It was the first dance of the year, and we were eighth graders, the cream of the crop, the big kahunas, the head honchos…you get it. We were on top, and it was our year. Pulling up in our now deceased Mazda MVP minivan, I could hardly contain myself. The jams were blaring; my feet were tingling in anticipation. I tore out of the car and into the hall ready to break it down. And break it down we did—until my friends and I noticed something disturbing. The DJ was not playing N’Sync. A few of us girls gathered together. Hadn’t Kelly remembered to write it down on the request list? What was going on? What was going on was that snot-faced DJ Ice Storm had decided – entirely of his own volition – not to play our song. So we did what all bright, young youths with good heads on their shoulders would do: we staged a protest. It started with my best friend and me sitting down in the middle of the dance floor, but bit-by-bit we were joined by our pimply compatriots. Girls clad in Limited Too and platform Skechers found our cause just, and only three songs later we were a force to be beheld. The winds of justice were swift that night, and soon we were bobbing our heads to the smooth musical styling of Justin Timberlake. We learned more that night than Carson Daly could ever teach us: we learned that if we wanted something, we had to fight for it.
Now if I did not know better, I would think some of the students here on campus had been with me on that fateful night, schooled as they seem to be in the art of the protest. But as innocuous as our issue was, the students of Our Lady of Perpetual Help middle-school seemed to have what protesters here lack: purpose. As my good friend put it, “Even the most trivial protests should serve a purpose…and the ones here usually don’t.” This is coming from the vantage point of a freshman. Admittedly, I was not around for one of the great moments in Princeton’s activist history, the Frist filibuster, but even that success ironically crystallized what is wrong with so many protests here on campus – they are just a lot of talk. I’m not insinuating there is no action behind the protests, I am just being quite literal—protests here read like a pitch for Seinfeld, an entertaining show about absolutely nothing.
One of my first experiences at Princeton was attending the Condoleeza Rice talk in Jadwin at the beginning of the year. I remember walking in with my friends and being overtaken by irate protesters flinging flyers at us and demanding that we ask the tough questions. Wait, no, rewind. I said that wrong. We were met by politely cordoned off fellow classmates, asking us if we would like a flyer and a little ribbon. Some of us (me included) ironically wore the ribbon in solidarity against this corrupt and morally bankrupt administration… and then went in and listened to Rice talk. It was all so very casual and so very cordial. The group even had a little section in the back of Jadwin where they held up hard-hitting signs that really drove the issues home, such as “Honk if you like torture.” Apart from the inadequacy of the slogans, the very location of the effort was strange. They were behind everyone. We could not see them. They weren’t very vocal, so we couldn’t hear them. It was pristine. It was sanitized. It was…nice. I am not suggesting that student groups dress in clown suits and set things on fire, but it would be a little more effective, and more to the spirit of the protest, if they did more than sit complacently and get angry at pre-appointed moments.
But they are not the only ones who missed the mark. Everywhere on campus there are pointless protests. People stand outside Frist or Firestone giving speeches a la Will Scharf in the USG elections. The College Republicans campaign for some Student Bill of Rights which is redundant at best and disingenuous at worst. It seems we as a campus are hung up on empty words and loud noises. I have lost track of what the point of a protest even is. In an article in the Prince last year, Emily Stolzenberg wrote that “Protest…should aim first to preserve a plurality of speech. The unlikelihood of the larger aspiration — the hope to make a visible difference — cannot be allowed to stifle the more basic political action of speaking out.” Yet this understanding of protests, while at some level true, seems fundamentally skewed. It is our right to protest, but this alone is not ground for us to protest. Though the call of the Beast is powerfully seductive, people who are over 21 don’t drink all the time, just because they can. In the same vein constant fighting about nothing is irresponsible and dilutes the efficacy of real, substantive protests.
Even if these issues are real issues, the manner in which students here get the word out is obscenely archaic. I cannot count how many times I have passed by some place in campus and heard someone just talking about something in a familiarly urgent yet detached tone. I sometimes try to stop, but usually I have places to go. Furthermore, I don’t really care to throw a bone to these ridiculous demonstrations. No one ever knows what they are about, because people rarely stop. Maybe that is a fault on my part for not carving out time to sit and listen to Students for the Liberation of Whales read fish poetry. But if it becomes clear (and by now, it should have become clear) that this method is not effective for getting people to listen, you have ceased to be exercising your rights for any legitimate purpose. It is not necessary that I listen for your protest to be worth something, but it is necessary that you actually want me to care. And when these groups just sit in disturbing satisfaction chiming out strings of nonsensical words that no one is listening to, it stops being a protest and devolves into a self-indulgent spa treatment for the protester’s conscience and ego.
Quite frankly, I don’t think that has a place on a college campus such as this. We are an intelligent group of people and we do not deserve to have words pelted at us. The point of protests is to demonstrate the power of the people and to call us into conversation with various avenues of power beyond our immediate control. So when I pass by someone talking to the Invisible Man, it is insulting, because I have no idea why they choose to talk to air rather than talk to me or other flesh and blood students who are smart enough to seriously converse with them. I favor and value real dialogue. Which is why I see the abortion set-up in front of Frist, while controversial, to be an example of a good protest. It sparked a campus-wide conversation and provoked people to action. Because, at the end of the day, the point of a democracy is not to deliver monologues and then go to bed. It is about creating a robust and vibrant conversation. Protests here on campus by and large fail to do this outside of a superficial, “Did you see that weird guy talking in front of Frist?” mode. It is high time the student groups got off the soapbox and started to really engage the campus in the issues they care about. Otherwise they risk creating an environment which is hostile to protests, an atmosphere which is already developing. Student groups have a responsibility to really fight for the issues they claim to represent. After one year of seeing what Princeton groups have to offer, I am not impressed.