Our daughter is graduating from Clemson on May 10th. By the time you read this column, the glorious event will probably have transpired.

But as I write, I’m thinking about a discussion we had over the phone the other day. As usual, I was out for my morning walk and Amelia was on her way to class.

“Mom, I just saw on Instagram that some people are holding a protest in front of Sykes on Wednesday,” she said. “It’s a sit-in, I think.”

“Really?” I asked casually, trying to sound calm while visions of a ruined graduation ceremony danced in my head. “Are you and some of your Poli Sci friends planning to participate?”

(Amelia is a Political Science major with a minor in Russian Studies.)

“Oh, no way,” she responded without hesitation. “We study this stuff, so we know how complicated it is. It’s obvious these kids posting memes on social media have no clue what they’re talking about. It’s totally performative. Makes them feel good but accomplishes nothing.”

My heart swelled with pride. That’s my girl, I thought! Good head on her shoulders. Informed. Sensible. Circumspect.


Gulp. My daughter seems to be following in my cautious, skeptical footsteps, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have conflicted feelings about that. After all, there’s something noble and beautiful about standing up for a cause you believe in. At least that’s how it seems from the outside looking in.

As I’ve said here before, I’m not a protest person. I rarely go to marches or demonstrations, and when I do, I tend to feel awkward and self-conscious, like I’m showing off or angling for brownie points.

If the cause is particularly complicated – which they almost always are – I’m even less likely to make the scene. I have a hard time streamlining my political convictions into a neat little slogan that can fit on a poster, and when it comes to “demonstrating” those convictions, if I can’t go all in, I’m not going.

If this trait were a product of wisdom, experience, or even maturity, I might be proud of it. But it’s just my nature. I was like this in college, too.

You would never have seen me living in a tent city, or mounting the barricades in some iconic building, or going off to jail in handcuffs for a cause I couldn’t possibly fathom in all its intricacy. Though I was unaware, back then, that a person’s brain isn’t fully formed until around the age of 25, I knew enough to know I didn’t know very much.

And never in a million years would I have dared to “make demands” of the older, wiser people who ran the university I attended. It simply never would have occurred to me. Looking back, I guess I just had plain, old-fashioned respect for my elders – something that seems to be completely passé today. Do the “elders” even want respect anymore? The way some of them kowtow to these student protestors – who, again, may be beautiful and noble, but do not yet have fully formed prefrontal cortices – I’m honestly not sure.

Different universities have taken different approaches, of course. The first time Columbia University tried to shut down the pro-Palestinian encampment on its campus by calling in the New York Police Department, it backfired. Students who weren’t arrested simply created a new encampment one lawn over, which attracted protesters from all across the city and beyond. When the university tried to negotiate with those protesters – giving them a deadline by which to leave in exchange for partial amnesty – it failed to end the unrest. Instead, a group of students took over Hamilton Hall, and were eventually removed in handcuffs while the world watched.

But then there’s the story of Brown University, where administrators were able to reach an agreement with student protestors without turning to law enforcement. In exchange for packing up their tents, the students were offered a seat at the table at an upcoming meeting of the Corporation of Brown University, to discuss the university’s possible divestment from companies that support Israel.

All across the country, student protestors are wreaking varying degrees of havoc on Graduation Season 2024 – on a class that already lost its high school graduation to Covid. And, however you feel about that fact – whether you find them passionate and courageous or merely performative and self-righteous – the fact is that they are not without reason to believe their demands might be met. Recent American history is on their side.

For instance, in 1968 a takeover of Hamilton Hall and other buildings on Columbia’s campus ultimately led the school to disaffiliate from a weapons research institute involved in the Vietnam war, and to end its plans to build a gym in a Harlem park. In 1985, Columbia became the first Ivy League university to divest from South Africa following student protests.

“I think we can see throughout history, especially on Columbia’s campus, when escalations like these have happened, there has been success,” undergraduate protestor Cameron Jones told the New York Times last week. “You can look at the fight for divestment from apartheid South Africa, fossil fuel divestment, private prison divestment, escalations do work. So that’s why we as students are doing it.”

Fair enough. I believe in peaceful protest, just like every decent American. (Emphasis on “peaceful,” of course.) And for the record, I also hate war.

Do I believe these student protestors have an over-simplistic understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, past and present? I absolutely do. Which may be the only “absolute” statement I could make on the issue.

The world is a mess, but there are many ways to be part of the solution – ways that don’t create chaos, endanger the futures of young people, or put lives at risk.

My daughter will be going to George Washington University in the fall to earn her Masters Degree in International Relations. At age 22, she has lived in the Czech Republic, studied in the Balkans, represented her college at the Model UN in DC, and learned to speak Russian. She has boundless curiosity and cares deeply about the world. In grad school, she plans to focus on Conflict Resolution. I’m so proud of her.

Now, I just pray her graduation ceremony goes off without a hitch.