Protest Culture at UW-Madison

by Alanna Conley

Protesting is as deeply ingrained in UW-Madison culture as “Jump Around” and beer pong. Since the 1960s, the campus has been notably at the forefront of every national and local movement. The tradition continues, as Badgers make their voices heard.

Sophomore Claire Van Valkenburg was upset last year at the elevated levels of sexual assault on campus. In 2016, 325 UW-Madison students reported a sexual assault, according to the university, a jump of over 100 from 2015.

“I was really upset; it was almost every weekend we would get an email about sexual assault and it was super non-descriptive about location, perpetrator or resources,” Van Valkenburg said.

Van Valkenburg logged onto her computer and created a Facebook event for a March Against Sexual Assault. But just like a letter written to vent and not to send, Van Valkenburg invited no friends, closed her laptop and went to bed. What she forgot, however, was to make the event private.

By the next morning hundreds of people had RSVP’d and shared the March Against Sexual Assault event page. Without knowing it, Van Valkenburg’s event had resonated with the Madison community and in a few short weeks nearly one thousand people were marching down University Avenue, demanding something be done to address the alarming spike in sexual assault cases.

People were really angry — it was a cultural aspect on campus that was not a positive thing. People were experiencing it and experiencing it happening to their friends on campus,” said Van Valkenburg.

Van Valkenburg demonstrated two key things in Madison protest culture today. First, behind the right cause, the community will rally. Second, social media has allowed the already present activist culture to flourish.

The University of Wisconsin Madison gained widespread notoriety during the Vietnam War era for active protest culture.

A majority of the demonstrations were in reaction to American foreign policy. In 1966, 250 students staged a sit in to protest UW-Madison’s compliance with the draft.  Large demonstrations against GE and Dow Chemical Co., who both produced military supplies, arose when the companies came to campus to recruit engineers.

Many other demonstrations during this time were focused on campus-centric issues, however. Students and faculty organized in 1969 to demand the university start a department of Afro-American Studies. These demands were heard, and UW has that department today because of this student driven movement. In 1970, the Teaching Assistant Association went on strike to secure better wages and benefits. 

1970 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison marked a turning point in campus protests. With the first few days of January, the Red Gym and the Primate Lab were firebombed, while vandals caused $1,300 in damages to the Army Reserve Center. Protests against the Kent State shooting also occurred in May, forcing the National Guard to use tear gas on students.

The bombing of Sterling Hall was the most notorious event during this time. A group of former and current students called The New Years Gang detonated a bomb killing a postdoctoral fellow in an attempt to destroy the Army Mathematics Research Center. The bomb caused $2.7 million in damages to Sterling Hall and surrounding buildings.

Following Sterling, the radical sect of activists on campus were somewhat subdued. However, student propensity for protest continued more peacefully.

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This legacy affects current students.

“Madison has always had an incredibly rich history when it comes to campus protests. I think that was a big thing,” said Van Valkenburg.

UW-Madison has the unique feature of being a liberal leaning university that resides next to a statehouse anchored by Republicans. This encourages many students to show their support for the causes they care about.

“Being that we are five blocks from the capital is a huge privilege of coming to this university. [Protests] the state governor can see I think are really impactful,” ASM Representative Jacob Gardner said. “I think there’s something to be said because there is a history of it, people come here to engage politically. That’s something I weighed when I chose to come here.”

Protest culture at the university has changed in the digital age. This is a double edged sword, however. Social movements are far more visible due to the internet. This also allows students to be involved without ever showing up. McGinnity-Wake referred to these people as “slacktivists.”

“It’s a two sided coin. Social media absolutely engages more people. Far and away that’s our main source of communication,” McGinnity-Wake said. “There’s the side that social media is where involvement stops.”

Social media, however, has been a main way for activists to organize. In recent months, the Women’s March on Madison stands out as a prime example. The Facebook event had 18,000 RSVP’s and an additional 17,000 interested. Madison police estimated that between 75,000 and 100,000 were in attendance at the event in late January 2017.

“Social media is the core of millennial history. That’s how we organize, that’s how we inspire,” said Van Valkenburg.

The Women’s March was in part a protest against the inauguration of Donald Trump. With a state and federal government now in the hands of conservatives, progressive activism on campus is more prevalent than ever. According to McGinnity-Wake, the College Democrats have not experienced the usual drop off in membership after an election year.

Student government also recently scored a major victory through grassroots activism on Governor Scott Walker’s new budget. The budget was to include modifications to how students pay segregated fees. The proposal would allow students to “opt-out” on a fraction of these fees. This stipulation would severely decrease funding for organizations like Badger Catholic, Sex Out Loud and the Rape Crisis Center among others.

“ASM gets a bad rap because of its student government. The grassroots play a huge role.  We lobbied every member of the state finance committee,” Kat Kerwin, an ASM Representative, said.  “Grassroots organizing plays a big role at the state level.”

Van Valkenburg said ASM affiliates were influential in allowing her protest to get off the ground, such as information on writing a list of demands for the Chancellor. She said UW-Madison’s network of activists assist each other by supporting and sharing their diverse list of causes.

“The activist network is anchored in ASM. They work with one another over popular student issues; it’s kind of a network that if one starts a demonstration or an initiative we share it among ourselves,” said Van Valkenburg. “It’s a group of people who know what the resources are and what we need to do to get it off the ground.”