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The Institute of Protests


By Sam Graham-felsen

If all had gone as planned, Tom Hayden and eight students from his study group, “Activism Now!: Students, Sweatshops and Globalization,” would have gone to protests in Miami, stood on the sidelines, administered surveys to protesters, and gone home. The Institute of Politics (IOP), which covered airfare and the printing costs of 500 surveys, had planned on the trip to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) summit being a purely observational undertaking.

When word got back that four students—Jordan Bar Am ’04, Anne G. Beckett ’04, Rachel Bloomekatz ’04 and Madeline S. Elfenbein ’04—had not only participated in the protests, but had been arrested, eyebrows were raised at the IOP. “It was our understanding that the trip would be limited to data collection and observation about contemporary political protest,” Daniel R. Glickman, director of the IOP, told The Crimson. The arrests have already prompted calls for a review of funding for IOP study group trips.

Granted, these students received funding specifically to observe—but the fact that they chose to participate in the protests in addition to carrying out a study strikes me as something to be praised, not denounced. Since when is it the IOP’s mission to promote only the study of politics, and discourage participation? It’s hard to believe that an organization that prides itself as “a living memorial to President John F. Kennedy” (according to the IOP’s mission statement)—would question students for acting on their beliefs, rather than simply standing by as detached observers. How does that saying go? Ask not what your country can do for you; ask how you can study your country?

Of course, the IOP is not wary of supporting student participation in politics in general; it’s wary of supporting student participation in protests. In the wake of the news from Miami, Philip R. Sharp, a member of the IOP’s Senior Advisory Committee, told The Crimson: “I think there’s a legitimate question about whether [IOP] money should ever go to subsidize political protest.” Meanwhile, the IOP gives away tens of thousands of dollars in grants each year to students seeking internships with senators, representatives, government officials and “mainstream” political organizations. Included in the list of the IOP’s sponsored summer internships is a position working in MTV’s Strategic Partnerships Office. Apparently, even working at MTV is more worthy of IOP funding than grassroots mobilization and protest.

The IOP is quite comfortable with engagement in mainstream institutions that operate from the top down, but when it comes to challenging the status quo from the bottom up and questioning those institutions of power, the IOP gets antsy. But both forms of engagement are vital to a productive and thriving democracy. Participating in protest is not only the most direct form of political engagement, but often the most effective. Without protest, for all we know, schools would still be segregated, women wouldn’t have the right to vote, and America might still be a colony. Neither Gandhi nor Martin Luther King ever held office, but the political imprint left by their activism and protest is indisputable. The IOP seems thrilled to give students money to make photocopies for Ted Kennedy’s assistant’s assistant. Why not offer funding to supplement students actively struggling and putting themselves on the line for social change?

Of course, the concept of the IOP funding political protest raises thorny issues. How does a committee decide which protests are legitimate? What mode of action should be condoned? Should the IOP support students who are protesting the war in Iraq but withhold funds from students protesting against the right to have an abortion? Of course, these are difficult questions that require long and complicated deliberations. But just because these are tough questions doesn’t mean we should shy away from them. An obvious first step would be for IOP money to be limited to non-violent protest. A committee should be comprised of students and IOP staff from diverse political backgrounds, to ensure that a broad spectrum of causes are deemed legitimate. Students applying for funding should be subjected to a rigorous application process requiring an explanation of the importance and immediacy of their cause, the specific need to protest rather than pursue other modes of action, and the exact proposed use of funding (i.e. to pay for bus rentals, picket sign costs, etc). Again, the process would be complicated, but the alternative—to exclude the possibility of supporting student protest altogether—would be to deny that protest is a legitimate form of political activity. And ultimately, the IOP should recognize and support the full range of political participation that has shaped our democracy.

In an age of persisting apathy despite growing national and global problems, we need more idealistic men and women entering public service, but just as critically, we need more people protesting. The IOP should find a way to encourage and embrace both.

Sam Graham-Felsen ’03-’04 is a social studies concentrator affiliated with Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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