On Martin Luther King Day in Ann Arbor, black University of Michigan students issued seven demands to university officials:

  • We demand the University to give us an equal opportunity to implement change. The change that complete restoration of the BSU’s purchasing power through an increased budget would obtain.
  • We demand the University available housing on central campus for those of lower socioeconomic status at a rate that students can afford to be a part of university life, and not just on the periphery.
  • We demand for an opportunity to congregate and share our experiences in a new Trotter (Multicultural Center) located on central campus.
  • We demand an opportunity to educate and be educated about America’s historical treatment and marginalization of colored groups through race and ethnicity requirements throughout all schools and colleges within the University.
  • We demand the equal opportunity to succeed with emergency scholarships for black students in need of financial support, without the mental anxiety of not being able to focus on and afford the University’s academic life.
  • We demand for increased exposure of all documents within the Bentley (Historical) Library. There should be transparency about the University and its past dealings with race relations.
  • We demand an increase in black representation on this campus equal to 10 percent.[foot]Protests Call for Minority Inclusion on Campus[/foot]

I understand these activities as a response to the increasing corporatization (neoliberalization) of Michigan and universities in general. This trend tends to make it harder for a number of populations to be accepted into and graduate from elite universities, and also makes it harder for a variety of faculty and staff to succeed as well. Three years ago students at the University of California Berkeley protested tuition hikes and spending cuts. Last year University of Akron adjuncts protested reduced hours. And just recently the Northwestern football team decided to form a union. Over the past couple of days the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News have published alumni-written op-eds about their protest. I co-wrote one of them with NC State Professor Kofi Boone. CUNY Professor R L’Hereux Lewis-McCoy wrote the other.  Dr. Lewis-McCoy’s piece focuses on the power of virtual activism, while our piece urges university administrators to deal with the student demands, following up a MoveOn petition we created a few days after the protest (a petition that of this draft has almost 1800 signatures).

Since 1968 there have been three major instances of black student protest and a couple of minor instances. The major ones are the first Black Action Movement of 68-69 (which led to the creation of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies[footnote]Now a department.[/footnote]), the second Black Action Movement of 76-77 (which led to the creation of the Comprehensive Studies Program), and the third Black Action Movement/United Coalition Against Racism protests of 86-87 (which led to what is now the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives and the MLK Day events). There has been black protest since then–in the early nineties students protested against police brutality on campus, in the mid-to-late nineties students color protested against a University of Michigan secret society, and in the early oughts students protested against the repeal of Affirmative Action. But the three Black Action Movements really serve as the standards for black protest activity.

You wouldn’t be reading my posts here without those movements. I was accepted to Michigan in the Summer of 1987 through the Comprehensive Studies Program. Although I majored in political science, most of the seminal courses I took were taught in the Center for Afroamerican African Studies. And I was accepted into grad school because of the increased push to diversify the graduate student body. I was one of the black students who helped shut down the University on Martin Luther King jr’s holiday. I was one of the students involved in protesting police brutality. The politics I have now are a product of growing up in and around Detroit and of my time spent at Michigan. The reason I root so strongly for Michigan now is because I and hundreds of other students like me sweat blood and tears to make it a place where we could thrive.     

So when the following tweet appeared on November 13 a number of us were watching:

The Black Student Union created #BBUM as a social media campaign to raise awareness about Michigan’s racial climate. People using the hashtag detailed the ways black students at Michigan felt isolated and discriminated against in 140 characters. Reading the tweets had the effect of stuffing me into a time machine, reliving the experiences that caused me to think about transferring back in 1987. The hashtag quickly trended with students at Michigan, Michigan alumni, and students from other campuses speaking to their concerns. In limited circumstances white conservatives even chimed in, although they had very different political interests. The campaign ended up receiving national news coverage, and ended up convening a discussion at the highest levels about Michigan’s racial climate. For Dr. Lewis-McCoy this was a powerful example of virtual activism:

While some dismiss “hashtag activism” — the use of social media to raise awareness and sometimes launch campaigns about social issues — the BBUM (Being Black at the University of Michigan) campaign may help prove that activism that emerges via the Internet can shift policy and realities on the ground, particularly when it comes to colleges and universities.

When BBUM became a trending topic on Twitter, the University of Michigan and national press took notice. Some tweets ranged widely ideologically and included voices across generations. The twitter campaign allowed experiences to be quickly accessible, cataloged, and part of the public record.

 I agree…but not fully. I don’t view the hashtag as virtual activism…but rather as a tactic that itself is part of a broader strategy designed to spread information, garner support, and increase pressure. Activism in this instance wasn’t caused by the internet, activists in this case used the internet to generate support for very specific local efforts.[foot]By way of comparison for example, UCLA students created a video documenting their experiences that swiftly went viral but had no movement-activity attached to it I am aware of.[/foot]  The MoveOn Petition raised awareness among black alumni and other concerned citizens. So many people signed in a short time that MoveOn contacted us directly to see if we wanted their help in blowing up the campaign further. However I consider it a tactic designed to support physical work. Designed to support what may be the beginning of the beginning.

With that said, I thank all of you for your support of the students. And I thank the students for your courage and your convictions. You are not alone.[foot]I was blessed with the opportunity to give George Mason’s MLK Day keynote a couple of days ago. I used the opportunity to deconstruct the politics of the Montgomery Boycott so as to help rid students of the type of troubling ideas about politics that hinders black political development. There were a couple of ideas I didn’t get a chance to fully develop. One specific idea obliquely relates to the concept of “virtual activism”. With the rise of Facebook and Twitter specifically we see a signal increase in the degree to which pundits can virtually “speak truth to power” and can call on others to do the same, using MLK as a model. In general I think turning to the past to make claims about what we should or shouldn’t do in the present reflects a failure of language. If we can’t for example use current levels of stress, anxiety, unemployment, sickness, etc. to argue that we should fight against income inequality, then there’s a problem with our ability to communicate rather than a problem with the populations we wish to speak to. However even if it were appropriate to use MLK in this way, King’s “speaking truth” was never divorced from social movements. Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King jr., Malcolm X, Walter Rodney, Angela Davis, Stuart Hall, Grace and James Boggs, never simply “spoke truth” (through op-eds, or Salon thought pieces, or NPR appearances). They “did truth”. We’d do well to recover this distinction, particularly given the emotional and political economy now attached to punditry and the very real risks activists like those at Michigan, Northwestern, and the University of Akron face.[/foot]