A provocative protest at Middlebury College has us asking all the wrong questions.
The memorial spanned one of the main quads of Middlebury College, my alma mater. For the anniversary of 9/11, 2,977 flags were planted in the ground to represent each of the lives lost 12 years earlier. Then, in the middle of the afternoon, the flags were pulled up by a group of people claiming that they were planted on a Native American burial ground and that their penetration infringed on the sanctity of the space.
Of the five protesters, Amanda Lickers—a member of the Onondawa’ga Nation who was facilitating a workshop on campus—attests that she was the only Native American involved, and Anna Shireman-Grabowski—a student at Middlebury—is the only other participant who has been identified. At Ms. Lickers’ workshop, a participant asserted that the college was built on an Abenaki burial ground. Ms. Lickers later saw the flags in the ground and felt that they were a desecration, so she removed them. Others joined, though it is not clear how, why, or even who three of them were.
The protest elicited a terrifying amount of vitriol from the college community, both feeding and feeding off of the national press that the story received. Let’s just say I’ve never seen so many friends linking to Fox News on Facebook.
I have a limited ability and an even more limited right to discuss this event. I am, in almost every way, a member of the hegemonic structure that was being challenged. So I am only going to write from this perspective, and only address it to others who feel similarly situated.
When recognizing our limited perspective, we must first understand what we may fairly question about the protest and what we may not. The misguided comments I’ve encountered mostly seek to answer the following three questions, all of which strike me as inappropriate.
1. Was the protest done right?
Some people have challenged the act by saying that if the protesters were really concerned with the sanctity of the site, they should have pulled up the lampposts too. And if they were so offended by the college’s location on a burial ground, they should have transferred.
A symbolic act is under no obligation to fix everything it sets out to question, and its ability to make us recognize the impossibly large problems at hand—this whole institution may be implicated—is to its credit, not its detriment.
Further, calling on protesters to be perfect exemplars of what they preach is dangerous because it presumes that we can define what they are preaching. If we tell someone who disapproves of a college policy to leave the college, we are claiming that our definition of what the college is takes precedence over theirs. While we think we are defending what the college “stands for,” they may be taking the time to protest precisely because they believe that the college also stands for inclusivity and flexibility, because they think the college would want to change, if only it knew. We only have the right to tell them to leave if we represent the college more authentically than they do.
2. Was the protest called for?
The most popular challenge I’ve heard is that the protesters should have used other means of getting their message across. Did they contact the school to discuss their grievances? Did they try engaging in a discussion with the community first? Were all other, less-offensive tactics considered?
This presupposes that the status quo deserves to be maintained. By essentially asking, “Was this necessary?” we reveal a defensiveness that we have no right to. The dominance of the status quo—that is, me, perhaps you—is already upheld in innumerable, often invisible ways, and we only notice them when they are questioned. So if you’re asking if a protest was necessary, the answer is yes.
3. Was the protest worth it?
In his official statement to the college community, President Ron Liebowitz wrote:
In this case, the disrespectful methods of the protesters overshadowed anything that might have been learned from the convictions they claimed to promote.
Questioning whether the benefits outweighed the costs again implies that you represent all sides of the controversy, that you can define what was lost and gained on some universal balance. By saying that the protest was not worth it, we say that we lost more than we gained. But it is not the protesters’ fault if we failed to absorb the lesson, and we are not the only party to consider anyway.
The most important question to ask is one that engages the purpose and substance of the protest instead of undermining them:
Did it work?
Ms. Lickers says:
it was my understanding that this site is occupying an abenaki burial ground; a sacred site. walking through the campus i saw thousands of small american flags. my heart swelled and i knew in my core that thousands of american flags should not penetrate the earth where my abenaki brothers and sisters sleep. we have all survived so much – and as a visitor on their territories i took action to respect them and began pulling up all of the flags.
Ms. Shireman-Grabowski says:
My intention was not to cause pain but to visibilize the necessity of honoring all human life and to help a friend heal from the violence of genocide that she carries with her on a daily basis as an indigenous person. [...] The emails filling my inbox indicate that this was not a productive way to start a dialogue about American imperialism. Nor did I imagine that it would be. Please understand that I am grappling with my complicity in the overwhelming legacy of settler colonialism. Part of this process for me is honoring the feelings and wishes of people who find themselves on the other side of this history.
Neither of these women was trying to start a conversation. They were more interested in honoring a group of people who they felt were disgraced and forgotten.
As someone unfamiliar with the traditions and beliefs of any Native American tribe, much less a particular Native American person I’ve never met, I am entirely unable to assess whether Ms. Lickers achieved her goal, though she states some Abenaki expressed support. But the chief of the Nulhegan Abenaki tribe states: “We didn’t know anything about this and if we had we certainly wouldn’t have sanctioned it. [...] Putting flags in the earth to honor bravery would not be disrespectful.” Ms. Lickers responds: “His response is that of one person — a lot of people would disagree.”
As to Ms. Shireman-Grabowski’s intention to “honor all human life,” this cannot be so easily dismissed as a failure just because her attempt to honor one group dishonored another. For who is to say that each of the 2,977 people commemorated would want to be identified by an American flag? The memorial does more to subsume myriad identities for the sake of patriotism than it does to honor individuals.
And yet it seems that the protest did more to help a Middlebury student sort through her own identity issues than it did to honor anyone at all.
But that’s not entirely Ms. Shireman-Grabowski’s fault. The media coverage and the conversations I have participated in and been told of have all emphasized her role in the protest. People claim, not without good cause, that the involvement of a non-Native turns the act into just another appropriation of the bodies and struggles of people of color. It is the student involvement that makes the protest ring false—just another Miley Cyrus, expressing herself by trying on traits and histories that people of color are forced to bear.
So we are left to believe that if she had not gotten involved, it would have been a “genuine” protest—a Native person asserting a disrespected perspective. But by assigning legitimacy like this, we not only further silence an oppressed voice—Ms. Lickers experienced the student involvement as helpful—but we also betray pan-Native essentialism. Ms. Lickers, who belongs to the Onondawa’ga Nation, does not necessarily have the right to speak for the Abenaki either. (And, to call out a further essentialism, she still wouldn’t be speaking for all Abenaki even if she were of that tribe.)
It is precisely our over-valuing of white speech and white action—one root cause for the protest— that is making us doubt the sincerity of the protesters. If we viewed Ms. Shireman-Grabowski as merely an accomplice, we would be more likely to hear the message Ms. Lickers was trying to communicate. Instead, in the name of respect and civility, we have silenced the voice that was trying to teach us about those very things.
Pic courtesy of the Middlebury Campus.