Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Show Me State?

I have watched the student protests that have unfolded at the University of Missouri and other colleges over the last week with some interest.

45 years ago I was a student at the height of the Vietnam War protests at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I saw first hand the substantial effects that social and crowd psychology played in those protests. It also showed me how important external factors were in these situations.

The spring of 1970 in Ohio was unusually warm ( and some of you think that global warming is a new thing?) leading up to the May 4, 1970 shootings at Kent State University. This caused a lot more students to be outside than normal. After all, it is a lot easier to protest when the weather is nice.  It is also a lot easier to draw a crowd of onlookers who may not be in the core group but end up making the protest look much bigger than it is.

For example, here are the daily high temperatures as reported in Cincinnati, Ohio which is 35 miles from Oxford, Ohio for the last two weeks of April, 1970. Note that there were only two days that the high temperature did not reach 70 degrees during those two weeks. That is very unusual for Ohio in April.

                                                            April      High


In that type of environment, rumors also tend to get easily passed around which further incites the situation.

My experience with the Vietnam War protests was that the core group of students involved in the anti-war movement was very small. They were aided by outside agitators who came on to campus to try to stir things up (another interesting sidenote is that the outside agitators in 1970 on our campus were rumored to be members of the Weather Underground.  Now it is the name of a weather website- see above).

Most of the scale to the protests was provided by curious student onlookers.

I remember one night being in the library when a group of protesting students came by chanting. It was a very warm night and the excitement of what was going on outside on a beautiful spring night beat studying. The library was soon empty and the crowd got bigger as the leaders stated they were going to the President's house to give him their demands.

That crowd had to look intimidating to the President as he came out to his front porch.

Sound familiar?

Soon after the shootings at Kent State occurred reports filtered in that other Ohio state universities like Oho State, Bowling Green, Ohio University were closing. At that point, it seemed to become a "fairness" issue for the protestors. Why do I have to go to class if these other students are getting sent home? "We need to shut this sucker down."

John Filo's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after he was shot by the Ohio National Guard (via Wikipedia)

A final night of protest where the main thoroughfare through town was blocked by students was all it took for the administration to send all Miami students home as well. We spent two weeks at home before being called back.

Am I saying that all of this would not have happened if Ohio's spring would have been abnormally cold?

I am not going to go that far but there is little question the protests would have looked far different to the administrators.

The reaction in Ohio was to call out the National Guard to college campuses around the state to restore order which ultimately led to the shootings of four students at Kent State. Two of the students killed were merely walking between classes.

I was an observer of a confrontation between student protestors and the National Guard one night as the students attempted to take over the Navy ROTC building on the Miami campus. (Yes, it was another mild night.) Tear gas was used to disperse the crowd and I got gassed along with everyone else.

Why is all of this relevant today?

History may not repeat but it sure does rhyme.

In 1970 the war was the main issue but many protestors were  focused on women's rights and racism. For example, the list of demands at Ohio State in 1970 included the adoption of courses in women's and black studies. Now you know how those courses got in the curriculum of major universities.

What was the weather like during the week of November in Columbia, Missouri? Daily highs were almost 8 degrees warmer than average.

However, at the University of Missouri the weather was not nearly as important as the fact that about 30 black members of the school's football team tweeted ( you don't "state" anything anymore you just tweet) that they would refuse to play football until the university's president resigned.

This clearly was the action that forced the hand of the administration.

However, what I found interesting is that Missouri's football team is 4-5 on the season. The last two years the team has gone 12-2 and 11-3 and in each year played in the Southeastern Conference championship game.

I could not help but wonder if those players would have taken the same action had their team had a similar record to what they had the last two years.

Would their solidarity with the cause of the other students on campus have trumped their solidarity with their teammates on the way to a possible Southeastern Conference championship?

We will never know but I hope you can better appreciate the dimensions of external factors that shape crowd psychology after reading this post.

45 years later it is also interesting to see how college administrators have reacted to these protests.

In 1970, the National Guard was patrolling Ohio college campuses to break up the protests which ended with tear gas and shootings to break up the protests.

In 2015, the students got the President and Chancellor of the University of Missouri fired because 30 football players said they would not play a game. And a University of Missouri Journalism Professor attempted to actually stop a Journalism student from covering the protests. How weird is that?

I am glad to see we have evolved but it is starting to look like the evolution has gotten a little out of hand.

All this tells me is that "The Show Me State" certainly is not one that should be showing others how to handle these protests.

Isn't there something somewhere between the 1970 and 2015 models that could be used in dealing with these student protests?

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