Deceived by a False Narrative: A Response to the Sit-In Controversy

I can feel my heart pounding in my chest as I approach the starting point of my first march. Will it look like protests I see on the news? Will there be militarized police watching for the first sign of unrest so they can unleash their repressive and brutal force? I have no idea what to expect, especially as a Black woman airing my grievances in the streets. It’s difficult to explain how much fear and anxiety gripped me during the #NoDAPL solidarity march I attended in September. Although the march was peaceful, all I could think about were the countless Black and brown bodies that have been beaten and maimed at the hands of our supposed protectors.

I was scared to march and can vividly remember the nerve-wracking phone call with my mom prior to the action. I’m at my dream school with a full-ride scholarship yet I want to potentially risk it all over a protest; she was incredulous. The dread in her voice was heart-wrenching and I had never felt that much guilt in my life. The media told me peaceful protests were for white people and riots were for Black people. The media showed me that protesting is a crime for Blacks. Who would protect me when my life was in danger?

Mountain Justice (MJ) played a huge role in helping me overcome the guilt and panic that consumed me that day in September. MJ brought me to the #NoDAPL solidarity march, where I proudly placed my body on the front lines with others. I thank MJ for introducing me to the world of nonviolent direct action and I apologize to the organization for not being a more vocal proponent of the divestment campaign. I attended meetings at the beginning of last Fall, but fell off when fear made its grand re-entrance into my life; it told me I had too much to lose. The potential consequences from protesting kept me from participating in actions and meetings.      

The disciplinary threats that followed the recent divestment sit-in are the exact reasons I didn’t participate in the protest in the first place. The punishments students faced served as a reminder that the Board controls this school. They’re a reminder that the administration works for the Board first and the students second. The administration wants us to protest when it’s convenient for them, when it makes them look good. What happened to those students isn’t about sticking it to MJ. What happened to those students isn’t about shutting up those damn Swatties who just won’t let go of divestment. Despite Swarthmore’s Quaker heritage, these threats strongly suggest that the school will not tolerate any student protest that threatens its progressive and liberal facade.

I feel betrayed by Swarthmore, by Val Smith, and by our deans. This school is supposed to be my safe haven, my home away from home. Swarthmore College is supposed to be the place where I can protest without fear of reprisal. If students faced fines and academic probation for a sit-in and an office occupation, then what would happen to me if I decided to lead a Black Lives Matter march across campus? I’m angry and I won’t hide it; I was sold a false narrative. Our administration has failed to support its students and faculty by bowing down to the Board and repressing student voices through intimidation tactics.

The 2017 sit-in controversy will not go away; it will not be forgotten. Swarthmore’s message could not have been clearer: cross the Board and run the risk of being placed on probation and having your voice suppressed. The choice to take disciplinary action against students was a power tactic used to reassert the Board’s power and control over the school’s image. Don’t be fooled by the administration’s ultimate decision to punish students with warnings rather than fines and probation; the disciplinary action that spurred from the sit-in was a deliberate attempt to chill speech and shut down vital student protest.

So, where do we go from here? Where do I go from here as a low-income, first-generation, Black student at a predominantly white institution? I want to protest, I want to stand up for what I believe in, but I can’t afford to put my scholarship and education on the line. While the support and attention garnered by students, faculty and staff, alumni, and outside media sources were empowering, I still feel stuck and frightened. Yet, I refuse to let Swarthmore force me into silence. This op-ed is in honor of the members of Mountain Justice and their commitment to change and climate justice. This op-ed also serves as a personal step into the world of strategic nonviolent action. I can no longer be an implicit supporter of Swarthmore’s contradictory and misleading rhetoric regarding student activism.  

Featured image courtesy of Shayla Smith.


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