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Kane: Have the courage to support student activism

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Kane: Have the courage to support student activism

Noah Kane, Columnist

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Beginning in the 1960s, Northwestern students mobilized in favor of a variety of causes, ranging from boycotting grapes to ending the Vietnam War. In the most famous protest of the decade, more than 100 black students occupied the bursar’s office in 1968 and presented University administration with a list of demands they believed would make campus more inclusive.

After 38 tense hours, negotiations between the students and the administration concluded. NU leadership released a joint statement with the Afro-American Student Union and For Members Only that recognized that, historically, “the University in its overwhelming character has been a white institution.” Administrators agreed to a number of tangible and actionable steps. They pledged to admit more black students and established salaried positions in the admissions office for black students in pursuit of this goal. In addition, they granted black students the right to a private space to meet, organize and hold events, which eventually became the Black House at 1914 Sheridan Road. The Black House is now the headquarters of African-American Student Affairs.

Despite the students’ victory, reactions to the protest were in many cases negative. Four hundred NU students signed a petition that “(deplored) the means” the activists used but remained silent on whether the ends the sit-in accomplished were laudable. The document called for disciplinary action against the students who participated, citing the fact that they had “turned their back upon the democratic process.” A Chicago Tribune editorial, entitled “A Sad Day for Northwestern,” echoed this sentiment, claiming the protesters had staged “an invasion, pure and simple … in no way different from the occupation of the home of a private citizen.” The same article claimed the black students’ legitimate demands ”showed their hatred of whites” and “(represented) discrimination in its ultimate form.”

The sit-in came at a time of insidious racism in Chicago and long-overdue demographic change at NU. In a truth that lays bare my own privilege, black students began enrolling at the University in 1966, not long after the birth of my college-educated parents. The first class of black freshmen numbered only 54. Meanwhile, 14 miles to the south, the Federal Housing Administration of the United States government redlined majority-black neighborhoods in an effort to deny black homeowners mortgage insurance. This racist system gutted property values in these communities, redirecting prospective investment in them to white neighborhoods. At NU and in Chicago, black people often found themselves fighting a losing battle for space, respect and safety. In this context, the demands of the protesters and the urgency of their tactics make sense.

Palestine is far from Evanston. But many students who suffer as a result of the oppression of its people — which, no matter your view on Palestinian resistance, is happening — are with us here and now. I say this not to discredit the experiences of students with ties to Israel, but to highlight the struggles — of which I was largely unaware — that Northwestern Divest supporters have helped bring to light.

NUDivest’s resolution may merely recommend against certain investments. The University may not even invest in any of the companies the resolution lists — it said last week it does not do so directly. Despite this, it has received dramatically mixed reactions. Was the campaign successful? I say, “yes,” not because the resolution passed, but because we’re all still talking about it.

I’ve spoken to many students about NUDivest, and a popular opinion is that the campaign, while well-intentioned, led to an unproductive, divisive and even racist debate. Multiple editorials in The Daily have engaged that criticism, which I ironically find counterproductive. I consider it less pressing to pass judgment on the movement — which might have no tangible policy implications for the University — than to suggest ways we can learn from it. As a direct result of NUDivest, I’ve felt compelled to educate myself about the Gaza occupation. As a direct result of many of its proponents’ personal stories of oppression and marginalization at home and abroad, I’ve gained a profound respect for their strength in the face of unfathomable adversity.

I fear that history has repeated itself in negative reactions to NUDivest, and that nearly half a century after the sit-in at the bursar’s office, we have learned precious little. Activism is not meant to be pleasant, but to be noticed. It is not meant to be comfortable, but to reveal the discomfort of the silenced. And although the resolution passed as part of a democratic process, some still claim that its success was undemocratic, echoing criticism of past social movements at NU. Perhaps we are not as far from 1968 as we sometimes allow ourselves to feel.

Noah Kane is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to