Former Student Activist Tracks Public Education Movement On Web
Angus Johnston found himself on the frontlines of a college protest in 1990. Then a senior at Binghamton University in New York, he could not accept the federal government’s recommendation to ban Haitians and people of sub-Saharan African descent from donating blood. So he stood side-by-side with more than a dozen of his friends and Haitian students protesting a blood drive on campus and refused a police order to disperse.
The Food and Drug Administration had decreed Haitian blood to be unsafe, a decision that infuriated Johnston and his friends. Nearly all of the students involved in the campus protest were students of color, Johnston said. When officers began arresting them, he and a friend decided they should be arrested, too.
“I felt that part of the reason these students were being arrested was because they represented a community on campus that didn’t have a lot of power,” he said.
The charges were dropped against all of the students, but the memory stands out in Johnston’s mind. He stood up for what he thought was right.
“I slept overnight in my university's administration building as part of a sit-in. I participated in huge raucous demonstrations on campus. I yelled and screamed plenty of times. But the only time I was arrested I was sitting quietly in a lounge in the student union, asking a Red Cross official polite questions about blood donation policies.”
In the intervening two decades, Johnston has hung up his protest shoes in favor of taking a look at campus upheavals through a longer lens. He’s become one of the leading chroniclers of student protests nationwide.
As a historian of student activism and student government and a professor of history at the City University of New York, Johnston has made his blog, StudentActivism.net, a go-to news source for those following the higher education crisis confronting public schools.
He had his biggest surge in pageviews around March 4, 2010, when tens of thousands of students, parents, teachers and workers across the country took to the streets to protest budget cuts on California's designated “Student Day of Action.”
“We’ve seen a big uptick in the amount of activism and the amount of high-profile activism that’s going on in the United States in the last year or two, and I think that’s great for the universities and I think it’s great for the country,” he said.
He follows the work of students in California as they protest tuition and fee hikes on the state level. He comments on Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell’s belief that co-ed dorm rooms at colleges will lead to “orgy rooms.” And he weighs in on “ugly questions” like whether white student unions should exist.
“Even really dedicated activists had no idea what was going on anywhere else in the country or even in the state…So for me to be somebody who could just let people know what was going on on the national level, that was really the first motivating factor for me.”
Johnston said he’s always had a fire within him to devote his life to student activism.
“I came from a background where it was always assumed that authority should be questioned,” he said. “I grew up in New York City in the 1970s and 80s, which was not known as an environment that was particularly reverential to authority, and I think that was one of the reasons why I was really drawn to the student movements.”
Though many of the same issues surrounding financial aid, tuition fees and diversity plagued college campuses in the late 80s and early 90s when he was in school, Johnston said he believes student struggles are “much more difficult now.”
“The tuition is higher, fees are higher, the financial aid picture is more bleak, and at the same time, the cost of attending institutions of higher education has risen,” he said. “The average student has fewer resources now than even 20 years ago when I was in college.”
But the biggest advantage students have today, Johnston said, is the ability to vote.
“The vast majority of American college students in the 1960s were disenfranchised, so when they went out into the streets and when they protested, to a large extent they were protesting because that was the only form of political organizing that was available to them,” he said.
Johnston says the historical lessons of campus unrest in the 1960s are vital to understanding the stories of today.
“The base level of local student activism today is in a lot of ways far beyond anything that you would’ve seen in 1965 or 1967,” he said, noting that student organizations for Black students or Latin American students were once rare, but they’re now present on every campus.
“A huge amount of it is sort of going on day-to-day on the local level without drawing a huge amount of attention to itself—not necessarily leading huge marches but just students working together to create a campus environment for each other that’s more sustainable and that’s more hospitable to them,” he said.
“There’s a tremendous amount of work that’s being done and the students that work on that often get very little attention and praise or reinforcement.”
To reach editor-in-chief Callie Schweitzer, click here.
To follow her on Twitter: @cschweitz
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