Student Activism at Barnard: On and Off Campus


2017 is a year that will be largely defined by protest.  From the Women’s March in January to the recent ‘take a knee’ protests, political activism has been at the center of every news cycle.  Barnard is not exempt from the narrative - the campus is full of student activists and passionate political thinkers.   

This has been exemplified over the past week, as students from Barnard and Columbia alike protested Tommy Robinson, founder of the far-right English Defence League, when he spoke at an event hosted by Columbia University College Republicans.  Robinson has been called an “Islamophobic extremist,” known for perpetrating anti-Muslim sentiments.  Over 200 students marched outside Lerner Hall, and more than thirty took their protest to stage of the event.  Robinson was unable to finish his speech on mass immigration in Europe because of the protesters, later tweeting, “My Colombia university talk was prevented last night due to Antifa hijacking it” (yes, he used the wrong Columbia.)  Now, Executive Vice President for University Life Suzanne Goldberg has sent an email to students who protested inside the auditorium.  In it, she cites two rules as grounds for possible disciplinary action. One is considered a simple violation, briefly interrupting a University function, and the other is considered a serious interruption, disrupting a University function or rendering its continuation impossible.  If it’s decided that these students were in violation of the rules, The University Disciplinary Board can impose sanctions.  

For a simple violation, these range from a private reprimand/warning to community service.  For a serious violation, suspension or expulsion is possible.  Since the email was sent, a petition started by Students Against White Supremacy has been circulating.  As of the night of Tuesday, October 17, the petition has 2,767 supporters.  The petition states, “We, students of Columbia University, firmly oppose the disciplinary action (including possible expulsion) threatened against students who protested white supremacist speaker Tommy Robinson on Tuesday, October 10th.”  It goes on to describe the “crucial role” of student protests, and ends with the statement, “Students should not be punished for reminding the campus community of the moral principles that the Columbia administration failed to uphold.”  

Student activism is not just limited to Morningside Heights, however.  Earlier this month, two Barnard first-years spoke to Her Campus Barnard about protests they attended off-campus.  On September 9, just days after President Trump announced his plan to phase-out the DACA program, thousands of protesters marched through midtown to take action against the President’s decision.  Lucy Danger, a Barnard freshman, described the scene at the protest.  “We did an 11 minute sit-in for the 11 million immigrants,” she begins, “then we started walking up central park and when we turned to go into the park suddenly there were a ton of cops... that was pretty scary, especially I know for my friends who are POC [people of color] who went.”  She goes on to explain that while she believes protesting won’t directly change Trump’s decision, she knows it will raise awareness for the issue at hand.  When asked how she believes this issue affects the Banard community, she responds, “There are undocumented students here!... One of the most striking things about being in college is listening to everyone's experiences, and it's naive to think that anything that happens doesn't affect someone here in some way.”  

The DACA protests garnered major media coverage, but some issues and protests don’t get the same attention.  On September 14, Barnard freshman Norah Hassan attended a small protest outside the United Nations headquarters, in which a group of 20-30 activists gathered to protest the lack of action taking place to help Muslims in Myanmar.  When asked to explain what’s happening in Myanmar, Norah tells Her Campus Barnard, “To put it simply, Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country with ethnic and religious minorities, including the Muslim Rohingya minorities who are victims of discrimination and abuse by the government. They are victims of many human rights violations by the government of Myanmar, including being denied citizenship and lack of free movement. This current genocide against the Rohingya is not a new occurrence, it dates back to the 1970s. Over the past three weeks, 400,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled death and abuse in Myanmar and are met with continued international indifference. They are not let into countries, expelled from India, and faced with execution, burning of houses, torture, and murder in their homes in Myanmar.”  

When she learned of the protest, Norah says, “It was one of those moments where I thought, ‘If not me, then who? If not now, then when?’ I knew I had an opportunity to use my voice and do my part to help stand up for my Muslim brothers and sisters, especially because I felt like there wasn’t enough response from the world. Even if this is a small thing to do, at least I’m doing something and standing up for what’s right.”  She says the protest itself was calm, “the crowd was situated right across the street from the UN, and was a small group of about 20-30 people.”  When asked how she believes Barnard students can help, she responds, “I think it is very easy to learn more about this issue, there are articles written, videos made, and plenty of sources online where you can educate yourself easily on what’s happening.  Getting involved is just as easy, from posting an article on Facebook to sharing a video about the issue, or taking action on human rights websites like Amnesty International, and pressuring our world leaders to take action. There are many ways for us to stand up for Rohingya, especially since mainstream media is failing to do so.”

Whether the issue directly affects the Barnard community or the larger world around it, passionate students are getting involved to stand up for what they believe in.  For those new to protesting, Norah has some advice as to how to get involved.  “As far as protesting goes, she says, “if you are passionate about something then use the resources you have to find protests happening near you or simply use the internet as a facilitator to spread awareness of the issue. Saying something, anything, is better than staying silent.”