Some time ago, I received a call from my university asking me, as a recent grad, to join the alumni association (aka, donate money). I love my alma mater. It is a beautiful campus and I am so grateful for the time spent with friends, the hours wracking my brain to write just one more page of an essay, and the incredible education I received which is more valuable to me than gold. Therefore, I decided I was willing to support the school which had been my home for 4 years.
Just 3 hours after receiving this phone call, I witnessed through Facebook something no one would want to see of their old home. I saw many of my friends posting frightening videos my school, of people in masks tearing down police blockades, smashing windows, and causing fires making me afraid for the students who – like me a few years ago – are looking for similar experiences of learning and growth.
Almost immediately after witnessing the violence, students and those connected to the school began trying – as I did – to understand what happened to provoke such an event. As my alma mater (let us call it UCB, University of Cool Baccalaureates) has a strong connection to the Free Speech Movement of the 1960’s, protests have been a common form of expressing opinion for several decades; though some campus protests been more violent than others. Some of my friends shared videos of this recent protest with captions such as “stay strong” or “I’m so proud of my alma mater”, while others posted captions rejecting the explosive actions of those causing the violence as counter productive as they tried to distance these people from the “actual” students peacefully protesting.
For the purpose of this article, I will not dwell on the reason for the protest, other than to say that the goal was to challenge the presence of a guest speaker who had been invited by a student group to discuss race, politics, and sexuality (the speaker was invited for his discussion of such topics on social media, his messages often criticized as being hateful and intolerant). While the protest of this speaker was initially intended to be peaceful with students performing art pieces meant to inspire love and understanding, things turned violent when more people entered the scene to disrupt the speaker by force.
I know this is not the first campus protest to turn violent, nor is it an isolated incident across the country and the world. But this particular event had me think a little harder about protests.
I believe a protest is meant to be a way for a group of people to be heard by a larger public, a united voice that will no longer stand for injustice but will fight for what is right. Protests are, in some ways, one of the most basic forms of freedom of speech. Knowing this, I cannot help but see the irony of a protest meant to silence the voice of another. Is it a fair use of free speech to use one’s voice to silence someone? Doesn’t the 1st Amendment guarantee everyone the right to articulate their opinion, even if others don’t want to hear it? Is it right to limit free speech to fit a particular set of beliefs?
So what do we do? Words can cause harm, sometimes as much as physical violence. So what is to stop someone from using this freedom to hurt?
I am convinced this requires the brave actions of those willing to be heard, to use their voice for good, not harm. What this protest could have been (what it was meant to be) was a peaceful expression of love for those who are marginalized in society, an expression of hope for a day when people are tolerant of others’ beliefs and unique qualities. The initial protestors saw a speaker who gained fame for communicating messages of hate and sought to combat him – not by silencing him – but by singing louder with voices of love.
As a child, when I complained about the actions of other children, I was taught that I cannot control the actions of others and should therefore worry about my own actions. To my fellow protestors, I encourage you to do the same. When you protest, do not protest to silence anyone, but to be heard by all those willing to listen. Remember the examples of well-intentioned protests turned violent, and encourage those around you to protest with the voices guaranteed to us by the Constitution. And when you do, make sure to be spreading love and justice.
Mathijs D. Arens
Mathijs D. Arens is from San Francisco, California and currently works for The Salvation Army in Glendale. Mathijs graduated from UC Berkeley in 2014 with his Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology. He enjoys acting, writing, and singing in public.