The May 4th massacre of four unarmed college students at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970 at the height of student resistance to the Vietnam War rocked the country. Ten days later, on May 14, 1970, two Black students, Philip Gibbs and James Green, were killed at Jackson State University, a historically Black college in Jackson, Miss., by racist white police officers. White motorists were notorious for harassing Black students there.
Photographs documented the brutal National Guard slaughter at Kent State. Yet the story is often told as a tragic anomaly or accident, rather than a deliberate attempt to violently subdue a revolutionary movement that had spread throughout universities — culminating in a student strike of millions.
Just two years later, on Nov. 16, 1972, other murders, which received far less media attention — but similar to the Jackson State killings — occurred. Denver Smith and Leonard Brown, Black students from Southern University in Louisiana, were gunned down by white sheriffs during a peaceful protest in the university administration building. The shooters were never identified. These students were fighting for change at the university, seeking a system that respected students’ voices.
Forty years later students are still fighting for change at their colleges and universities, still in the face of brutal violence.
Public disgust and outrage followed last January when students from the Occupy Movement at the University of California-Davis were pepper-sprayed in the face by police officers as they sat defenseless on the ground. The cops faced no repercussions from the local government.
Violent subjugation of student political resistance must be understood not as isolated phenomena, but rather as a response to the university as a battleground — where neoliberal forces put forth extensive effort to contain and repress one of the greatest threats to the hegemony of capitalism and institutionalized elite power structures: students.
In order for capitalism to survive, the education students receive must be managed so that it promotes neoliberal ideals — framed in the language of “inevitability” and the “objective science” of market-based economics.
Capitalism becomes an unquestioned rule, rather than a failed theory being imposed. The manufactured trajectory of a college degree as a “commodity,” rather than a public good and right, is pervasive and underscores the entangled nature of universities in the current system of unchecked corporate power. The move towards education privatization, transforming our colleges and universities into businesses, has carried over even into our public institutions of higher education. Education is increasingly made available only to the privileged few.
In North Carolina, wealthy conservative donors have spent millions of dollars attempting to dismantle, control and subvert public higher education. Think tanks like the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy criticize the belief that education should be free for all, advocating for restricted financial aid, alongside the elimination of “nonprofitable” departments such as those offering gender and ethnic studies.
Violent repression is not limited to bullets. The attempt to eliminate the teaching of our history — that is, the history relevant to students of color, women, immigrants, the poor and the working class — is also a brutal act of violence against students, as is the attempt to create a system that promotes entrenched class division by placing education out of reach to students who were not born into affluence.
Students continue to face years of unprecedented tuition increases, massive budget cuts to education funding, and graduates shackled to a lifetime of student loan debt.
Enough is enough
As did many students before us whose footsteps we walk within, we refuse to remain silent as wealthy elite forces seek to attack our education and bankrupt our futures.
The North Carolina Student Power Union is a statewide grassroots student movement seeking to fight back against attacks on public education in our state. Inspired by incredible mass movements of student resistance happening all over the world, we seek to build a sustainable movement in the U.S. South capable of transforming the current system.
The North Carolina Student Power Union vision statement reads in part: “We demand that North Carolina lives up to its constitution, a promise that education shall remain ‘as free as practicable’ and accessible to all. We demand that a new power structure be created on our individual campuses and in society as a whole. We demand a democratic structure in which our voices are heard and our decisions are carried out — a structure where students, faculty and workers are able to make decisions according to their wants and needs, and the interests of the public good. We reject the current structure that prioritizes private interests focused solely upon profits and wealth accumulation.”
We seek both a political and a cultural revolution — where students feel empowered to question what they would like to see change at the universities. Students must recognize and utilize their unique role as agents of revolutionary change. As organizers, we must underscore education as a process not confined to lectures and textbooks. Our education must always be understood as deeply connected to an active pursuit of the new world we seek.
The writer is an organizer with the North Carolina Student Power Union.