In the spring of 2020, my senior year of high school was upended entirely by the COVID-19 pandemic. As I’m sure many remember, nobody knew during those first few days just how long we’d be stuck away from public spaces. A quick two-week break turned into three, then five weeks, then a year, and so on. We slowly returned to normal, but not until my entire graduating class had missed the chance for any kind of meaningful commencement ceremony.

It was a tough time and I remember feeling extremely frustrated, but at nobody in particular. The pandemic was not intentional; it was a freak accident with global consequences.

Now, a little over four years since that fateful March, I am dealing with a very similar anxiety. Earlier this spring, a series of violent incidents at UCLA ended up sending classes online for a week. Not a huge deal, all things considered, but being back in Zoom U was a little bit of a bummer. The following Monday, however, another wave of protest activity sent the school online for a second week. That’s when that familiar sense of dread started to creep back in. Was this week going to be the last one? That’s what they said in 2020 about five or six times.

Thankfully, things seem to have cooled off for the time being, but it doesn’t feel like a very stable peace. I, and many other college seniors at UCLA and other schools across the country, are worried about having our second graduation impacted. What makes me most angry about this is that there were no accidents here. Unlike the pandemic, this crisis is purposeful disruption by other people. In a country where the question of the limits on free speech and expression are always in the forefront of public debate, it is crucial that we draw lines that clearly distinguish between speech and action.

When the protest encampment began, it was quite impressive. I should note that the actual “cause” of the protests is irrelevant, but I do think that aiding victims of the conflict in the Middle East is a noble enough one. The first few days of protest were peaceful and successful. People assembled in a high-traffic area of campus without blocking access to any buildings or classes. Neither I nor any students I knew had any issues with the protests at this time, and many of us noted how happy we were that we were doing “better” than other universities. We were, of course, wrong. As time passed, the total area encompassed by the protests began to expand. Non-students from outside of the university arrived, and student access to buildings started to be blocked.

 There is a sentiment that has been shared in online chat platforms recently that says, “Students have the right to feel safe, but not comfortable.” This is a sentiment that I agree with. If the protestors were not disrupting everyday life on campus, I was happy to let them say whatever they wanted to for as long as they wanted to. Where I draw the line is the active intent to disrupt the rights and routines of students who have nothing to do with the issues being protested.  There is another old saying that I think may need to make the rounds again: “The right for you to swing your fist ends at my face.”

Violence is never acceptable, and nothing excuses how the protesters were treated by a mob of counter-protesters on April 30. To be clear, I in no way condone the violent attacks levied on them. Even so, classes in parts of campus were being disrupted for students well before these attacks began. The next week, when UCLA tried to resume in-person classes, the protest organizers staged another event within an active lecture hall. By doing so, they made it extraordinarily clear that if students needed to be collateral damage for them to share their message, then so be it.

This is where we should draw the line. In a civil, respectful democracy that values the right to free speech, we also need “rules of engagement” that allow that society continue to function despite the issues being debated. Many people on campus are calling the shutdown of the protests an attack on freedom of speech, but I disagree. The action of blocking registered students from taking classes and tests is not the same as voicing your opinion. I personally know students who have had grades negatively impacted by the events of the last few weeks, because a group of student activists (and outsiders) are in a fight with UCLA’s administration. Most students are bystanders to the debate and should not be prevented from doing what is important to them.

I am a proponent of respect in all aspects of life, and when the protests on my campus began this spring, I was excited to see an example of respectful free speech. But that excitement took no more than a few days to completely evaporate, and it’s no coincidence that major student support for the group dropped significantly at the same time. As it turns out, most people don’t support causes that are willing to sacrifice their rights as collateral damage.

This story is not over yet of course. Despite my qualms with the protesters, UCLA still failed to protect their safety when counter-protesters violently mobbed their encampment. With the looming threat of a TA strike over this lack of safety, only time will tell how the high school class of 2020’s second graduation will go. Whatever ends up happening, I urge us all to find ways of expressing our discontent and truths in ways that do not end up trampling on the rights of others.

 

ABOUT RYAN

Ryan Meshanko is an intern at Legacy Business Cultures who is completing his senior year at the University of California, Los Angeles. He will be graduating this summer with a B.S. in Marine Biology and will start his graduate studies at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment in the fall. Ryan believes in making all workplaces more welcome, but to him, the most welcoming workplace is the ocean!