MARCH 24, 2016
ON WEDNESDAY, February 24, 2016, the day the University of Missouri Board of Curators voted to fire Assistant Professor Melissa Click, Missouri Republican gubernatorial candidate Catherine Hanaway issued a press release in which she declared, “From rioting at Ferguson to the unrest at the University of Missouri, to rising murder rates all around our state Missouri is facing an epidemic of lawlessness.” Hanaway’s statement is typical of rhetoric coming from Missouri’s Republican politicians and candidates for office these days, although in its D. W. Griffith–level invocation of rampaging black mobs it achieves a new refinement of just-this-side-of-outright racism. I suppose we have Donald Trump to thank for demonstrating to ambitious Republicans that such rhetoric is now not only possible but effective; still Missouri provides particularly fertile ground for it, and for a number of reasons. As the historian Colin Gordon argued in Dissent, the St. Louis area has a long history of racial segregation that left inner suburbs like Ferguson not only majority African American (thanks to a process by which white flight from the city was succeeded by black flight, which in turn spurred another wave of white flight farther west) but without economic infrastructure, and, as a result, reliant on fines as a system of de facto taxation. Meanwhile, white neighborhoods just next door had little or no sense of these conditions, and this in turn led to a predictable series of reactions once the protests in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting on August 9, 2014, by Officer Darren Wilson started. Less than a week after the shooting, the New Republic spoke to people in Olivette — 60 percent white, as opposed to Ferguson’s two-thirds black — who “showed little sympathy for Michael Brown, or the protesters.” These white Missourians instead evinced fear about the protests; they characterized them as “mostly an excuse” for looting and attributed them to outside agitators; and they worried that the protests were “tarnishing St. Louis’s image as a nice place.”
I’ve seen versions of all of these claims (except for the looting) in response to the fall 2015 protests by black students on the University of Missouri campus that led to the resignation of System President Tim Wolfe. Wolfe, who stepped down after a series of at best incompetent responses to the racial climate on campus, himself later claimed that his “sudden decision to resign was largely motivated by [… reports] of a significant Ferguson protestor on our MU campus and […] a threat that more were coming in for significant protest that day.” And an anonymous piece on foxsports.com signed by “A concerned University of Missouri student” takes the protesters to task for “indiscriminately harm[ing] thousands of current and former Mizzou students. You’ve damaged the value of our degrees and hurt our career prospects. You’ve taken our university, something we should be proud of, and dragged it incessantly through the dirt.”
There is, in fact, a connection between Ferguson and the MU protests, insofar as at least some of the student protesters had been involved, a year earlier, in protesting the events in Ferguson — both there and on campus. But to see these protests as scary eruptions of violence by ungrateful people — heedless of the damage they’re doing to their own communities, and egged on by outside agitators — is obviously to misunderstand both.
The MU protests were, it’s worth noting, completely nonviolent. After several racial incidents on the flagship university’s campus, a group of students coalesced around the name Concerned Student 1950 (after the year black students were first admitted) to lead a series of protests. At the campus’s homecoming parade on October 10, these students briefly stopped Wolfe’s car, but instead of engaging with the students, the president waited awkwardly until police got the procession moving again. On November 2, Jonathan Butler, the graduate student who was a leader in the homecoming protest and who had been involved in earlier protests about graduate student welfare, announced a hunger strike that, he claimed, would only end with Wolfe’s resignation. Protesters moved into a tent city on one of the university’s quads, and on November 8 they received a huge boost when members of MU’s football team announced that they would not play until Wolfe resigned. This finally attracted the national media, which arrived just as events came to a head. Wolfe resigned on Monday, November 9, and later that day, R. Bowen Loftin — the chancellor of the MU campus who had alienated graduate students, faculty, and deans with his autocratic style and a series of poor decisions — also announced that he would be stepping down.
These were heady days on campus, not only because the university had been rescued from what many saw as a period of poor leadership, but also because the events had inspired a series of protests at schools across the country: Ithaca College, Yale, Amherst, Brandeis, and others. For a brief period, it was really possible that MU had become a national leader.
But predictably, a reaction was brewing. This reaction found its focus in Melissa Click, a professor of communications who was present on the quadrangle when Wolfe resigned and Butler ended his hunger strike, and who (along with many other students, faculty, and staff members) formed a circle around the tent city in an effort to give the protesters a few minutes of privacy. In a video that in various iterations has now tallied nearly 4,000,000 views on YouTube, Click is heard participating in efforts to keep journalist Tim Tai — a senior in MU’s journalism school then on assignment for ESPN — away from the tents. Then, when Mark Schierbecker, the student shooting the video, takes advantage of a break in the circle to make his way inside, and asks her, “I’m media, can I talk to you?” she responds, “No, you need to get out. You need to get out,” then touches his camera. He responds that he doesn’t, and she turns away and yells, “Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here. I need some muscle over here. Help me get him out.” She returns and tells him again that he needs to get out, and when he responds that it’s public property, she replies in a mocking tone, “Yeah, I know, that’s a really good one, I’m a communication faculty, and I really get that argument, but you need to go.”
The video is painful to watch, and I can’t imagine too many people who would say that Click, and some of the other protesters in the video, behaved well. At the same time, the reaction to the video has been disproportionate on a number of fronts. First, proponents of the convincing argument that Click and the protesters disrespected reporters’ First Amendment rights frequently ignored the way in which the events could be seen, as the First Amendment expert Ken Paulson suggested early on, as a clash between competing First Amendment rights — Tai, notably, understood this, telling protesters that the same amendment that protected their right to protest protected his right to take photographs. But many defenders of the First Amendment in this case missed the legitimate reasons why, as the freelance journalist Terrell Jermaine Starr has recently argued in The Washington Post, the protesters may have distrusted the press. “Our press passes don’t give us the license to bully ourselves into any and all spaces where our presence is not appreciated,” Starr writes. And indeed the problem of access without corresponding professionalism was vividly illustrated less than a month later when camera crews from MSNBC and CNN broadcast live from inside the apartment of the accused San Bernardino shooters Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, displaying images and private information of relatives with no connection to the shooting, leading The Atlantic to ask, “What the Hell Just Happened on MSNBC and CNN?” Criticism of Click on Twitter also has clear overlap with Gamergate, and its active campaign to define online harassment — mostly in the interest of silencing women — as a protected First Amendment right.
Click’s critics have gotten around the complexities of First Amendment issues involved in the incident by, among other things, declaring her an agent of government as an employee of the state of Missouri. As one commentator wrote in response to Paulson’s claim that there was no “government involvement” in the incident, “A government employee instructing students of a government university on government-controlled property certainly creates the appearance of government involvement to me.”
This overlaps with a second problematic assertion of Click’s critics: their depiction of her as — in the words of a few randomly selected Twitter commenters — “a thug who tried to use violence,” a “professor encouraging violence toward a student for BLM,” an “advocate for violence against students.” Schierbecker filed an assault charge with Columbia police on November 12. Touching his camera, as Click does in the video, technically qualifies as Third Degree Assault under Missouri’s fairly vague definition, which includes incidents in which someone “knowingly causes physical contact with another person knowing the other person will regard the contact as offensive or provocative.” The city prosecutor charged Click with assault on Monday, January 25, and then on the following Friday announced he was deferring prosecution as long as Click completed 20 hours of community service and avoided legal trouble for one year. But both before and after this decision Click’s critics insisted that she had assaulted a student, as though she had been convicted in a court of law. The National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson, who earlier had written a piece about Click called “Tenured Thugs and Thieves,” tweeted on November 19, “Hey, @mizzou: Professor Melissa Click physically assaulted a student on your campus. Why is she still employed?” And when the AAUP announced an investigation into whether Click’s firing had violated due process, a number of commenters predictably responded that it was an open-and-shut case, as here: “Melissa Click assaulted a student at her own school. She had to be fired, and the worst part is how long it took”: “I’m pretty sure the ‘cause’ was amply demonstrated when she assaulted a student on video.” There is, needless to say, something unconvincing about self-declared defenders of the Constitution proceeding as though we have a system of trial by social media.
Of course it’s ironic that on the videos, similar “assaults” — people touching each other lightly during arguments — happen dozens of times, though Click was the only one charged. It’s ironic that Click’s putative assault has been so aggressively pursued against the backdrop of the very real sexual assault problem faced by campuses nationwide. And it’s ironic that, following the assault charge, MU’s Board of Curators stepped in and declared the same sanction — suspension with pay — generally given to police accused of fatal acts of violence against African Americans. Of course Click, unlike many of the police in the numerous cases that have occurred since August, 2014, eventually was fired.
The intensity of the reaction to Click can be explained, I think, by the coincidence of her critics’ anger with three other forms of anger, separate but interrelated, that tell us a lot about the not very good place in which we find ourselves right now. There is the anger, on display in the Gamergate controversy, of men at women who speak up. This anger reached its high point, I think, when a second video was released of Click during the Homecoming day protests — video that actually predates the first, and in which she is committing no conceivable offense against the First Amendment, but is instead exercising her own First Amendment rights. Yet it is this video, recorded by the body camera of a police officer to whom she at one point says, “Get your fucking hands off me,” that I think most would agree largely clinched the case against her. At their best the angry reactions to this video — as one of her more bloviating critics put it in a letter to The Missourian, she was “acting in a shrill and inappropriate manner” and therefore should resign — demonstrated a patronizing condescension towards a woman who refused to hew to proper forms of public decorum. At their worst, they verged on something much darker: I remember reading Twitter that day and realized that I was watching, in real time, a cascade of angry reactions from men who were getting incensed at first person point-of-view footage of a woman saying “Get your fucking hands off me.”
A second sort of anger was the sort on display in the reactions of white St. Louisans to the Ferguson protests. Just as these St. Louis residents worried that the protests “were tarnishing [the city’s] image as a nice place,” critics of the university claimed that coverage of the protests had made the university a “laughingstock.” This was the word used, for instance, by Missouri Republican legislator Donna Lichtenegger, the chair of the state’s House Committee for Higher Education Appropriations, when she argued that a denial of funding for the system was a consequence of both Click’s actions and student protests themselves. Early on one had to argue that the reaction against Click was an indirect way of criticizing the protests, but more recently Republican politicians have been doing the latter directly. Note here that the persistent argument that Click committed an act of violence against students becomes a way of seeing the non-violent protests on Missouri’s campus as dangerous riots, despite the fact that the closest the campus got to violence was when a student at another system campus posted anonymously to Yik Yak, “I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see” —.in other words, violence from “outside agitators” directed against the protesters. It is no surprise, I suppose, that protests against racism make racists angry.
These two forms of anger are easy enough to see and understand in the era of Trump. But there’s a third form of anger in play among Click’s critics that, I would argue, is more intransigent. This is the anger of the numerous people who wrote, on Twitter and in newspaper comments sections, variations on the theme, “Everyone else can be fired at will. Why should professors have the luxury of due process?” This is the anger of people who no longer have workplace protections or autonomy, and feel resentment toward the remaining few, like tenure-track academics, who do. This anger is different from the other two, since it’s a response to the loss not of gender or racial privilege but of a kind of work that people should have. At the same time, it’s of a piece, since one form that complaints about the lack of decent jobs take is the claim that women or minorities or immigrants are stealing these jobs from those who should have them. The right has been adept at taking this anger and packaging it up with the other kinds as a way of redirecting it from the system responsible for the loss of secure, well-paying jobs. It’s no wonder that in the past few years public universities have come under renewed attack, since they present a perfect storm of symbolic targets: they are the home of people who question traditional racial and gender privilege; these people (albeit an increasingly smaller percentage of them) have good jobs; funding for the enterprise (albeit an increasingly smaller percentage of it) comes from taxes — taxes that are cast by the right as income redistribution.
This puts those of us who work in universities in the difficult position of disentangling this intentionally tangled ball of animus, so that we can separate and respond to people’s legitimate, if misdirected, anger. People’s resentment stems from real economic factors, that is to say, but it takes extremely problematic forms in the current moment. In the wake of Click’s firing, politicians and others have only stepped up their demands that the university make changes in exchange for continued funding, and it’s clear that something like the evisceration of tenure that has been achieved in Wisconsin is the long-term goal — both to tamp down on critics of the status quo and because no form of job protection (or any other regulation of unfettered capitalism) can be allowed to stand.
The general public, at least the general public that contributes to newspaper comment sections, has been quite willing to go along with this. As Marilynne Robinson has recently pointed out, the shift from Americans understanding themselves as citizens to understanding themselves as taxpayers has been disastrous for public goods like universities: “The Citizen had a country, a community, children and grandchildren, even — a word we no longer hear — posterity. The Taxpayer has a 401(k).” But I think animus toward tenured employees goes beyond simply not wanting to fund universities. It also provides a way of imagining oneself in a position of power, since if taxpayers fund universities they can understand themselves as faculty members’ bosses. Of course the form this takes reflects a diminished understanding of even private enterprise, since we no longer understand bosses as people who build things but rather only as those with the power to fire people. In this regard, the well-documented critiques of Trump as a businessman hardly matter — “You’re fired” is, for good reason, his best-known quote.
Click’s critics have painted themselves as defenders of the First Amendment and other freedoms against a privileged academic elite. But a world in which people’s main activity, vastly enhanced by the technologies of video recording and social media, is to discipline each other for infractions of civility, is hardly a model of universal freedom. It is in fact proto-totalitarian, in the old-school, Arendt and Orwell sense. All that is needed to flip it over into fascism is a strong leader who can symbolically embody all the freedom that ordinary people are denied, and spend their time denying others. A leader, perhaps, whose most admired quality among his followers is that he’s not afraid to say whatever he wants.