November 09, 2015

University of Missouri and the Power of Student Protests

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

 Alone, you can fight,

you can refuse,

 you can take what revenge you can

but they roll over you.

These words come from Marge Piercy’s poem, "The Low Road." It is one of my favorite sociological poems about the potential power that is unleashed when people join together and fight for social change. I probably mention this poem at least once a semester in one or more of my classes and I will certainly be invoking it again as I discuss the recent events at the University of Missouri.

Black students at the University of Missouri have been protesting for months about ongoing racist incidents on campus. They are particularly frustrated by what they perceive to be the failure of the university’s administration, and particularly President Tim Wolfe, to adequately address these events. Using the hashtag #ConcernedStudent1950, in reference to the year that black students where finally admitted into the University of Missouri, the protesters were calling for the resignation or removal of President Wolfe.

One of the main focal points of the protests has been the hunger strike of graduate student Jonathan Butler.  Since November 2, Butler refused to eat any food until President Wolfe is gone. On November 7, nearly a week into Butler’s protest, about 30 black student-athletes from the University of Missouri football team essentially went on strike, saying that they “will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students' experience."

When I first heard of the players’ actions I was somewhat shocked. But then I was totally astounded when I learned that the other players on the team and the coaches were standing behind these players—literally! Coach Gary Pinkel tweeted a photo on November 8, of the entire football team and staff showing their solidarity for the players and the protest with a message that read: “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players.”

Anyone who follows big-time sports knows that this sort of political activism among athletes is pretty rare. And finding coaches who are willing to stick their necks out, risk their hefty salaries and endorsement deals, and stand up for social injustice is even rarer. As I’ve written about in some of my research, most athletes fail to see the connections between “playing and protesting” and instead, they fear the backlash over being an activist athlete. The prevailing attitude of “just shut-up and play” is what makes these events so incredible.

Clearly, the actions of Jonathan Butler, the football team, and the students who initiated these protests were successful. As I was writing this post, word came through my news feed that President Wolfe resigned, saying, in part: “I take full responsibility for this frustration and I take full responsibility for the inaction that has occurred. Use my resignation to heal and start talking again.”

The situation at the University of Missouri has been a stunning chain of events. From a sociological perspective, what just transpired reflects two important theories of social change: interdependent power and resource mobilization.

Interdependent power is a phrase that was introduced by Frances Fox Piven in her 2007 Presidential Address to the American Sociology Association, “Can Power from Below Change the World?” Interdependent power suggests that power relies on relationships. If a critical mass of people refuses to cooperate and do what’s expected of them, then they can wield power over others who may seem to be more powerful. When an entire football team and the coaching staff refuse to participate in football-related activities until their demands are met, the relationship on which college football is predicated is jeopardized. And when college football has such importance for the institution, the community, and the nation as a whole, then you quickly see how the players and the protest movement are able to shift the balance of power in their favor.

Francis Fox Piven points out that the potential for interdependent power is always there; however, its “actualization is never easy.”  It usually remains latent because people have to overcome many obstacles: they have to break rules and norms, they have to realize they have power, they have to be willing to suffer consequences, and they have to find ways to organize. The fact that the protestors at the University of Missouri were able to transcend these common pitfalls and forge a social movement that gained real and symbolic support from the football team makes their actions all the more noteworthy.

As more people learned about #ConcernedStudent1950 the protest movement gained more power and subsequently, a greater likelihood of having their demands met. This equation is suggested by resource mobilization, a sociological theory that was developed in the 1970s to analyze and understand social movements. Resource mobilization suggests that to the extent that a movement such as #ConcernedStudent1950 can gather resources and mobilize people, it will be more successful in achieving its goals. When the football team and the coaching staff made their strong show of support, the movement received a huge boost in terms of both resources and mobilizing potential.

We should also keep in mind that the #ConcernedStudent1950 movement at the University of Missouri is really part of a larger and growing social movement for racial justice in the United States. So when we talk about mobilizing resources such as people and media attention, we can point to other groups, most notably #BlackLivesMatter, as part of the larger social movement that brought us to this point. And the primary mechanisms through which this mobilizing is occurring these days, and occurring so rapidly, is through social media and the use of hashtags.

In “The Low Road,” Marge Piercy begins her poem by bemoaning the single activist who is committed to the cause but is overwhelmed by the imbalance of power. But, like the student protesters at the University of Missouri demonstrating their interdependent power, Piercy knows that this balance can shift quickly. And when people collectively realize this potential and then act upon it, social change will be the result.


This has been a turbulent year in Missouri. When I think about what is taking place in Missouri I can't help but compare it to Selma Alabama in the 1960's. It is a tinderbox, waiting for a spark. This event had a favorable outcome. I hope it is a sign of what we can hope for in the future.

I really enjoyed this article, I enjoy most articles written by this author. I feel like these are the type of articles our youth needs to read on top of all the news coverage of such events because I feel like a lot of people are down in the dumps on how activism and protesting in general can really change the minds of the society we live in but it can!

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