Steve Paul

Steve Paul: There’s nothing simple about the story of race and rebellion at MU

Jonathan L. Butler and other members of Concern Student 1950 rallied Monday on the University of Missouri campus after Tim Wolfe, the president of the Missouri system, resigned.
Jonathan L. Butler and other members of Concern Student 1950 rallied Monday on the University of Missouri campus after Tim Wolfe, the president of the Missouri system, resigned. along@kcstar.com

There are so many threads to unravel and examine in the story of race and rebellion at the University of Missouri.

Student demonstrations to shed light on a culture of racial insensitivity and an uncaring, slow-to-respond administration led to the departure of the university system’s president and the chancellor of the Columbia campus.

A hunger strike by one student leader, a tent-city occupation, a sympathy move by the MU football team, and a complicated dust-up over “media” coverage, journalism and interpretations of the First Amendment have super-charged the post-Ferguson atmosphere of racial tension and social justice.

Chalk another one up for the complicated and fractured state of Missouri.

Clearly, the Columbia campus has been shaken. It will be scrutinized closely as new leadership is chosen and as the campus community enters a period of (presumably) civil conversation. Cultural diversity, campus demographics, the meaning of power and repression and empathy for marginalized members of the MU student body will be among the talking points in that dialogue. They will also be the markers for social progress at the university in the years to come.

Of course, those who resist the idea of discourse along those lines will continue to toss unhelpful stink bombs along the Twitterized way.

Jonathan Butler, a graduate student, spent eight days on a hunger strike, vowing to continue until university president Tim Wolfe left office. Butler might have raised the protest bar for graduate students everywhere. His complaints began before the current semester started, when grad students learned the university was yanking a health-benefit subsidy. That badly handled affair — the subsidy was soon restored — segued over the last couple of months through a series of ugly encounters involving slurs aimed at prominent black students and a confrontation with Wolfe that escalated because he declined to get out of his car and talk.

On Monday, after his goal had been reached, Butler greeted his fellow protesters with chants — “this is not a moment, it’s a movement” — and the raised-fist declaration: “I am a revolutionary.”

Anyone with a memory or a sense of the campus revolts of the 1960s — over the Vietnam War, free speech and social justice — couldn’t fail to feel the echo.

With a protest movement unfolding at Yale University right now, and with a serious strain of anti-academia spreading throughout state governments, you can safely bet that we are in for a new period of complaint and philosophical collision on campus.

MU students were working Tuesday to smooth over their own collision with Tim Tai, the student photographer who was trying to take pictures of the rally as a freelancer for ESPN. When bullied by demonstrators inviting him to depart a public space, Tai gracefully stood his ground on behalf of the First Amendment. He had as much right to be there as they did, he tried to tell the obstructionist students. Tai justifiably earned praise on Tuesday from the dean of Missouri’s heralded journalism school.

And then there’s the unfortunate matter of Melissa Click. She is the faculty member, captured on that viral video centered on Tai, who demands his ouster from the grounds and calls for help: “I need some muscle over here.” Click is an assistant professor of mass media and communications who holds a “courtesy appointment” in the journalism school. Dean David Kurpius announced on Tuesday that journalism faculty members were taking another look at that appointment. Slam dunk, I’d say.

Not surprisingly, Click has gone underground and apparently has been hiding from journalists ever since. She’ll be (sorry) academic click bait from here on out.

Sure people have a right to their feelings — to tease out this last thread — but when you’ve taken your feelings to a highly visible public forum, you have made a social compact with those who are tweeting, writing about and picturing you.

In later comments, Tai was plaintive and self-critical about the intrusions of journalism. But as he well knows, everyone’s freedom depends on the responsible practice of it.

The encounter was being reframed on Tuesday as a “teachable moment.” Let’s hope.

Steve Paul: paul@kcstar.com, @sbpaul.

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