UConn Rises Up: A protest retrospective

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This semester, more than the last, Fairfield way feels strangely well-worn. In one sense, this is blatantly obvious; after all, how many of thousands of shoes travel that path to brave their 8 a.m. class, to rack up another Late Night shift, or to get lost in the transcendental euphoria of Moon Club (justice for Moon Club)? Don’t bother pulling up Minitab, because you can’t calculate that number. 

The former home of the University of Connecticut seal — now on sabbatical — between Homer Babbidge Library and the Rowe Center for Undergraduate Education is most commonly felt as a cursory stop on students’ walking commute. To students who are tapped into campus activism, however, it has a completely separate meaning. 

Outside of Rowe on a rainy Thursday this past February, fourth-semester student Alexandra Docken bravely launched a solitary protest against UConn’s flagrant neglect of and misconduct towards survivors of sexual violence, igniting a praerie fire of protests that mobilized huge swaths of the student and faculty community in solidarity. Numerous other protests to support survivors of sexual violence stamped the ground around Rowe throughout the semester, and they certainly weren’t the only ones.

As the biting cold of winter relaxed, then bit again, then relaxed again, then bit again on the long and arduous march to the end of the semester, UConn hosted protests condemning the university’s involvement with Israel despite rampant oppression of Palestinians; calling for solidarity with Ukrainians suffering under the Russian invasion; demanding decarbonization and divestment from fossil fuels; and supporting the queer and transgender youth who are enduring a nationwide assault on their rights by conservative lawmakers. If finals week were any less hellish, we’d be sure to see a dedicated segment of the student population rising up against the conservative majority Supreme Court’s clear intent to overturn Roe v. Wade and shake the Constitutional foundation of the right to receive a safe abortion. 

There’s no bag quite as mixed as student protesting. Contre all the romantic idyllicism of raising hell with the masses on a college campus, every well-attended march is paired with 10 barely breaking a dozen participants — a whispered fear for every student organizer. Like the complex web of social systems it exists within, UConn as an educational, social and financial institution has a way of fortifying itself against forms of radical change via a rigid and unreceptive administrative body, the occupational hazard of academic overload, or eventual burnout from the former two. If activists are willing to stop in front of these roadblocks, though, they’re better off not starting at all. 

Protest and agitation are only small components of the process of organizing for systemic changes to institutions like UConn, your workplace and all levels of government. The background work is slow, grueling, laborious, disillusioning and only occasionally rewarding. Much like high school football, it has epic highs and lows, triumphs and defeats, and if you’re gleaning from this fact that activism and protest aren’t worthwhile, you’re wrong. They do achieve something in the immediate term: Community. 

UConn students have had ample opportunities to learn from protests that have been organized this semester: Find ways to protect your momentum; make things easy and accessible for the community; don’t be afraid to encourage joy and release for people struggling under the emotional burden of systemic harm like gender violence and war; diversify and hold your actions in different locations using different agitation strategies. Most of all, campus unrest has imparted on all of us, especially those from marginalized identities, that there’s always someone who has your back and is willing to fight for your rights, your security and your ability to belong within and outside of this university. That means everything. 

Protest can be best understood as a form of communication from the grassroots to people in positions of power, but it is just as  much a form of communication with one another. When you’re standing in a crowd with a shared purpose, chanting “Down with —” something or the other, there’s an unspoken solidarity between you and your co-conspirators. For some, especially at large demonstrations, it can be superficial and even performative — think going to a Black Lives Matter rally for the photo opportunity. For those dwindling, 12-person actions, however, you have an almost absolute assurance that the people who show up with signs and gear are seriously dedicated to the cause. There’s your community, and it can only grow bigger. 

No protest reflection would be complete without commending the absolute bravery of the students who galvanized their community members for social change. Alexandra Docken sparked the opportunity for dozens of other students to speak out and share their experiences with sexual violence on campus. Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim Student Association were courageous enough to confront a university collaborating with the state oppressing their friends and families in spite of a widespread, pervasive political culture that suppresses the voices of Palestinians. Student organizations like Fridays for Future, EcoHusky, PowerUp UConn, UNCHAIN and Collaborative Organizing have united to face off with the board of trustees, which has a monopoly on power and governance at UConn. 

To consider this semester a “win” for student organizing would be setting the wrong criterion altogether; there are no real wins in activism when progress can be overturned at any time. The only victory we need is that community members are still willing to balance the strenuous life of being students with the strenuous and even more thankless job of being student activists — a pattern that will doubtlessly continue with future generations of Huskies. 

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