It was the see-saw, I think, that finally broke this camel’s back. It has been decades since campus has seen mass protests and sit-ins, hallmarks of 1960s Ann Arbor that helped make the University into one of the loudest and proudest bastions of progress in the nation.

Sarah Royce

Today’s University, however, is no longer the site of such activism; there have been few acts of courage and resolve in the face of adversity and indifference. Instead, the Diag – once a stage for serious social revolution – has become a three-ring circus, featuring failed attempts at creating change that often do nothing more than mock the important causes they are meant to champion while turning more ridiculous and embarrassing by the hour.

BAMN’s rally against the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative quickly degenerates into a bizzare kind of counterproductive chaos, a screaming match of sorts. Unlucky members of various organizations stand in the cold and shove fliers into the hands of students who would rather carry on to class or Espresso Royale undisturbed by the world’s problems. Late-night vigils are held for Rosa Parks and Iris Chang, two courageous Americans who would be better honored by actions that effectively advance the causes and principles to which they dedicated their lives. And then there is the see-saw. Sorority sisters, camped out in the center of it all, asking passerbys for donations as they ride a see-saw up and down for hours on end.

Make no mistake, there remains plenty to be outraged about. More than 40 years after victory was declared in the fight for civil rights and equality for women, we have come to see that the struggle is far from over. It has been, after all, nearly five years since the politics of fear and greed overcame the nation. In today’s Michigan, women earn only 67 cents for every dollar men earn in the workplace. Reproductive freedom is once again in doubt. Though blacks account for almost 20 percent of the college-aged population, they account for only 7 percent of this year’s freshman class. And tuition continues to soar, pricing students out of a better future.

The apathy of a generation loathe to act in the face of obvious injustices and blatant affronts to the very principles this country was founded on is no new news. It is the shocking lack of indignation that has empowered the dark, dark days of the last five years. It is the silent acceptance of a society where certain individuals hold second-class citizenship, where an American life is worth more than any other, women’s rights are a debatable uncertainty, and the environment is nothing more than an oil field ripe for exploitation.

But this year’s fall semester began with a string of racial controversies and will likely end with the unfortunate visit of Fred Phelps, the anti-homosexual crusader who created the website, www.godhatesfags.com. It is clear now that we can no longer ignore the complacency that has become so endemic on this campus.

We can no longer appease our nagging consciences by calling our collective silence “sad,” “terrible” or even “a shame.” These are foolish, fruitless rationalizations that prevent us from moving forward. The truth is that our inaction is something far more sinister – the explicit endorsement of whatever injustice we fail to protest.

Activism may have a long and storied past at the University, but today, it has significant obstacles to overcome. Most of us, for example, are just too comfortable to rock the boat. More than 60 percent of students on this campus come from families that make more than $100,000 a year, a stunning statistic in a state with the highest unemployment rate in the nation. It is difficult to imagine the ravages of joblessness and desperation from an ivory tower buttressed with so much wealth and privilege.

The racial segregation so deeply embedded on this campus offers a false sense of comfort that makes it extraordinarily difficult to form effective coalitions that can create real change. The vast gulf between races and cultures has created a University where tension and intolerance have trumped understanding and respect; open dialogues and collective action seem more a pipe dream than a tangible goal.

But while these obstacles often seem as though they are impenetrable, impossible challenges to overcome, they are only empowered by our silence. They are rendered insignificant when we channel our indignation and our outrage, our passion and our compassion, and we act.

On Oct. 14, 1960, President Kennedy stood on the steps of the Union and first announced the Peace Corps. “This University is not maintained by its alumni, or by the state, merely to help its graduates have an economic advantage in the life struggle. There is certainly a greater purpose, and I’m sure you recognize it,” Kennedy said.

The majority of the see-sawers are good people volunteering their time to raise money for a charitable cause. But this campus is capable of so much more. We must act on our outrage. The Roger Phelpses and MCRIs of the world do not need to recruit the ill-intentioned to do their work. The most they can hope is that decent citizens will stand by and do nothing at all. They are banking on the silence of you and me.

 

Gay can be reached at maracl@umich.edu.

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