Student Activism in Jamaica: Dead or Alive?

Korea’s Ewha-Park-Choi Scandal

Just last week the president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, was removed from office as the constitutional court voted in favor of an impeachment that was previously set in motion in December of 2016. The impeachment and ruling were rooted in the discovery of a scandal that revealed that Park was involved in string of corrupt activities through her friend and close associate Choi Soon-sil. The Associated Press (2017) explains that Investigations revealed that Choi, who was not a government worker, may have been privy to very sensitive state information and used her connection to the president to pressure businesses into ‘donating’ over $70 million US, some of which was for her personal use, to two non-profit organizations that she controlled. But how was the scandal uncovered? Reports indicate that it all started with student protests at Ewha Womans University, one of South Korea’s most prestigious higher education institutions.

In the summer of 2016, the Associated Press (2017) explains, students at Ewha, protested against the school’s administration to create a new degree programme. The programme was withdrawn from the all-female university, but disgruntled students continued protests, this time to have the president of the school submit her resignation. The persistence of the students led to the revelation that the school was extending favoritism to Choi’s daughter who was enrolled at Ewha. This rippled into an investigation on Choi which ultimately formed into the tsunami that toppled Park’s presidency.

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Although the students at Ewha were praised for their activism, as it was the seed that sprout into uncovering of the national scandal, they were not met with open arms during the times they were protesting. Afterall, who likes protestors to begin with? In fact, the student protestors, who were numbered at about 200, were met by some 1600 officers during one of their demonstrations which took the form of occupying a building. Yet despite the push back, the Ewha Students persisted, and now their university is free of a corrupt president and South Korea is free of a corrupt President Park.

The Golden Age

If one were to take a look at several decades ago, it would be quite clear that student activism has not been something new. In fact it has not been uncommon that student activism would, whether directly or indirectly, shift the foundations of national politics as the students at Ewha did in Korea. There are many documented student protests, some even as early as the “May fourth” protests in China, that took place in 1919 over students disagreement with China granting Shadong Territory to Japan, and led to China refusing to sign the World War One Treaty of Versailles which would have sanctioned the handing over of the territory.

However, the 1960s, and 70s, are considered by some to be the Golden Age of student activism because of the major impact student protests had on their country and the world, and not to mention the brutality and bloodshed, among other challenges, that the student activists had to endure. For example there was the Vietnam protests in the 1966-1970, where approximately 4 million students from 450 different institutions rose up against the Vietnam War and contributed to President Nixon withdrawing the American troops some years later (Finan, 2013; Saucedo, n.d.); also in the 60s, students were key in the spearheading of the civil rights movement in the US and led the fights against segregation through their Student’ Non-Violent Coordination Committee (Gupta, 2016); in France there was the ‘Protests of May’ during 1968 where students who were disgruntled with the outdated nature of  educational system as well as the lack of job opportunities took to the streets to and held week long protests that eventually led to the reformation of the education bill as well as better wages (Mukherjee, 2016); and in 1976, there was the Soweto Uprisings in South Africa where thousands of students left their schools and rallied at the Orlando Stadium as a protest against the Apartheid and would ripple into the fall of the regime and the freedom of Nelson Mandela (Saucedo, n.d; Finan, 2013; Mukherjee, 2016).

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Caribbean students were no strangers to the student activist movement of the 1960s and 70s. For example, Caribbean students at the then Sir George Williams University, now called the Concordia University, held the largest student occupation in Canadian history when they occupied the school’s computer lab from January 29 to February 11 in 1969. Dubbed the Computer Riots or Sir George William Affair, the protest led to more student centered reforms at the university and paved the way for similar reforms in other higher education institutions (the guardian, 2014).

Right in Jamaica, there were also the Walter Rodney Riots of 1968. Westmaas (2008) explains that the riots were in response to Walter Rodney, a Guyanese Pan-Africanist, political activist and scholar who lectured at the then University College of the West Indies (UCWI), being banned from entering the country because of his communist views. The riots in Jamaica inspired similar student protests across the Caribbean Region. Students protested at the UCWI Campuses in Trinidad and Barbados and demanded that the Barbadian and Trinidadian Governments take action against the Jamaican Government. In Guyana some 300 students marched to the Prime Minister’s residence to demand that the Guyanese Government also take action (Westmaas, 2008).

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Student Activism Today

Today student activism is still alive in many countries around the world. For example in the US alone there were approximately 160 protests on college campuses in the 2014 fall semester alone. There have been the student led #BlackLivesMatter walkouts and “die-ins,”  as well as protests on a spectrum of other issues, including high tuition costs, university divestment, and campus sexual assault (Zhou & Green, 2015). Also in North America, approximately 250, 000 students from several student unions protested in Quebec, Canada over hikes in tuition fees in college and forced the government to put a freeze on tuition fees (Mukherjee, 2016). There have also been major protests in countries such as Egypt, Greece, Chile, Mexico, South Africa, India and Mayanmar to name a few (Zhou & Green, 2015).

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However, can it be said that student activism is still alive in Jamaica? Sure, the ‘Golden Age’ of student protesting may have passed with the 60’s and 70s and it is not expected that students would necessarily protest the same way as their predecessors did. However many feel that in Jamaica, the students unlike their counterparts at Ewha, generally lack the political will, strength and concern to take part in ongoing protests to fix the ills in their own institutions.

Despite there being a few protests here and there, and now and again, there have not been protests on the magnitude as there once were or addressing large scale issues that were once addressed. Also, it is felt by many that students across Jamaica are distracted, and in some ways lack a real concern for societal issues that their predecessors had. Think about it, when last has there been a national protest of students? Several questions come to mind when thinking about the current situation: Is it that the students are really distracted or they lack concern or is it that there aren’t any issues worth protesting against? Is it that the world today is ‘A OK’, and students are comfortable and do not feel that the current ills are minor? Or is it that unlike the predecessors, students today are scared, less aggressive and aren’t willing to march in the face of arrests and even death for a cause?

Some are of the opinion protesting across the world has witnessed a rebirth of some sort with the era of social media where the ‘articulate minority’ voice their concerns and air their growls on digital mediums such as Facebook, twitter, Instagram and YouTube. However, some believe that this very ‘rebirth’ is indeed the death of real student activism and have termed social media protests as ‘Slacktivism” because though part of the social justice conversation, social media activism rarely effects change and social media users rarely go the step further to act upon the very issue they were ‘protesting’ about (Robertson, 2014). The use of social media has been a popular medium among the ‘articulate minority’ of Jamaica and many students who want to voice their concerns about society. Yet despite popular outcry by many, the lack of change begs the question about if these persons have taken the next step to participate in intensified action.

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Maybe it is a case where protesting has become outdated in Jamaica and students at Jamaican higher education institutions have found more effective ways of addressing institutional and national issues. Or is it? Who knows. Maybe it is a case where student activism is dead and students in Jamaica need to take a page out of their Ewha counterparts. If Walter Rodney, who was a staunch student activist were alive, he would do what he did back in his day and fuel students to taking more active stances against ills. Maybe he is rolling in his grave today.

 

References

Finan, V. (2013, December 11). A brief history of student protest: From ‘no women at      Cambridge’ in 1897 to ‘cops off campus’ in 2013. Retrieved from   http://www.independent.co.uk/student/news/a-brief-history-of-student-protest-from-no-women-at-cambridge-in-1897-to-cops-off-campus-in-2013-8997569.html. Continue reading “Student Activism in Jamaica: Dead or Alive?”

Student Activism in Jamaica: Dead or Alive?