Visiting Phi Beta Kappa scholar explains the importance of protests

By Heather Fabritze

News Co-Editor

As part of their visiting scholar program, the Phi Beta Kappa chapter at Washington College invited sociologist Kenneth Andrews to speak on the power of social movements and their likelihood for success on Tuesday, March 26 in Louis L. Goldstein Hall.

The Office of Diversity and Inclusion co-sponsored Andrews’ visit to campus, which included meals with students and other guest lectures throughout the day. He shared his expertise on social movements, activism, and civil rights as a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. 

His current research focuses on protest and advocacy on college campuses, which according to his introduction, is especially relevant considering the current cultural climate and the upcoming presidential election.

“[We’re in] a period of massive and innovative kinds of protests, and social movements, and activism across a wide range of issues and across the political spectrum,” Andrews said at the beginning of his talk, which started at 5 p.m.

The most frequent question the media asks him as an expert on activism is whether a particular movement will matter in the long-run — a question, he notes, that was also aimed at historical protests. There are right ways and wrong ways to determine this, he always answers them.

To walk the audience through an assessment of a movement, Andrews summarized a protest that occurred at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in 2017. The night before Andrews himself visited the school, there was a student demonstration underway surrounding a contentious, prominent Confederate statue at the main entrance of campus.

In the subsequent hours and days, UNC students pulled the statue, which had stood there since 1913, off its pedestal. The event was just a local example of the national sentiment against confederate memorials at the time.

“The way people often talk about activism and protest and the way it might matter is by changing public opinion and sort of bringing around a more positive view of the issue and bringing about positive support for a cause,” Andrews said. “Well, that’s not what happened here.”

Students at UNC succeeded in removing the statue, furthering discussions about race, and encouraging the resignation of their campus chancellor, but the majority of North Carolinians were unconvinced and continued to oppose the statue’s removal.

“I would argue [it was] impactful in the right ways, both in terms of what we might think of as in support of, or in the direction of, what the movement might have wished or what activists might have wished, but also inadvertently may have invoked some kind of backlash in terms of opposition or hostility toward the university,” Andrews said.

According to Andrews, most people believe the goals of a protest are to improve the wellbeing of their supporters or to transform widespread attitudes toward an idea. The tactic of the protest itself is nowhere near as important as the sentiment.

“Activists are involved in very shifting and complex political environments that are changing all of the time,” Andrews said. “A tactic that might work this year may no longer work in a different situation for lots of reasons.”

He argues that one should instead look at the different sources of power behind a movement: disruptive, organizational, and cultural. UNC, for example, certainly fell under the disruptive category, which he defines as imposing constraints that make it difficult to continue the status quo. This source of power is more contentious, as it requires extraordinary amounts of commitment and solidarity from its participants and may invite repression.

The most effective movement, Andrews said, will use all three; even better, it will introduce a new perspective to an existing, significant issue.

“It is not just about a particular set of tactics, or whether you have a large organization with lots of members and resources,” Andrews said. “You have to find ways to create new ideas. In this case, the statue protests, it was really important that the movement was able to develop a very complex and powerful historical reinterpretation of this symbol.”

Director of International Studies Dr. Andrew Oros, who is also the president of PBK at WC, was thrilled to bring such a time-relevant topic to campus.

“I was especially interested in the speaker’s contrast of organizational power and disruptive power to achieve a movement’s goals,” Dr. Oros said. “I see these two components working together — and at times at cross purposes — in the LGBT rights movement that I’ve been a part of for much of my life.”

Similarly, freshman Darius Kesey was applying the categories Andrews covered to movements he witnessed in the past year; some of which succeeded and some which did not.

“I did wish to delve into the importance of cultural power a bit more as well as how that is built upon,” Kesey said. “How do you build a new, rebellious culture out of one that is actively oppressed? But overall, I enjoyed the topics he touched on.”

Dr. Oros hoped that Andrews and PBK’s visiting lecture program would have an impact on students’ perceptions of how to engage in activism in the future.

“I’m excited that Phi Beta Kappa could contribute in a constructive way to help our students learn how to channel their energies most effectively to achieve goals dear to them by hearing about successful protest methods in the past,” Dr. Oros said.

Photo by Heather Fabritze

Photo Caption: Although Phi Beta Kappa sponsored Andrews’ lecture, it was open to the entire campus community.

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