University Students’ Right to Protest Safely

The photo that will start a revolution?

Lloyd Alter at Treehugger called this the photo that will start a revolution. That image certainly struck a chord with me, and I can see why he thought it was powerful. I participated in a protest or two during my college years. The issues I chose to fight for were similar to those being tackled by the students at UC Davis. Which is to say… they weren’t life-or-death. It’s not that tuition hikes aren’t important, it’s just that once most of us get out of college it’s just hard to get enraged enough to actually get out and protest.

But, the act of protesting is an important American university tradition. University protests give students a chance to practice free speech and participate in a democratic process. In many cases faculty see these protests as teaching moments and step in to support students in their efforts.

This American tradition that has been in place since the 1969 takeover of University Hall at Harvard University, during which students took over a building to protest university engagement with the ROTC.University officials called in the Cambridge police to forcibly remove the students and many faculty were outraged at the use of force. They rose up to support students’ right to protest. That’s because, despite the fact that students are legal adults, they are entrusted to universities as in loco parentis. Universities are expected to look out for the care and wellbeing of their charges.

Arguments over the use of force of university campus continued throughout the year following the University Hall incident, until the May 4th, 1970 when Kent State officials brought in the National Guard to stop student protesting, and their use of force killed four students. Students, faculty and family members were rightfully shaken by this extreme turn of events, and universities all over the country developed plans to manage protesting students non-violently.

Student protesting has been a relatively safe pursuit for the last 30+ years. Not any more.

Things have changed. Those UC Students might have been protesting tuition hikes, but they were doing so right in the middle of the biggest nationwide protest of the last 30 years. Occupy Wall Street protests have been taking place for over two months and protesters refuse to stop despite raid after raid.

This climate of political unrest is bred by economic inequality. It’s a climate that has the students on edge and the police on edge.

But what does it have to do with sustainability?

At TriplePundit we often talk about a broken economy, where externalities go unaccounted for and companies are allowed to profit at the expense of society and the environment.

These political protests are one of those undocumented externalities. Protests have been an externality of economic inequality as long as there has been capitalism (yes, I took time away from by busy protesting schedule in college to read a bit of Marx in my Sociology classes).

It’s the nature of those at the bottom to join together to protest of their situation and that is exactly what is happening now. Lloyd Alter called the image at top the photo that will start a revolution. I believe that it’s proof that a revolution is already underway, and I fear that things will get worse before they get better. After all, as painful as pepper spray is, the police can do a lot worse.

While those angry students and overwhelmed policemen don’t have the solutions at their disposal to fix the economy, we can make some recommendations for policies that would ease the climate of political unrest we find ourselves in:

1) Tax Reform
The tax code needs to be reformed so that those with higher earnings pay a higher percentage of their income. Just the sort of thing Warren Buffett has been advocating.

2) Campaign Finance Reform
Limiting the amount of money individuals can spend to fund their own campaigns would even the playing field for all candidates and mean that the ones with the best ideas-not the most advertising- would win.

3) Increase limits on lobbying
Put restrictions into place on politicians working as lobbyists- they just know too well how to work the system.
Increase limits on lobby dollars spent by corporations. When it gets to the point that a fund weighted by lobbying dollars spent outperforms the S&P by 11 percent, lobbying has gotten way out of hand.

4) Protect worker’s rights
Increase the minimum wage to an amount that allows people to live with a decent standard of living. Protect the right to collective bargaining. Universal healthcare would help too.

5) Reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act
Separating investment banking from commercial banking would reduce power in the banking sector, which we sorely need

6) Debt Relief
Put some payment flexibility legislation in place to help reduce the burden on mortgage holders and student loan borrowers who borrowed money in a healthier economy and are currently drowning.

Any other ideas? What did I miss?

Jen is editor in chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and lives in Oakland with her husband and baby. 
Hit her up at on twitter @jenboynton to discuss diapering strategies or sustainability reporting methodology.