Missouri Student Protesters Seize Power — and They're Not Giving It Back

Missouri student protesters took down the university systems president and chancellor in a stunning power play. - Image via flickr/Adam Procter
Image via flickr/Adam Procter
Missouri student protesters took down the university systems president and chancellor in a stunning power play.
As student protests shook the University of Missouri from the top down on Monday, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder hit the talk radio shows to warn of a “situation very close to getting out of hand.”

“We are close to a point where the next kook who announces he’s going on a hunger strike can hold the entire university system governance hostage until his demands are met,” Kinder told host Dana Loesch shortly after the university system President Tim Wolfe resigned in front of a nationally televised audience.

The idea that a bunch of college kids, sick of being harassed by racist assholes at their school, could subvert the chain of command and force out an admittedly slow-reacting bureaucrat seemed to unsettle Kinder. And that was even before Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announced he would “transition” to a new role at Mizzou.

“We have a duly constituted system for governing the university,” Kinder told KSGF host Nick Reed. “It is not governing the university by mob rule. We don’t do that. We don’t do it by protests in the street. People have First Amendment rights, but that’s not how we govern the university.”

Except, on Monday, protesters proved those First Amendment rights are more powerful than the lieutenant governor wanted to admit. And there’s not much Kinder or anyone else scared of losing control can do about it.

The students, many carrying forward lessons from Ferguson, used classic strategies of nonviolent civil disobedience. Grad student Jonathan Butler — presumably the kind of “kook” Kinder warned us about — kept up a hunger strike for eight painful days before Wolfe backed down. The newly famous activist group Concerned Students 1950 built a tent city on Columbia campus’ quad. Faculty members vowed to walk out.
The movement had plenty of ammo from recent months, starting with a viral Facebook post by the Missouri Students Association President, Payton Head, which began with the tale of a bigot in a pickup truck calling him the N-word and continued to include one disgusting anecdote after another. The Columbia Missourian published a timeline of incidents, including the discovery of a Nazi swastika drawn in human poop.

Fed-up students decided they’d had enough and they couldn’t rely on university leadership to help. So they fought back. They won. And they’re not done winning.

They won over Mizzou football players, whose threat to boycott Saturday's game against Brigham Young University was a hammer blow. Their coaches backed them. Politicians were forced to pick a side. By Monday, the battle had the full national spotlight from CNN to the New York Times to ESPN.

Students now wield a mighty megaphone, and they’re intent on calling the shots. That goes beyond the university level. As reporters rushed to the quad on Monday, protesters formed a human wall to block their way. The demonstrators eventually relented in the short-lived clash of constitutional rights, but not before an eye-to-eye introduction to new players in the power game.

University and government leaders will ignore them only at their own risk. That’s a fact even Kinder acknowledged on Reed’s show.

“By the way,” he said, “this can happen at any of our schools.”

We welcome feedback and tips. Email the author at [email protected] or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.
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