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Students bring heated political action to frigid January Interim

Interim is often a time to slow down. Students and faculty appreciate the opportunity to focus on one class, study abroad and reflect more than is often feasible in a busy semester.

This year that reflection often became protest, as politics held a particularly strong grip over the campus climate for Oles here at home.

President Donald Trump was inaugurated on Jan. 20. In addition to an Inauguration Day viewing party in the Pause, many on campus reacted with protests. A group of students gathered a few days before Inauguration Day to decide what to do in response to the Inauguration. They organized a sit-in for people to make signs in Buntrock Crossroads from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., followed by a rally at 6 p.m.

Stuart Gordon ’18, a protest organizer, thought the sit-in was an important and unique part of the day.

“We’ve said we’ve had a lot of gatherings and protests, so we thought we could add in sign-making which would be a little more of a tangible thing, a product,” Gordon said. “We brought the signs to the Women’s March the next day and handed them out to people who needed signs. It was planned in the most grassroots manner we could.”

After the sit-in, students packed in Buntrock Commons for the rally. Some held signs made during the sit-in. Many more watched from the second and third floor of the building. To kick the rally off at 6 p.m., Demetrius Brown ’18 led the students in singing several rounds of “We Shall Overcome.” Then, until 7 p.m., attendees read poetry, expressed support for various groups and encouraged continued political action.

Yishu Dai ’18, another organizer, hoped that people who attended or watched the protest understand the power of democratic protests.

“We must continue to express our disgruntlement and let it serve as a social reminder that what we have right now is not okay, and further actions are needed to be done by us for better future political and social outcomes,” Dai said.

A third protest organizer, Academic Administrative Assistant of Dance JP Douglas ’14, hopes that St. Olaf sees more similar protests in the future.

“I hope this kind of thing escalates at St. Olaf,” Douglas said. “Where it escalates [it] sometimes seems like, ‘Oh we’re going to start breaking windows,’ but that’s not escalation. I mean an escalation of political pressure, a heightening of a sense that students here do have a political power, on campus, in Northfield, among friends. I would hope that words of solidarity manifest in physical action and in material ways.”

The next day, political action continued for many students. The Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 21 attracted a crowd of at least 470,000, according to the New York Times, and jammed the public transit system. Organizers wrote in their mission statement, “We support the advocacy and resistance movements that reflect our multiple and intersecting identities. We call on all defenders of human rights to join us. This march is the first step towards unifying our communities, grounded in new relationships, to create change from the grassroots level up. We will not rest until women have parity and equity at all levels of leadership in society. We work peacefully while recognizing there is no true peace without justice and equity for all.”

Several Oles made the trek to Washington, D.C., including Jordan Weaver ’20. She took a day off school to join her mother, younger sister and aunt.

“My mom had told me earlier she was going whether I was going or not, and she told me she’d get me a plane ticket,” Weaver said. “I realized it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing and I can’t just keep posting memes on Facebook. I have to actually do something.”

In addition to the main march, other sister marches were held across the world. Combined, these drew millions of people. According to the Pioneer Press, the march in St. Paul drew 100,000 people who braved the day’s cold and rain to march and rally at the Capitol. Among the crowd were a number of St. Olaf students, including Emi Hinds ’18, who travelled to the Cities with a car full of friends.

“We started marching and it was really cool because that is the most amount of people I have ever seen in my entire life anywhere, at least in a crowd that I’ve been in,” Hinds said. “We turned the corner down the street to look at the Capitol, and I looked up and there was an absolute sea of people.”

Though Hinds thought parts of the march sometimes excluded transgender people, she found the event very empowering and was glad they marched.

“There are so many other people that don’t have basic access to the same things I do,” Hinds said. “Because I am an incredibly privileged person on this planet as a white-passing person, I still have a lot of privilege in that kind of context. I am always very aware of my privilege, but the fact that I have access to all these things and other people, who are human beings, don’t is absolutely f***ing ridiculous to me and should be to everyone.”

Weaver expressed sentiments similar to Douglas, believing that actions from the march will continue long after it is over.

“People that have something they really believe in and want to fight for won’t be silenced,” Weaver said. “The more stuff that happens, there’s going to be more marches. We won’t stop because the government says stop. That’s not how it works, and it wasn’t just an ‘angry feminists’ bunch. All sorts of people were there, and it was about women’s rights but rights in general as well.”

Meanwhile, several other political events took place during the month. On Jan. 16, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Ericka Huggins delivered a lecture in the Sun and Gold Ballrooms titled “The Thread Running Through History.” Huggins is a former Black Panther Party leader and political prisoner and current poet and professor in the Peralta Community College District in California. Students, faculty and staff filled the Ballrooms to see and hear her message about systemic inequity and loving the enemy.

“We are equal. There is no superior human, there is no superior living being. My dog would agree with that,” Huggins said. “We are all equal, and we reproduce, we further this idea that some are superior, that some schools are superior to other schools. We impose this good and bad binary on everything. The good news is that we can stop it, because all the structures that are oppressive or disruptive and violent were created by humans. That means that humans can create something anew. Isn’t that wonderful to think about?”

On Jan. 18, the Institute for Freedom and Community invited political scientist and ethnographer Justin Gest to speak to the campus. His lecture was called “Trump and the White Working Class: The Politics of a New Minority?” and drew from his recent book examining white working-class communities. Gest explained why white working-class voters feel marginalized, and attempted to answer the questions of whether said voters are racist and why they voted for Donald Trump. The lecture was followed by group discussions led by members of the Sustained Dialogues Program.

“Racism as a concept is viewed by many white working-class people as a tool to invalidate what they think,” Gest said. “Racism to white working-class people is a mute button that you press on someone when they’re trying to say what they believe. It invalidates what they’re about to say, it disqualifies their speech … That is why it was so powerful when someone like Donald Trump praised the importance of the silent majority he was referring to. Why were they silent? Because they were silenced.”

In addition to national events, several Interim classes also put on special events. One was the Metamorphomarathon, held in conjunction with Classics 129, The Neverending Myth: Ovid’s Metamorphoses, taught by Professor Chris Brunelle. From 9 a.m. to midnight on Jan. 26, members of the college community read from fifteen translations of Ovid’s history of the world. The event has been held twice before, in 2012 and 2014, but this year’s was particularly notable in that it drew the largest crowd at the end of the night.

Brunelle appreciates the unique opportunity Interim provides to put on activities like this.

“[The best part is] the experience of doing one thing for 15 hours and slowing down one’s life in order to appreciate a magnificently detailed and almost endlessly innovative narrative that usually gets chopped up and dealt with only in little parts,” Brunelle said. “To call it a marathon is alliteratively pleasing, but metaphorically misguided inasmuch as real marathons involve a lot of physical anguish, whereas this offers the more pleasure the longer you sit there.”

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