Blog: What We Can Learn from Student Activism, by Devika Ranjan (’17)

When I woke up on the 27th of February, I found that a new construction had been added to the ancient, iconic stone façade of the University of Cambridge: a giant red picket fence. The fence, constructed and erected by Architecture students, is part of an ongoing protest against pension cuts for university staff here in the UK. (To learn more about the pension cuts, strike, and union action, this article is a helpful one.)

As staff and students have been picketing against the pension cuts for weeks, the fence is not only a pun but a thoughtful critique of current socio-economic conditions. It invites passers-by—including the thousands of tourists who visit Cambridge—to re-evaluate the Western dream of a ‘white picket fence’: a house, two cars, a marriage with kids, all protected by the ubiquitous wooden barrier. For those whose pensions may be cut by up to £200,000, this dream is no longer attainable; for those who are foreign academics, the vote of Brexit may fence them out. And by blockading the entrance of the Senate House building – the ceremonial building in which I will graduate in three  months – the fence is a commentary on Cambridge’s wilful position in the exclusive Ivory Tower, isolated from the plebeian’s politics and troubles.

The fence was one of many actions of student solidarity with striking academics, which included bringing breakfast to the picket lines and holding enormous rallies under the banner DEFEND EDUCATION. Of course, the strikes were not easy. Protest action muddled the academic schedule and everyone’s sanity. Lectures, classes, and supervisions were affected—as was a conference on ‘The Post-Truth Phenomenon’ that I was arranging with Ella McPherson and Mara Polgovsky Ezcurra. But the strike was an important opportunity to re-work our understandings of education as a whole. In the spirit of the protests, we decided to re-structure the conference, taking inspiration from the teach-outs that had taken place over the past fewmonths. The conference became free; it was held outside of a traditional academic space; it was open to the public and in an interactive format that celebrated diverse forms of knowledge.

As part of the strike-edition conference, I conducted a theatre workshop about truth and post-truth. The participants—who ranged from professors, outside practitioners, and students— ‘sculpted’ each other into images of knowledge, technology, and reality. Instead of speaking in academic jargon or carefully constructed arguments, they used their bodies to work through conceptual and abstract ideas. Afterwards, many of the participants said that they felt a sense of clarity; they had emerged from their intellectual routine to find epiphanies in their bodies. One student said that she now saw the other participants as human beings, rather than conference talking heads. This sentiment was echoed on the picket line—academics were getting to know their colleagues outside of the workplace, as people and as friends. The strike has been an opportunity for all of us to grow—not only to seriously think about our political system, but also understand education and each other in different ways.

I have also been energized by similar waves of student activism are rocking the US. On the train back from London this weekend, I sat next to a woman who carried a sign: PROTEST GUNS NOT KIDS. She was returning from the Sister March for Our Lives at the American Embassy. We had both live-streamed the heart-felt speeches from Washington DC and Chicago earlier that day, and were in awe at the courage and eloquence of the student organizers.

In their speeches, young protesters spoke about the ways in which gun violence is inextricably linked to societal inequality—police brutality in California, funds denied for community development programs in Illinois, political corruption and international war-mongering in Washington. Our generation of activists sees these facets as connected, as a broader system of injustice that we must reckon with as a nation.

Similarly, Cambridge’s pension protests included a banner that was in support of Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention’s hunger strikers, who were protesting the deplorable conditions of migrant indefinite detention. Cambridge students and staff recognized that the injustices within immigration detention centres in the UK are enabled by structures like the University. By standing in solidarity with lecturers and immigration detainees, the protesters asserted that justice should not only be for the elite but for all. 

As an activist on both sides of the Atlantic, I see strikes and protests as a valuable form of education. Protest action can help us appreciate the diversity of various knowledges, especially from grassroots spaces. They are moments of vulnerability, cohesion, and strength—feelings which are often suppressed in the cutthroat world of academia. And, in the current (and coming) age of our activism, they encapsulate solidarity movements that intersect racial national, and class-based struggles—tearing down the fences that have been constructed over centuries.




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