The Criminalization of Student Activism

On Friday May 13, 2016, several students at the University of Minnesota attended a Board of Regents meeting to express our concerns about the skyrocketing costs of tuition. To make our case, a number of us added our names to a list of those who would be granted a 3-minute opportunity to address the Board of Regents directly. With a tuition bill, diploma, and death certificate in hand, I approached the podium and began my remarks by stating “Life or debt is just a few letters short of life or death.” This was not an attempt to be hyperbolic. Poor and working-class students experience a liminal existence at the University because of the compounding expenses of tuition, housing, food, and other living costs. The price of life for poor and working-class students exceeds what they actually earn to make a living. The Board of Regents justifies its repeated decision to raise tuition under the guise of remaining competitive with other Big Ten schools. Last time I checked, the University of Minnesota was supposed to be a leader among state schools. What does it mean then when internally this “leader” is more interested in following the trends of capital and capitalism to keep pace with its counterparts? For poor and working-class students, especially poor and working-class students of color, it means we are moving towards extinction at the University.

Extinction seems like a logical outcome given that many of us are learning in a space that was designed without us in mind. To be more specific, we are learning, laboring, and to a large extent living in a land grab institution that is more anti-ebony than ivory, more private than public, and presents students with more educational opportunists than educational opportunities. For those marginalized along the lines of race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, and citizenship granted admission into the academy, we are told they are part of a “privileged” group. Lest we forget about our “privilege,” we are awarded scholarships, fellowships, President’s Student Leadership Awards, and Outstanding Community Service awards to remind us of the academy’s benevolence. I reject the notion that I am privileged to be in this position for several reasons. It’s not a privilege to have students and professors alike question your integrity, intelligence, and personhood in spaces that are supposed to be most conducive to learning. It’s not a privilege to be so disconnected from your community that you feel guilt ridden when hardships hit home. It’s not a privilege to be racially profiled, searched, and criminalized by the University of Minnesota police, who construct you as guilty before proven less guilty. It’s not a privilege to be maced for trying to prevent white supremacists from coming to campus. It’s not a privilege to be maced by police during an evening of celebration for Somali people. By definition, if it is a “privilege” to be somewhere, this suggests that certain groups aren’t supposed to be there.

On June 10, 2016, we were reminded of the lack of privilege we actually hold as the underrepresented at Predominantly White Institutions (pronounced pee-wee). This was the day the Board of Regents decided to vote on proposed tuition hikes. Over 50 students from various student cultural centers and other student groups packed the Board of Regents to ensure that the vote was not passed without resistance. Some administrators exclaimed how amazing it was to see so many engaged students, especially given that the vote was occurring in the beginning of the summer recess when most students had already left campus for break. Little did these administrators know that we were not simply there because we were “politically engaged students.” We were politically enraged students. Enraged by the fact that the University was intent on passing tuition hikes without any regard for the harm it is causing multiply-marginalized students. Before the Regents meeting, President Kaler announced that in light of concerns expressed by members of the University community, he and the Board of Regents decided to reduce the amount of the tuition hike to 7.5% instead of the original 9.9% increase for nonresident, non-reciprocity undergraduates. In-state or reciprocity undergraduates would also see a 2.5% increase. I guess this is what the University considers “progress” that can be attributed to advocacy. Malcolm X said that “If you stick a knife in my back 9 inches and pull it out 6 inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t begun to pull the knife out, much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.” As members of an aggrieved group at the University of Minnesota, we cannot allow the University to set the terms and conditions for our existence. We are not interested in continuing to acclimate ourselves to adversity. Hegemony requires consent. Consent that we refuse to give. We made this clear at the beginning of the Board of Regents when we started our chants. “Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Tuition hikes have got to go!” was heralded and we took over the meeting. We proceeded to read our mission statement and presented the following four demands:

  1. Treat college education as a public good
  2. Immediate free tuition for American Indian students
  3. President Kaler’s immediate resignation
  4. Divestment from Black Rock Investment portfolio

The Board of Regents did not engage with any of us or our demands. Instead, they recessed into a private room during the disruption and fed us to the belly of the beast. We were warned by police that we were violating a law and if we did not leave the space, we would be arrested. Six students remained holding a banner that read “Nothing about us, without us, is for us.” Realizing that we would remain until their demands were met, the police proceeded to arrest us. We were originally issued a charge of “unlawful assembly.” However, the City Attorney added “trespassing” (on already stolen land) and “disorderly conduct,” to the list.

We created a legal defense fund to retain the support from attorney Jordan Kushner. The City Attorney asked us to plead guilty to one misdemeanor with a stay of imposition and vacate and dismiss after one year, conditioned on two days of sentence to service (STS), and a $178 fine. We refused and instead demanded the case be brought to trial.

On December 13, 2016, over six months after the initial Board of Regents action and one day before the first day of trial, the City Attorney dismissed the charges against us. For over six months we were forced to live in agony and anxiety over their fates within the criminal-legal system. In addition to building a political campaign to end the criminalization of dissent/defense on campus, many of us were laboring as undergraduate and graduate students, teaching assistants, instructors, and full-time employees outside of the university. Had we not organized a campaign that included support from students, faculty, student groups, and members of SEIU Local 284, the outcome would have likely been different.

However, the ordeal was not over. We were subject a form of “double jeopardy” by being punished by both the state and the Office of Community Standards and Academic Integrity at the University of Minnesota. Many of us were subjected to participate in a pseudo “restorative justice” process, where we were shamed, humiliated and offended by a tag-team effort by University officials and contracted organizations intent on expanding the nonprofit industrial complex. We were asked to participate in a restorative justice process for attempting to restore justice to an aggrieved community at the University of Minnesota – students multiply-marginalized along the lines of race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, and citizenship. Essentially, we, the harmed and aggrieved group, were subjected to further harm by the harm-doer.

Student activists, particularly student activists, at the University of Minnesota know that when they are racially profiled and targeted by UMPD, there is little reason for us to abide by the law because the law does not abide by us. For those of us committed to anti-oppressive work and effecting positive change on campus, we must accept the sobering reality that we are more likely to see arrest records before we see diplomas. We just have to decide which one we consider to be a greater badge of honor. Do we grant legitimacy to a piece of paper from an institution that regards us as “illegitimate” or do we take pride in the record we receive from the Office of Community Standards and the criminal-legal system? If neither option makes us feel all that good, then we have to continue to upset the setup!

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