Progressive activists must become organizers to change campus

A.J. James

One of the greatest things about our short time here at the University is that over the course of a matter of years, we have the ability to bring about positive change that can last far past our tenure. However, just like movements and campaigns in the greater parts of the world, student and campus movements must contain firm demands and wide support in order to be effective. Those in power can easily handle poorly organized calls for change, and eventually this leads to the failure of what had the potential to be a strong movement. I’ll devote this column to dissecting some examples.

UA Stands: On September 18, 2013, there was a massive rally on the steps of the Rose Administration Building in order to demand the desegregation of the Greek system. What went wrong? The demonstration was thrown together without leadership of those who were most affected by the issue. Thus, the crowd was composed of those who were not most affected by the issue (in other words, mostly white students). The lack of firm and clear demands allowed the event to be co-opted by President Bonner and her administration, and it resulted in a press conference for them. Lastly, did no one think that it was a bad idea for a crowd of white people to hold a sign reading “The Final Stand at the Schoolhouse Door”? What went right? We got video updates from Bonner, including a wonderful shot of her hanging out with Bill Cosby, and a handful of women of color in sororities. So, not a lot.

Black Lives Matter: The BLM movement began in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman of his (alleged) murder of Trayvon Martin. It seeks to end discrimination against black folks, specifically in the area of police shootings. What has gone wrong? Unfortunately, although the BLM movement makes excellent points regarding racial discrimination in America, it has gone up until recently without concrete demands. The demands on the original website included things such as an “end to all forms of discrimination and the full recognition of our human rights” and an “end to the military industrial complex.” Although both of these demands are great in the abstract, the theoretical and academic language of the demands never translated into widely understood, detailed initiatives to be taken. Additionally, the BLM movement has for the most part lacked any real structure connecting its base to its leadership. What is going right? Although contested, the heckling at Bernie Sanders’ events prompted the presidential candidate to adopt a comprehensive racial justice platform for his campaign. (However, lack of organization on part of BLM allowed Clinton to easily side step the questions asked of her on video.) Wisely, the leadership of the movement is currently in the works of redoing the website, constructing concrete demands and building a national structure. The movement has brought to light many issues that have affected African Americans, but it must fight to separate itself out of the category of “awareness campaigns”. (Kony 2012, anyone?)

Students for Fair Labor: Admittedly, I can be biased about the work that this group has done because I used to work very closely with it. Students for Fair Labor is a group on campus that campaigns for better working conditions both domestically and internationally. What is going right? After nearly a year of campaigning, including petitioning, meetings and direct action protests, the group was able to secure orders from Alta Gracia Apparel for the SupeStore. Alta Gracia Apparel is a unionized, sweatshop-free factory in the Dominican Republic. The group has since gone on to demand that the administration affiliate the school with the Worker Rights Consortium, which would allow factories that produce UA apparel to be monitored for labor violations and for reports on these factories to be publicly released. The group is one of the strongest campus groups when it comes to knowing how to deal with administrators through direct action and concrete demands in order to make positive change on campus. What has gone wrong? The group has struggled to maintain strong, continuous relationships with various campus groups, but their connection to the greater Tuscaloosa community is remarkable. Additionally, it is difficult to do anti-sweatshop work on a campus that has several large contracts with companies such as Nike.

In all, progressive student activists on campus must learn to work cohesively to bring about the changes that they wish to see for the student body. Anything less than concrete demands, an effective base and the ability to do direct action allow the movement to be tossed to the side. Lastly, students who are always complaining about the conditions of the University need to jump in and do the work. This is your university, and only you can fix it.

A.J. James is a senior majoring in microbiology and Spanish. His column runs biweekly on Thursdays.