The Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance and the Women of Color Alliance co-hosted a discussion titled “The Power of Protest: Protesting at Brandeis University” at the Shapiro Campus Center on Monday. 

Moderated by FMLA President Hannah Baker-Lerner ’20 and WOCA President Kyra Frazier ’21, this discussion covered the context behind past protests that took place on campus and the administrative responses that followed each, allowing students to openly share their feelings on the subject.

The conversation began with a comparison of the #StillConcernedStudents and IfNotNow protests from last May. Baker-Lerner and Frazier explained that #StillConcernedStudents was a protest led by students of color who made the following demands of the Brandeis administration: increased transparency, a prioritization of mental health, equitable and accessible transportation, the accountability of the Department of Community Living and Public Safety and the support of the administration. This protest was a follow-up to the 2015 #ConcernedStudents, or Ford Hall 2015, protest as students did not feel their original list of demands was adequately met.

Baker-Lerner and Frazier also explained the protest involving IfNotNow. Brandeis Hillel had commissioned an artist to paint a cube to celebrate the ties to Israel within the Brandeis community, and an unknown student graffitied one of the sides with “Free Palestine.” When Hillel repainted over the graffiti with “Coexist,” members of IfNotNow taped a sheet of paper to the cube that read “Stop Lying to Young Jews #FreePalestine.”

In response to these events, President Ron Liebowitz sent emails detailing how the #StillConcernedStudents and the IfNotNow protests each violated Section 7 of the University’s Rights and Responsibilities handbook, which lays out guidelines about protests and demonstrations. In a May 3 email, he said the #StillConcernedStudents protesters were in violation of Section 7, and in a May 15 email, he said those involved with the vandalism of the art installation were in violation of the Principles of Free Speech and Free Expression. Baker-Lerner and Frazier then said that the administration took further action in August with a change in the protest policies. The policy changes require pre-approval of banners and posters, as well as pre-approval of campus space for protesting. Another student later clarified, however, that pre-approval for space was always needed, but the justification for why it is necessary was added to the regulations.

After discussing the context behind the protests, Baker-Lerner and Frazier invited discussion among the students present. Several students felt that the administration made the changes in the protest policies in direct response to these protests. Many students suggested that the University was targeting students of color in tightening their policies on student demonstrations, especially as students of color were leading the #StillConcernedStudents protest, while other demonstrations on campus led by white students in the spring of 2019 went unpunished. Specifically, students brought up a protest by Brandeis Climate Justice where students hung banners that were left up during admitted students day and received a positive response from the administration, which contrasted strongly with the almost immediate removal of the #StillConcernedStudents banners and the IfNotNow poster and the punitive actions taken in response. One student expressed further concern, saying the policy changes were copied directly from Princeton University’s policies and noting that “all big universities are doing the same thing.”

Many students were upset that there was not much student input before the policy changes. One student explained that though the administration held a forum, it did not feel like a safe space for discussion, especially with a large police presence. Another student, a Community Advisor, said she had gone to a meeting between President Liebowitz and the CAs where they discussed these policy changes, but expressed concern that the group present was not representative of the student body as a whole. She explained that the Community Advisors and Orientation Leaders are often the only students involved in these conversations and they do not have a choice as to whether or not they attend them.

Students also discussed how Brandeis faculty perceived the protest policy changes. One student said that the African and African-American Studies department reportedly “condemned” the changes, saying they were “inequitable and went against everything Brandeis is supposed to stand for.” 

Some students even questioned whether or not they would have attended Brandeis had they known how the University handled situations like this on campus. For instance, one student said it is “messed up” that Brandeis calls itself a “social justice school” when it is “not addressing Black and brown students’ concerns and discouraging protesting for representation and needs.” She said she applied because of Brandeis’ social justice policy, but now says the policy seems to be “social justice if you have permission.”

Students agreed that the issue with requiring approval for student-led demonstrations is that doing so creates an “active barrier to protesting,” meaning the Dean of Students' Office can decide where and when students protest, putting them in a location where they won’t be noticed, for example, or adding more campus police to the area. The updated policy says requiring permission is “to give the University the opportunity to provide space that accommodates the reasonable needs of both the University community and those engaged in acts of speech or protest,” but, as one student noted, the needs of the University and the students are often different.

Many of the students felt that the demands from both the 2015 #ConcernedStudents protest and the 2019 #StillConcernedStudents protest have yet to be met to their satisfaction. They said that President Liebowitz’s emails barely addressed the demands themselves, but instead focused on the policy violations –– “more silencing students than fixing issues,” one student said.

—Editor's Note: Justice Editor Gilda Geist and Production Assistant Ari Albertson are members of IfNotNow.