“Ku Klux Klan tactics” is how a Western Washington College Dean described it to the student newspaper reporter. But dozens—maybe even hundreds—of riotous students were gathered outside, demanding answers with growing unrest. The crowd milled in the murky December twilight, crew-cut guys and poodle-skirted girls, murmuring and growing agitated. “Boycott University Food!” someone yelled. A rope appeared out of nowhere, a noose was tied, and an effigy strung up from a tree, twisting in the breeze. A cheer erupted and fists pummeled the air.
It was early December 1955, in the era of McCarthy and Sputnik, when students were interested in little but cars, sports and rock ‘n’ roll. Headlines throughout 1955 were focused on Prom-Queen politics and co-ed engagements; it was the time of the white (and heterosexual) “American Dream.” But trouble was stewing under the surface of it all, and the pent-up tensions of economic, racial and sexual inequality were waiting for the right catalyst to set them off. Thus, on a cold evening at the end of the year, the first wave of the cultural revolution played out in front of Old Main: a violent protest against the poor quality of campus food.
The symbolic lynching of President Haggard (some said the effigy was intended to be the campus dietitian, Miss Luva Baldwin,) was a turning point in the history of Western, and one can only imagine the consternation of the authorities when it happened. Haggard, whose favorite pastime was yelling at students to get off the grass, must have been shocked at the spontaneous outburst, and students must also have been shocked as well at the power of their newly found voices. One can imagine the major feeling of empowerment that such seemingly minor acts gave rise to. Ameliorating measures were taken by the college trustees to “fix” the student dining services, leading to the same privatization that lasts to this day under Sodexho, and beginning next fall, Aramark. But the damage had been done and could not be undone. Students had seen the effectiveness of social protest and would use it with increasing frequency.
Today, Western is struggling with many of the same issues. Students are an underrepresented and overcharged demographic. For-profit companies are capitalizing on every square inch of campus space, installing new smoothie stands and dining facilities in almost every building on campus. These result from the general lack of student political power.
Our board of trustees are not educators, they are business people whose work is inimical to organized student life. They are more interested in the profitability of Western than growing the maturity or knowledge of its students. If you don’t believe me, just look at their plans to increase tuition or to replace the Map Library with a new coffee shop. We need to look no further than our own free-speech code to discover their motives. Serious speech on real issues like war, women’s rights and the failure of capitalist society is heavily suppressed, while photogenic, “cute speech” (such as zombie games and free hugs) is accepted and encouraged.
The basic rule of thumb for a Western administrator when deciding the time, place and manner of free speech on campus is: What do the tuition-paying parents find acceptable, and how can we get more of them from out of state? All of this boils down to the financial bottom line, which is monetary, not social or personal.
Now, like in 1955, Americans are facing a series of life-altering crises, and our university system is failing us. Not only are we facing food-service problems, such as the one that nearly sparked a riot back then, but we are also facing a cultural problem. The solution is not more free-market capitalism, escalation of foreign wars, or settling down with 2.5 kids and a white picket fence to pay student loans and have barbecues. No, the answer today is the same as it was in 1955: Organize a cultural revolution and make this place what it needs to be. We already have all the political power we need. We just haven’t realized it yet.
Evan Knappenberger is a Western junior and a veteran with a disability. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.