Last November, in response to and in solidarity with protests at Mizzou and Yale and on other campuses across the country three women of color planned a sit-in in Frost Library. It was supposed to last an hour, but as student after student joined to share their stories of being a person of color at Amherst, passing the microphone back and forth, it became clear that the sit-in was taking on a radically different character. Each person poured their frustration, hurt, and anger into emotional speeches about what life at Amherst College is like for marginalized people. The protest, now known as Amherst Uprising, went on into the late afternoon. The event went long past its scheduled end time, the sheer weight of the moment slowly dawning on everyone. By the evening, hundreds of students packed the atrium and balconies of Frost’s main social space, craning their necks to see what was happening. The mood in the audience was charged—everyone in Frost that night knew that this was an event that would stick with them. The students read Biddy a list of demands, and though she declined to accept them, she said she would consider them, and left.
Much of the Uprising took place away from Frost’s first floor. By mid-afternoon, committees formed on Frost’s second floor to manage the burgeoning protest, come up with a list of demands, and to coordinate the media presentation of the protest to the public at large. Protests are always public events, but news and social media can amplify (or distort) any protest a thousandfold. To that end, the committee members set up a website, launched social media pages, and held interviews with reporters as the national press got wind of the story.
The story of Amherst Uprising, like all national news events, blew up quickly. Most of the coverage focused on the demands themselves and barely mentioned the sit-in, the telling of stories, or the mood of compas- sion, empathy, and solidarity on the floor of the protest. In this, our protest was nothing special. The coverage of protests surrounding racial oppres- sion this past year and a half has followed a pattern. First, news outlets re- port that normal campus order is breaking down—protesters are occupy- ing public places on campus, making demands, and expressing their anger. Second, the news media finds and fixates on a trigger for the protest. In the case of Yale protests, the trigger was the email from an administrator sug- gesting students be more tolerant of culturally appropriative Halloween costumes.
However, by focusing on protests’ immediate trigger and unfold- ing events, the journalists get the story wrong. Good journalism isn’t about reporting selected facts; it’s about reporting the story in a way that includes the most important facts. Microaggressions don’t make for snappy headlines, but a culture of implicit hostility towards marginalized people takesaseveretoll.Ifnon-marginalizedpeoplecouldhavelearnedanything from Amherst Uprising, it’s that we have massive blind spots for oppres- sion, both from our peers and from ourselves. The responsible story will emphasize the daily, lived realities of people of color and other marginal- ized communities at predominantly-white institutions.
In one of the only quality pieces about recent college protests in the mainstream media, New Yorker contributing writer Hua Hsu examined the causes of unrest in a way that deeply engages with the realities of being a marginalized student at an Ivy League or a NESCAC school. “The Year of the Imaginary College Student” criticized the news media for inventing straw- person student protestors while turning blind eyes to the real grievances of the students trying to make lasting institutional change. Most of Hsu’s colleagues in the media thoroughly botched their reporting. In their need
to be impartial, they look for people on campus on both “sides” of the protests for reactions, usually a member of the protests on one hand and a conservative student on the other. The former usually describes why they are protesting—a campus environment at best indifferent to mar- ginalized people, and at worst hostile—and the latter complains about perceived intolerance to opposing viewpoints. The latter complaint usu- ally features at least as prominently in the article as the protestors’, often creating a misleading narrative that portrays the protestors as aggressors and the bystanders as victims.
In his article, Hsu writes “The alarm about offense-seeking college students may say more about the critics of political correctness than it does about the actual state of affairs.”The most irresponsible coverage came from Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf, who, for the past few years has laid out an article-by-article case against the college left, portray- ing it as doctrinal, intolerant, and reactionary. Particularly galling was his coverage of Amherst Uprising, entitled “The Illiberal Demands of Amherst Uprising.” There, Friedersdorf focused on the protests’ immedi- ate demands, rather than the spirit of the events surrounding their issue or the climate that made them necessary. Friedersdorf aggressively emphasized facts that helped his point and downplayed others. During an interview with Andrew Lindsay ’16, then heading the Uprising’s media relations subcommittee, Friedersdorf dismissed Lindsay’s emphasis on the causes of the Uprising and sought to push his own narrative, one centered on perceived threats to free speech and open discourse. Friedersdorf disregarded Lindsay’s descriptions of a toxic campus culture, and instead focused his article on the demands.
By the time of his article’s publication—five days after the Amherst Uprising started—the dialogue in Frost had advanced well beyond the initial presentation of demands to sub-committees drafting specific demands targeting almost all aspects of campus life. At that point, the initial demands were largely irrelevant, giving way to an unprecedented wave of student involvement in answering questions around how our institution serves us and what kind of school culture we want to enjoy. Imagine if Friedersdorf had written that article. That article would have been a fresh take on campus culture, rather than the rehearsed reaction- ary charges of close-minded youthful naïveté he gave us.
Instead, Friedersdorf wrote one that pushed the narrative of the closed-minded college student that could not have resembled what happened in Frost less. Lindsay wrote a response to Friedersdorf that was published on the Atlantic’s “Notes” blog to which Friedersdorf re- plied, noting (with condescension), “Amherst Uprising has subsequently engaged Amherst’s president in dialogue about alternative ways to pro- ceedthatare,inmyview,lessobjectionable.”Butthemainarticleonthe demands, the definitive article on Amherst Uprising in the mainstream national media, contains only a brief mention of the sub-committees of the last days of the Uprising, and nothing of the conditions that sparked it or the energy that fuelled it. His take on the events of last November constituted a condescending, bad-faith attempt to understand the realities about which he was reporting. For a journal like the Atlantic, appealing to well-educated, politically-moderate readers, to push this kind of narrative throws student protest to the liberal fringe and ignores the real grievances underlying it. I only hope the 2016-7 school year, for the Atlantic and other outlets of its ilk, isn’t yet another year of imaginary college students.