hope participants will exercise restraint and sensitivity, which I often felt was lacking over the last two weeks. Though I admired the debaters’ passion, this cause engendered more hate between students than I felt comfortable witnessing. By the time SG voted, accusations of bigotry and virulent personal character attacks on student leaders in both movements became the name of the game. For shame.

Inspiring others and fighting for justice is noble. What this debate devolved into over the last two weeks was not. This debate mattered. Protecting the integrity of it was sacred. Hurting someone else is not the same as helping yourself.

Now that this debate is over, it would be too easy for one side or the other to become complacent with self-satisfaction at winning or rueful of their loss. Protect yourselves from such temptation.

As student activists, we can capture the voice of campus. We can make change happen. We can inspire our fellow students. 

Or we can hurt them, ourselves and our cause. To all of the participants in the fight over BDS, many of whom I believe did not take part in the mudslinging of the baser parts of the last few weeks, I urge you to serve our campus by holding your peers accountable to their cause when some may bow to the temptation of fighting with anything other than reason. 

Conduct yourselves with the dignity your cause demands of you as its representatives. If the cost is to the students around us and a community of openness, nothing is worth it. Fight the good fight, Longhorns. Just be wary of the repercussions.

Smith is a history and humanities junior from Austin. Follow Smith on Twitter @claireseysmith.