Peter St. Onge

At Missouri, safe spaces and other spaces collide

Protesters try Monday to block photographers from Jonathan Butler, a leader in the University of Missouri protests about racial strife on campus.
Protesters try Monday to block photographers from Jonathan Butler, a leader in the University of Missouri protests about racial strife on campus. AP

I wasn’t much aware of racism at the University of Missouri when I was a student there long ago.

I don’t doubt it existed. Mizzou was and is a campus with a small number of blacks in a state with some history of racial ugliness.

But I was a graduate journalism student then, working full-time and loosely connected to daily campus life. Even if I’d been more involved, I might not have been more aware. Racism doesn’t usually hang out in all the popular places. It often hides in dark spaces, where only its targets will notice.

This week, at my old school, a lot of our spaces and places collided.

After weeks of protest about racial incidents on campus, Missouri’s president, then chancellor, resigned on Monday. Hours later, the protesters who called for those resignations decided they no longer wanted to entertain the media they’d previously coveted.

A student photographer was shoved away from the protesters’ campsite on the university’s public quad. Another student journalist was confronted in the same place by a communications professor who gleefully and chillingly called for “muscle” to move the reporter out.

Protesters said they wanted the campsite to be a “safe space” where they were free from outsiders, including media that might twist their narrative. For journalists, the calculation was different: Having a safe space is fine, so long as it’s a private space. The lawn in the middle of campus isn’t that.

The students are far from the first people who didn’t know (or just ignored) the rules surrounding public spaces. They also had some reason to be wary of media, which largely hadn’t noticed the protests until Missouri’s football team joined in. Where were we for all the moments that led to this one?

It’s a fair point. As quick as journalism can be reacting to breaking news, it can be slow to recognize the urgency of people’s struggles. We’re also imperfect after we arrive on the scene.

But the students’ inclination to cocoon themselves is part of a troubling pattern on U.S. campuses, where “safe spaces” are being used to isolate from anything that challenges – or to assault it. That’s what happened recently at Yale, where minority students attacked administrators who thought an email advisory on Halloween costumes was a little too politically correct. “It’s not about intellectual space!” one student screamed at an official. “It’s about creating a home here.”

Except that it’s not just about that. Universities are at their best when students confront difficulties and contrary perspectives, not shut them off. Administrators who enable the worst tendencies of “safe spaces” do their students a disservice, just like administrators who ignore the problems that led to the need for those spaces.

At Missouri, at least, students seemed to grasp some of that. The day after shunning the media, protest leaders distributed a leaflet explaining that journalists not only had a First Amendment right to the campsite, but that they also should be welcomed.

“Teachable moment,” the leaflet was titled.

“We’re learning,” the protest leaders tweeted.

Yes, we are. All of us.

Peter St. Onge: