A Black Lives Matters protest marches through downtown St. Louis. Enrique Bonilla/The Paisano

Last week, UTSA’s main campus was a robust example of what the American college experience should be: a place where discussion is welcome, didactic and communal. UTSA National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) members and other students demonstrated against injustices regarding the growing numbers of police brutality incidents in America. Students also had the chance to voice their opinion and ask questions at Chi Alpha’s open forum held at the Sombrilla plaza.

How do organizations like these bring their message to the public and contribute to change?

Vice President of the NAACP chapter organization Dominique Lee cited social media as instrumental in gathering people to their cause. “Most of the time, we get people through our Twitter account.”

New participants of NAACP are then invited into an open forum, where their voices are heard, frustration is given a place to vent and demonstrations­–not protests–are organized.

NAACP does not use the term “protesting,” as they feel it pushes a political agenda. Lee states the organization voices political ideology, but in a more civil way than protesting. This venting and atmosphere of discussion was visible on campus during their third annual “Silent Library” demonstration last week.

Similarly, Chi Alpha held the “Jesus Exhibit,” where students were allowed to ask questions that occasionally turned into heated discussions.

“Freedom of speech, to me, means just being able to talk about ideas and opinions in a very non-aggressive way,” said Andria Brown, a Chi Alpha leader.

Under the “Students’ Rights and Responsibilities” in UTSA’s 2017-18 Information Bulletin, “Students have the right accorded to all persons under the United States Constitution regarding freedom of speech, peaceful assembly and association.” 

The university regulates activities involving freedom of speech, peaceful assembly and association and has established guidelines to prevent disruptions on campus.

Students and all classes of people have protested institutions and policies perceived as unjustly enacted to suppress actions, speech and general freedom for decades.

Over the past decade, oppression both de facto and de jure in America has been dragged into sunlight. Confederate statues placed in the public’s eye have fallen, causing contention among Americans. Nazis have paraded the streets of the land of the free and home of the brave. NFL Football players refuse to stand during the national anthem.

Where is freedom of speech headed in 2017, when the last 17 years have nurtured a growing dependence between digitization and the global economy, global communication and international politics? The tools of the “information era” are indispensable to those mobilizing for a cause.

Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram have become the platform of the people,  dispersing information as they see fit, unburdened by agenda-setting editorial guidelines or corporate interest: a counter media.

Big media content is typically determined by stakeholders’ monetary interest in our capitalistic system; those with money have the ability to further promote their ideologies over large established networks.

While social media does allow for dissemination of uncensored ideas that are not largely publicized, these platforms are businesses themselves. Social media platforms sell information to advertisers and share information with police departments, making them a tool used by both the aggrieved public and the state. It is a double-edged sword that must be carefully wielded in mobilizing political ideologies and gathering like-minded individuals for a cause.

UTSA has a peaceful public assembly policy in Chapter 9 of the Handbook of Operating Procedures. It specifies that UTSA is not to discriminate against anyone based on their viewpoints. However, damage or defacement of university property or the property of another person while exercising freedom of speech and assembly is not permitted.

This mention of damage of property or people in the policy raises the topic of violence in freedom of speech, as it is an ever-growing part of protesting being publicized. Nazi punching, for example, has become a contentious argument–as well as a highly reposted meme–for and against free speech, where abstract views of free speech don’t take account of the context in the argument.

By nature of their speech, white supremacy groups give way for action to occur that would suppress the free speech of other groups. This is violence. In also the abstract view of freedom of speech, white supremacy groups are replaced by the title “Group A” and marginalized groups are referred to as “Group B.”

A materialistic view on freedom of speech takes context into consideration and allows for censorship of such harmful speech. What those fortunate enough to not live in neighborhoods where defunding of school programming or gentrification take place do not realize is symbolic protesting does not always bring enough attention; what starts out peaceful may devolve into violence.

Any qualms or moral panic over de-platforming speech with pernicious effects pales in comparison with other forms of violence.

Co-Chair of the San Antonio chapter of Democratic Socialists of America Alex Birnel explained, “I think any instance of moral crippling or moral panic over nazi punching or de-platforming nazis is, in general, overblown, and that’s because it pales in comparison to structural violence. Every kid that goes to school in an underfunded school district because the tax base is not as rich as the neighborhood next door is experiencing a slow kind of invisible violence; anybody that’s under a US bomb in some country around the world that has the unfortunate fate of being in a place where, some might use the word, ‘terrorists’ congregate.

“We focus on the name of violence rather than violence that is systematic and long term.”

What is considered harmful or violent varies from individual to individual. Anger swelters from those most basic parts of life that go unquenched such as hunger, housing and education: struggles many people who are afforded the ability to attend a university don’t recognize and cannot relate to. While some view violence as chaotic, it is a tool of the protestor used when deemed necessary. There is a place for reactionary violence for self-defense and in matters of dehumanization and systemic violence.

What we are seeing in 2017 is this reactionary mode of responding to strife.

Brian Gordon, Food Sovereignty Coordinator at the Southwest Workers Union (SWV), a non-profit organization involved with migrant rights, among other causes, refers to reactionary violence as “the Band-Aid fix.”

“There are so many things moving so fast in 2017 that are affecting such wide groups, I feel like what ends up happening is we end up reacting to these things,” Gordon says. “It’s not leaving us with the opportunity in a lot of organizations to get ahead of the curve to spend time organizing and planning more impactful solutions that really change the larger picture and the real root causes of a lot of the issues.”

Gordon coordinates the Roots of Change Urban Garden at the SWU base downtown. It provides access to food for families who live in downtown San Antonio, which is identified as a food desert, an area that has limited access to nutritious food–this is structural violence. The garden is a pre-emptive way to cure social problems the state doesn’t address. This is a form of protest.

Similarly, the New Orleans chapter of DSA recently offered free brake light repairs as a way to mitigate the impact of the state on motorists, particularly people of color.

DSA’s national Facebook page cited, “Out taillights are a main reason for traffic stops. Traffic stops are especially perilous and life disrupting to undocumented immigrants and people of color.” Preemptive solutions such as this not only unite communities and provide motorists with a legally driveable vehicle but also directly take money out of the state’s pocket. This is protest.

Organizing and mobilizing is not an easy feat. It requires numbers. It requires the use of spaces to discuss ideas. It requires supplies and money. More than anything, it takes emotional work to funnel frustration into something that works toward better changes in society.

Digital media is aiding freedom of speech and demonstrations, but it can also suppress it. The First Amendment allows people political efficacy to create a better form of reality, and UTSA students exemplify the beauty of living in a country that has always fought against oppression and tyranny.

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