I support UNC student protesters’ goals, but their tactics turned me off

At the risk of sounding like an uptight middle-aged scold, I must say I was turned off by the behavior of the protesters who interrupted Tuesday’s meeting of the UNC Board of Governors.

They interrupted the meeting with chants of “No Justice! No Peace” in order to protest the impending March 1 start date of new UNC System President Margaret Spellings. University students and professors fear the former Bush Administration cabinet member will execute the Republican-controlled board’s vision of moving UNC in a more conservative direction.

Nothing’s wrong with a little vigorous civil disobedience in the service of a good cause. I’m still proud of my own student activist days way back in the misty past. But when you’re engaging in civil disobedience, that traditionally means you’re trying to draw attention to what you believe to be an overlooked cause. That means you need as much media attention as possible to amplify your voice. And, as the non-violent civil rights protesters of the 1960s understood, you have to embody the dignity you believe your cause carries.

The students who overran the BOG meeting definitely got the media attention, as video shot by my colleagues at the Raleigh News & Observer shows. But dignity isn’t the first word that springs to mind when watching how the students handle the situation.

They take board members’ seats. They pound on the table while chanting. One student bangs the gavel and starts shoving board members’ name placards to the floor. Another joins in.

I thought of my daughters as preschoolers, their little faces smeared with spaghetti sauce, pounding their tiny fists on the high-chair table top and demanding I fetch dessert.

When the police step in to pull them away from the table, a brief scuffle ensues and one student winds up on the floor amidst officers and knocked-over chairs, and other students swoop in, announcing that they had cellphones and were recording any potential police brutality.

Would a silent protest have been less effective Tuesday? Probably wouldn’t have gotten them arrested, and perhaps wouldn’t have made as many headlines, to be sure. But it also wouldn’t run as great a risk of turning off potential supporters.

The students involved didn’t ask for my input here, and they’d be well within their rights to tell me to mind my own business. Perhaps they already tried a silent protest to no avail. Still, I’m one of the many in North Carolina who worry about the direction the General Assembly has been taking the UNC system, and I found the students’ behavior off-putting.

Perhaps this is what the new generation of civil disobedience looks like, and every generation has to chart its own course. I get that. Nevertheless, if you’re turning off even those who might sympathize with you, perhaps it’s time to recalibrate some of your tactics. Eric Frazier