Standing Athwart Social Justice Protests

Today’s protest-ridden climate on college campuses might lead one to suspect that they are hotbeds of political disruption controlled by social justice warriors.  All over the country, speakers are shouted down, professors are harassed and even assaulted, students are intimidated—while administrators grovel, patronize, pander, and quake. 

Fortunately, the situation isn’t quite so dim on most campuses, or, at least, it doesn’t need to be. Administrators may be learning that order and free speech rights must be preserved and that appeasement only emboldens troublemakers. Furthermore, ideologically driven protesters usually constitute a small minority of the actual student body.

A look at a three-day period at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reveals many different facets of the Trump-era campus protest phenomenon.

On November 13th, roughly 55 protesters gathered outside a speech by former deputy assistant to President Trump Sebastian Gorka. The protesters ranged in age from undergraduates to senior citizens. At some point, however, many undergraduate students (mainly female) left; the 30 or so who remained were older, more male, and more “hardcore.” Some belonged to the Democratic Socialists of America and were at times raucous, even menacing. 

The following day, about 150 protesters held a rally to demand the removal of a controversial confederate statue known as Silent Sam. As it was erected in honor of fallen Confederate soldiers, many claim that the statue’s mere presence on campus reaffirms racism and white supremacy.

Finally, on Wednesday, November 15th the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees hosted a public forum to allow individuals to “express their thoughts” regarding the monument. The majority of the nearly 30 speakers demanded that the statue be taken down (again deriding the opposition as racists and white supremacists).

Those events raise two major issues. The first is how the university handled the protests: did they maintain order and preserve free speech? The second concerns the character and intentions of the protesters: are they willing, or even capable, of listening to reason? Are they unrealistic or unhinged? Or are they merely looking to cause a commotion?

And, although protesting different issues, it appeared that demonstrators at both the Gorka and Silent Sam events shared a great deal of overlapping arguments and rhetoric. Perhaps there is an underlying political agenda for which Sebastian Gorka and Silent Sam are mere props? And are the protesters representative of the student population as a whole? 

As to the first question of how the university handled the protests, it appears that it did extremely well. All three events were almost entirely problem free.

Despite the protesters’ oft-excessive passion, they did not interrupt Gorka’s speech, the Silent Sam protest, or the public forum. Indeed, it seems that the university’s newly implemented free speech policy has so far proven to be effective: Participants at both the public forum and within the auditorium where Gorka spoke were warned that anyone who substantially interrupted the event would be subject to university disciplinary action and possible arrest, and would be escorted out of the building.

Other precautions also may have contributed to the civilized atmosphere. Attendance at the Gorka event was limited to enrolled students, registered guests, and faculty. The protesters freely vocalized their objections in a separate space—as it should be. Ample police were on hand to deal with the 30 protesters, no matter how intent on causing mayhem they were. It was a far cry from seven years ago, when former US congressman Tom Tancredo was chased off the UNC campus by rampaging radicals, partly because of inadequate policing.

Police have also closely monitored the Silent Sam protests. Because of protesters’ heightened emotions and occasionally heated confrontations with counter-protesters, the school employed an undercover police officer. Although the decision to use undercover surveillance was met with accusations of having “spied” on students, it may be that UNC-Chapel Hill is taking necessary strides toward preventing future violence.

There are certainly signs indicating that the protesters are unreasonable. Despite their insistence that the university take the statue down, the school is powerless to take such action due to a 2015 law that prohibits the removal of historical monuments from public grounds unless they pose a structural danger to physical safety or if given express permission from the North Carolina Historical Commission.

Furthermore, the protesters ascribed nefarious motives to chancellor Carol Folt and other administrators, implying that they are either racist for allowing the statue to stay, or that they care more about appeasing the university’s “rich donors” who presumably are in favor of keeping the statue. Yet university officials have repeatedly stressed their desire to remove the statue for “public safety” reasons.

At times, protesters even appeared to be unmoored from reality. Speakers at the Silent Sam public forum contended that the statue threatens students’ mental and physical health. One teary student from the school of medicine claimed that just walking past the statue could raise a student’s blood pressure to dangerous levels. She asserted:  

The continual presence of this monument on campus is a threat to the safety and well-being of students and that it is dangerous to public health…multiple research studies have shown that exposure to racism…causes physiological harm on the body. Blood pressure rises [and] stays elevated throughout the day. This isn’t a matter of hurt feelings; this is very literally as serious as a heart attack.

The protesters also have a dark edge. For example, one of the Gorka protest leaders, who declined to give either his name or affiliation, said that the chant “Every nation; every race; punch a Nazi in the face,” was meant literally. “It’s a proven political practice,” he explained. “If you punch a Nazi today, you may not have to fight a war later.”

The real problem is with his definition of who is considered permissible to punch for being a Nazi. When asked whether it was okay to punch Gorka, who resolutely denies having Nazi beliefs, the protester said that he believed there was a large body of evidence that he was, making him acceptable to assault.

When pressed further about where the line is drawn for somebody whom he suspects of being a Nazi but for whom there is not much evidence supporting his suspicion, he asked for a specific example. Of President Trump—for whom there is no evidence of any Nazi affiliation and considerable evidence that such a supposition is unlikely (such as his warm acceptance of his daughter’s conversion to Judaism)—he sardonically suggested and affirmed: “if it smells like…if the shoe fits.”

And at the Silent Sam protests, large groups encircled the statue and repeatedly shouted a quotation from Assata Shakur, who is on the FBI’s most wanted list for the first-degree murder of a police officer.

What, then, are we to make of protesters who suggest that mere suspicion of somebody’s political beliefs is enough to justify assaulting him or her? Or who identify with violent, cop-killing revolutionaries?

It only takes a small—but loud and aggressive—group to attract disproportionate attention and place administrators in deferential straitjackets.

Is it politics or principles that are really driving the protests? At the Gorka protest, a UNC-Chapel Hill law student affiliated with Democratic Socialists of America revealed that politics was indeed her basis for permitting speakers on campus. Angela Davis—a communist revolutionary—was to her an acceptable speaker, unlike Gorka: “She [Davis] is not a Nazi.” When reminded that Davis was involved with the Black Panthers at a time they were committing numerous murders, she merely stated: “We like the Black Panthers.”

As for whether an overwhelming majority of students want to “silence Sam,” further prodding suggests that most students are not particularly opinionated on the issue. On the contrary, when the Martin Center informally surveyed 26 UNC-Chapel Hill students regarding their thoughts on Silent Sam, the majority expressed neutrality or mild concern—not exactly matching the protesters’ zealous plea to “tear it down!”

Nevertheless, as seen elsewhere, it only takes a small—but loud and aggressive—group to attract disproportionate attention and place administrators in deferential straitjackets. Today’s protesters are extreme, unhinged, and threatening; it is little wonder that police officers must be prepared in case of an outbreak of violence—especially given the words of warning the protesters directed toward university officials: “This is Silent Sam’s last semester!” or “white silence is white violence!”

UNC-Chapel Hill should be applauded for taking precautions to prevent violence—while, at the same time, protecting students’ right to free speech and giving them a forum to air grievances. Still, the school must remain vigilant and administrators must firmly hold their ground and avoid the temptation to capitulate to the protesters’ excessive demands.

If the latest national trends in student protester movements indicate anything, it is that small pockets of angry students are growing increasingly influential in their ability to shape university policy. And remember that the protesters are a tiny minority that includes hardened radicals with a political agenda that extends far beyond the campus.

  • Bill Butos

    A sign of the times that college “Administrators may be learning that order and free speech rights must be preserved.” Oh my!

    • RMM

      Oh my! indeed.

      In fact they do know that order and free speech rights must be preserved, but they are terrified of sounding politically incorrect.

  • Cato’s Ghost

    This piece is so stunningly misinformed and melodramatic that it is difficult to know where to begin. It should have been titled, “Groveling before Social Justice Protests.”

    Let’s just stick with the most obvious errors – and even then there are more than just a few.

    The most critical lapse here is the consequence of Schalin’s and Watkins’ blinkered worldview. They are so fearful of imagined liberal and lefty boogie men that they can’t see that Gorka, and the neo-fascists who show up to ‘defend’ their Heritage of Hate, aren’t really the kind of people with which thoughtful conservatives should be chumming around. These are people who go out of their way to provoke and antagonize.

    If Martin Center staff are afraid of “social justice warriors,” they are completely blind to “social injustice gladiators.” There isn’t a whole heck of a lot of educational value in the nasty retchings of Gorka and neo-fascists, and their threats, urgings of violence, and calls for government repression and punishment of those who disagree with them, make the occasional and rare outbursts of lefty protesters look like the empty threats that professional bullies like Gorka love to provoke. If Schalin and Watkins would stop looking under the bed for imagined ghouls, they might notice the monsters at the bedside, who will chew up and spit out the remains of reasonable conservatives without a second thought. Look no farther than the lair of noxiousness that was once the White House, which has become the bane of every thoughtful conservative today. There lies the real enemy of conservatism.

    Similarly, Schalin and Watkins seem incapable of recognizing that the monuments legislation that has created all of these problems was just another example of abuse of power in name of hyperpartisan stupidity. What possible and reasonable interest would the state legislature have in regulating the decisions of local jurisdictions about how they handle statuary in public spaces? This law was nothing more than a snack of red meat for the disappearing and soon-to-be-extinct cultists of the Lost Cause. I suspect that when they aren’t blustering about Justice Warriors, the staff of the Martin Center probably aren’t parading around with swastika wearing, Confederate Battle Flag waving, bald-headed and mohawked white boys. Why not own your identity, and stop endorsing the practice of feeding tidbits to the monsters just because you want their votes?

    So, having failed to identify the real sources of disruption, incivility, provocation, and unreason that should be the primary issues in this story, Schalin and Watkins then proceed to conveniently distort a whole host of relevant facts. Here are just a few:

    1. The University didn’t “handle” the protests at all. It was the protesters who handled themselves. No one from the University administration told them how to act. Those boogie man blinkers Schalin and Watkins wear seem to make them blind to most of the relevant facts about the actions and motivations of the protesters. The fact of the matter is that it wasn’t the presence of police ‘standing athwart’ the gatherings that ‘stopped’ the protesters, “no matter how intent on causing mayhem they were.” (That was my favorite hoot-line in the essay). Anyone who has been in an energetic crowd can tell you that it isn’t the presence of police, but rather the choices the protesters themselves made, that regulated these gatherings.

    This kind of fear-mongering, lackadaisical interpretation, is just silly.

    2. It is a radical misdescription of events and developments to flatly claim that “there are certainly signs indicating that the protesters are unreasonable.” Demands that Chancellor Folt take unilateral and illegal action to remove the Silent Sam statue rapidly dissipated after the Chapel Hill administration and faculty leadership explained that the problem was not one the University could solve, but a problem with the law itself.

    The only people who kept insisting that Folt act were those who were out of touch with the unfolding discussions about the statue. But deafened by their ideological prejudices, apparently it was only uninformed lefties that Shalin and Watkins heard, since everyone else with a few ounces of gray matter in their head was already talking about how to change or work around the law. Indeed, at the public forum on Silent Sam, there was not a single individual who spoke who insisted that the Chapel Hill administration had acted inappropriately, and if you listen closely to what was said at the forum, you will note that there were numerous speakers who complimented the Chancellor for her efforts to fight the law, wished her success, and committed their support.

    In any case, and again, the real question here is why Schalin and Watkins didn’t call out the law for what it was – a stupid piece of hyperpartisan legislation.

    3. It is crude, unadulterated apologetics for Schalin and Watkins to suggest that the UNCCH Trustees were somehow responsible for “hosting a public forum to allow individuals to ‘express their thoughts’” about the Silent Sam issue. That idea came from Folt and her advisers. She said as much at the beginning of the public forum. And it was a brilliant public relations move, since it effectively forced the UNCCH BoT to proclaim itself for or against removal of the statue.

    That was necessary because of the deafening silence of the BoT. The fact of the matter is that neither the UNC Board of Governors nor any of the campus Boards of Trustees said a word about this legislation when it was being formulated. Faculty leadership told them the law would interfere with the efficient and effective management of resources and educational climate on the state’s public university campuses. In fact, not only did the Boards not utter a peep when this stupid legislation was being drafted, the Board of Governors actually violated the principles of good governance when they insisted that President Spellings and Chancellor Folt not act independently of the Board in managing the issue. Legally speaking, the Board has no such authority. This was hubris in the extreme – and the Martin Center here implicitly endorsed that hubris, just as they have explicitly endorsed it elsewhere.

    But perhaps that is the explanation for Schalin and Watkins failing to note the culpability of the Trustees in this mess, and failing to note that the Board of Governors acted inappropriately. After all, the Martin Center has claimed influence over the legislature and the boards, and since the kakistocracy now controls the legislature, the Board of Governors, and soon the Boards of Trustees since the General Assembly (in HB17, and unconstitutionally) stripped away all of the Governor’s appointment authority to Trustees positions, it should come as no surprise that the hacks at the Martin Center would attribute more to the actions of their hyperpartisan heroes than is warranted. And it would be no surprise if they hesitated to call out a dumb act by the kakistocracy, since of course the Martin Center would have to own that, too.

    4. It is a howler of twisted logic for Schalin and Watkins to claim “it seems that the university’s newly implemented free speech policy has so far proven to be effective: Participants at both the public forum and within the auditorium where Gorka spoke were warned that anyone who substantially interrupted the event would be subject to university disciplinary action and possible arrest, and would be escorted out of the building.”

    I gagged on my coffee when I read that one.

    One reason this is so twisted is that the warnings that were issued have been for several years standard fare at potentially controversial gatherings on campuses. So unless those formulating those statements could somehow fathom the future, and composed the warnings in anticipation of a not-yet-conceptualized statute and policy, Schalin and Watkins made fallacious causal claims. (Can you say, Fake News?)

    A second and equally twisted reason is that there is no UNC free speech policy! The law requires a policy in order to be implemented, and the Board of Governors only proposed one in November. Since the UNC Code requires a 28 day waiting period between presentation and vote, the BoG won’t vote on it until December 16 — if then. (Why “if then?” You can say you heard it here first: the legislation is probably unconstitutional).

    Now I suppose that in the ideological utopia of Martin Center writers, disagreement with the kakistocracy before the promulgation of a law can be punished after the promulgation of that law. But in the dimension of time and space the rest of us occupy, individuals cannot be punished for violating policies that do not exist.

    The point here: don’t forget when your goofy philosophy professor told you that you could always identify an argument that had no legs by remembering that most basic of logical fallacies, post hoc ergo propter hoc.
    If this is the kind of pablum that passes as thoughtful conservatism today, it is probably just as well that Canavan, von Hayek, Kendall, Burnham, Kirk, Viereck, and Buckley are gone. And I am confident they aren’t turning in their graves, since it is virtually certain they wouldn’t commit the same mistake as a nitwit like me, and read let alone take seriously the ‘research’ done at the Martin Center. Then again, as my namesake once said, “wise men are more dependent on fools than fools on wise men.” So I suppose I will just resign myself to playing the fool for those conservatives wiser than I, since they have more important things to do than dispel the untruths of those who can’t distinguish conservatism from the ideology called what-they-want.

  • Cato’s Ghost

    This piece is so stunningly misinformed and melodramatic that it is difficult to know where to begin. It should have been titled, “Groveling before Social Justice Protests.”

    Since the Martin Center only hears what it believes, and won’t publish comments that provide systematic empirical evidence and philosophically challenging arguments that don’t fit with their world view, thoughtful conservatives might want to go here to get some objectivity: