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Columbia's Active Voices

A hard look at how activism has changed in 50 years, and what a post-COVID world has in store.

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The scene is hard to imagine: 2,000 Columbians gathered on MU’s Francis Quadrangle. Firebombs lobbed into ROTC headquarters on campus. An effigy of the U.S. president incinerated while a crowd cheers, “burn, baby, burn.” The National Guard positioned inside Jesse Hall, guns pointed at the main doors, loaded guns aimed at the main doors in case protesters tried to storm the atrium. MU students lived this in May 1970, two days after the May 4 Kent State massacre. For the 1.8 million Americans conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War, the issue was life-or-death, as was their right to protest it.

This May marked the 50th anniversary of those protests, and things have changed.

“Things were very, very different at that time,” says Michael Ugarte, a professor emeritus of Spanish at MU and lifelong activist, recalling his activism in decades past. Demonstrations required leaflets, door-to-door visits and face-to-face organization. When he participated in the anti-apartheid demonstrations on MU’s campus in the late ’80s, students erected an entire shantytown on the quad and refused to leave until they were arrested. Researching issues required trips to the library. Activism was something you showed up for.

Now with the ease of the internet, activism efforts are on a spectrum. People can show up as much or as little as they’d like. Activism can be tweeting out a hashtag in solidarity with a movement, such as #MeToo, or it can mean RSVPing yes on a Facebook event for a rally.

Now, activism has changed even further as showing up in masses is a threat to public health and safety. Ugarte currently is holed up in his home in Albacete, Spain, a provincial capital south of Madrid. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he could be accosted by police just for leaving his apartment, never mind participating in a demonstration.

Activists, like the rest of the world, have entered a strange new territory. At the time these stories were written, it was safe to assume activism would be stuck online for the foreseeable future. A week later, protesters across the nation exercised their right to assembly to ask that stay-at-home orders be lifted, while other groups rallied for orders to remain in place.

By nature, activism is uncertain. There are never any guarantees. Perhaps that’s cold comfort. But what is certain is that, one way or another, people have always made themselves heard. They are making themselves heard today, and they will continue no matter what tomorrow looks like.

Activism is Columbia’s history. It is our future. It is what we put on our dinner plates. It is the words we put on paper and the words we choke back. It still matters in an uncertain world. Maybe now more than ever. 

Click down below to find out what activism — in all of its many forms — has looked like in Columbia from past to present:

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