Cult of Complacency
From Ferguson to the Soup Kitchen
written by Sam Tezak; photo by Esther Chan
"I think there are a lot of kids at Colorado College who pretend to be activists. That’s what this school appears to be. We are this liberal hippie school, [but] I think that it is pseudo liberalism and pseudo-activism,” Senior Trina Reynolds said. We sat down this past week to talk after a semester of protests.
Outside, leaves blow across the sidewalks on a barren campus. Two weeks have passed since members of Colorado College’s Black Student Union (BSU) held a rally to demonstrate their solidarity with the national black community. The protest followed the decision made by the grand jury to not indict Officer Darren Wilson after he fatally shot Michael Brown on Aug. 9th of this year.
On Nov. 25th, immediately after class, students knelt down on the Cascade Avenue crosswalks, hands raised, clutching signs. The campus, not so quiet then, pulsed with distraught Facebook statuses and miscellaneous news clips. Under clay white skies and blistering cold temperatures, students took to the streets of Colorado Springs shouting, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” “No justice, no peace!” and “Whose streets? Our streets!”
The night before, the social media universe exploded after a grand jury gathered in Ferguson, Missouri and delivered their decision to not indict Officer Wilson. The National Bar Association, “the nation's oldest and largest national network of predominantly African-American attorneys and judges,” quickly reproached the decision and demanded that federal charges be brought against Officer Wilson. Meanwhile, BSU sent out a flurry of emails to their listserv to organize the following afternoon’s protest. Our small gathering was only one of hundreds marching across the streets of the United States.
In the midst of the ensuing shouts, posters and marching downtown, it seemed as if the largely white-identifying peer group joined their ethnically diverse peers in a show of solidarity. They walked hand-in-hand down Cascade, popping the proverbial Colorado College bubble with their personal CSPD escort: Officer Newton and Co. Many members of BSU were delighted to see support from white students—the 300-person march was monumental in comparison to the march BSU led for Trayvon Martin three years ago.
On Nov. 22nd, a few days later, a 12-year-old African-American boy would be shot dead by an officer in Cleveland. Facebook posts sputtered again, though most students went home to enjoy another normal day in their life. Then, on Dec. 3rd, a New York grand jury did not indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo, even after a highly controversial ruling over a chokehold resulting in 43-year-old Eric Garner’s death.
The following week, campus returned to life as usual. Absent were the 300 plus students marching on downtown Colorado Springs, outraged over continued injustice. Now, in all fairness, some students remained mobilized—members of BSU held meetings, students attended therapeutic workshops in the print shop to make posters that say “Black Lives Matter.” A handful even made it to Facebook, to grumble about the proceedings happening halfway across the nation.
BSU has made some huge leaps in the past year. The group not only prides itself in organizing these efforts to have solidarity with the larger nation’s black community but they have also reported an influx of male interest in what has historically been a predominantly female student group. “Before this year, there were no black men in BSU…We were divided between the sexes,” Reynolds said. In addition, they have included panels to discuss the topic “Black Lives Matter.” However, can we say so much for the rest of the Colorado College population?
“Habit is a great deadener,” Samuel Beckett famously wrote, and I argue this quote could not be more pertinent to our situation. We are, for the most part, a large population of white students who do not feel the immediate danger that a black man miexperiences in racially divided America.
Sure, many of us would not be caught dead saying that we do not care about these men’s deaths—but how many of us have acted in such a way that shows our solidarity? Though BSU is proud of the large turnout, it is critical to remember that the 300 students only make up a fraction of the college. For Reynolds, “300 people is a lot[…] but in relation to the 2,500 people on campus, that’s nothing. In that moment we felt overjoyed, but we also felt like who really cared? There were people walking past us on the street and when they walked past us, it hurt even more.” Not only could we have done better harnessing student interest, but it is important to account that presidents from colleges and universities as elite as Harvard and Columbia Law School not only publically recognized their students’ protests but made accommodations for the students following the protests. At Colorado College, in the glossy halls of the multi-million dollar throne gallery that is Spencer Center, not a peep escaped from President Tiefenthaler.
These actions are only important if we follow up on them. We must complement them with actions engaging the outside community—the community on the periphery of our vision, the system that we claim we want to change.
Critical thinker and philospher of the 20th century Frantz Fanon states, “What matters is not to know the world but to change it.” I sense that often we, particularly the people that enjoy the privileges passed down from our Anglo-centric legacy, fall short of directly participating in change because it is much easier to be complacent.
It would be Frantz Fanon who would go on to say, “When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” Can you breathe? Can we? Do we dare put ourselves in a position where we cannot?
It wasn’t more than two months prior that dozens of students showed up to vocalize discontent with the administration over the sudden decision to close the long-running Soup Kitchen. Before the first protest for the soup kitchen, a dozen or so students prepared food for their less fortunate brothers and sisters. A congregation of students migrated from their homes to rally for the future of the Soup Kitchen. The first protest was a valiant effort and I don’t intend to propose otherwise. Shane Lory, co-founder of Colorado Springs Food Rescue notes, “I was surprised how many came to the first one. I think it was a really good turnout; a lot of people came and participated.”
The student discontent with the ambush attack on the Soup Kitchen harnessed the same degree of prattle and rabble as the conspiracy-toned Red Scare that stemmed a few months prior from police shutting down off-campus house parties.
The weeks rolled into one another, and the student turnout dwindled until the last conversations were held with only members of Colorado Springs Food Rescue, Soup Kitchen volunteers and a few administrative personnel. Reflecting on student turnout at a discussion held at the Eggplant Manor, Lory said, “In general, I felt like there was a lot of involvement right there in the beginning but then we tend to have short term attention spans so interest definitely dramatically decreased right after the first time.” This decrease in turnout begs the question: did the Board of Trustees actually give the student body an unwelcomed surprise with the removal of the Soup Kitchen? Perhaps we invited it with inaction. We donned solemn faces and appropriated torn cardboard signs and dingy clothing for the newsreels as eager Gazette reporters looked on, only to collectively retreat to our cozy rooms, smoke our pot and discuss the same politics we’ve regurgitated since NSO.
These are only the two recent events.
On the other hand, what is not said is often symptomatic of aggressive groupthink that suppresses voices of dissent. Take Ferguson for example: at what point in time did many of us decide that Michael Brown was unlawfully murdered by Officer Wilson? Do we know anyone on campus who believes otherwise? Do we discuss with them both of our perspectives?
Or look at the Soup Kitchen: how many people have you spoken with that believe it should have closed? How many people on campus who disagreed?
I don’t suggest Colorado College students all think the same, instead, in these cases and countless others, I sense an overwhelming arm of students smoors their dissident peers. The homogenous culture we perpetuate on campus will directly affect the success of our campus in the future as long as we build straw men to knock down, so long as we meander in our comfortable lifestyles. In the assumed homogeny, we forget the actual challenges, the same challenges that the people we assume solidarity with are fighting—the historical schisms between Anglo American and African American people, the schisms between the haves and the have-nots. Our inaction is not only irresponsible and disingenuous, but it is rooted in the very systems we claim to want to change.
So where do we go from here? Colorado College students have a legacy of entering into dialogue but also subverting it. Claire Garcia, a tenured English professor and Director of the Race and Ethnic Studies program states, “What I’ve seen over my 26 years, it seems that in general, and I’m talking about CC students in general, not black or white, but there is a waxing and waning in social issues, both on campus and off. Once every four or five years since I came here we’ve had some big racial incident such asthe April Fool’s Catalyst Issue that makes national news or the hockey team getting dressed in black face, or a pimps n’ hoes frat party and it seemed as if there was a ritualistic response.” Garcia went on to note that recent protests have given her some hope. “As a 58-year-old, I’ve been very heartened to see students engaged and see something at stake.”
Susan Ashley, a tenured History professor, Dean of College and Faculty and advisor for the Revolutions Minor says, “One of the most impressive eras was the state of mind of people in the 70s, which I have never seen again. It was really particular. Because of what was happening in the country as a whole, because of what was happening in Vietnam, because of the fact that when I was here, we had the lottery and people around you could pull the wrong number. Those things escalated the intensity of people’s interest in what was going on around them and their own personal philosophies.”
I sense that one of the most problematic issues that many of us face is the immediacy or tangibility of the cause that we take stand for. Although over 70 percent of our campus identifies as white, a large majority of students have food on the table, amongst a whole list privileges. We have a real opportunity to engage more with these social issues that threaten our humanity.
Ashley reminds us, “people here are particularly intelligent and cannot dissipate their intelligence. They’ve got to commit themselves absolutely to using their intelligence for the common good. It’s a real obligation.” Many of us can begin by attending meetings such as those held by BSU and entering into dialogue on solutions. We have intelligence and creativity, andwe can craft solutions for the bumpersticker causes weclaim to represent. A common complaint is that under the rigors of the Colorado College curriculum, it is difficult for us to participate in social movements. Instead, we should remain oriented towards succeeding in school. But our tendency toward education and intelligence should not hold us back from participating in these social causes, instead it should encourage us to give ourselves wholly to them. For all the block breaks spent at Lake Powell, Breckenridge and Moab, we ought to be taking the time to engage with the community directly, not escaping it. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is a great avenue to get more involved as the protests diffuse. The Marion House and pitching ideas for the Soup Project are also all possibilities worth our time. Ashley commented that our privileges should not be a space to say “mea culpa,” the old Ecclesiastical Catholic confessional phrase that means “my bad.” Instead, we are tasked with employing the implications of this firecracker phrase and working towards our own progress.