Mizzou: More Than a Hashtag

As a student at the University of Missouri, and, moreover, as someone who grew up in Columbia, was raised by an MU professor, had many friends who also had professor parents, and who spent countless hours at daycare on campus and in offices as a kid, the events that have transpired at Mizzou these past few days and weeks have really hit hard.

I am filled with mixed emotions; on Monday the vibe on campus was one of triumph and progression, but that quickly turned to hatred and fear in less than 24 hours when threatening posts made on social media quickly went viral. While it is heartbreaking to watch the college and town that I have grown to love being thrust into the national spotlight for racism and threats of violence, and to read so many hateful comments from ignorant people who have no clue what is truly going on, it is also heartwarming to see the outpour of support from many others. Last night a family friend who attends the University of Kansas posted on my Facebook wall that, despite the infamous rivalry between Mizzou and KU, she and other KU students feel empowered by the changes happening at Mizzou and that their hearts are with us.

I am going to try to refrain as much as possible from pointing blame at any one group or individual, as these issues and events are extremely complex and multifaceted in perspective. I have tried to consider different viewpoints and have struggled myself with the many complicated aspects of this issue that have arisen–as with any important social issue, there is no clearcut “right” and “wrong.” However, no matter what you personally think of the events at Mizzou these past few days, there is no denying that change is happening and that intelligent and inclusive discussions must take place on campus and across the nation. As a student of the Missouri School of Journalism, the past few days have proven to be even more complex, and certainly hectic.

On Monday, as soon as I heard the news that UM System President Tim Wolfe had resigned, I grabbed my DSLR camera and ran out the door of my apartment to the Carnahan Quadrangle where there was already a large gathering of protestors, supports, onlookers and journalists. I was able to capture photos and videos of the resignation’s powerful aftermath, and the entire time I had this invigorating feeling that I was witnessing history in the making.

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Seeing Mizzou trending number one on Twitter and Facebook was definitely a shock each time I opened social media that day, which was a lot–I fee like I used more social media and email on Monday than I ever have in one day my entire life! Also, as many major national news outlets such as The New York Times, NBC, The BBC and ESPN published and broadcasted stories about Mizzou nationwide, it became apparent to me that it was the local media that were the most reliable. I found myself more trusting of stories by the Columbia Missourian, KOMU and MU student media because those outlets had the most background, context and sources available to most accurately report the events–they were on the ground and in the middle of it all.

In regards to the “protestors vs. media” controversy that emerged from all this, I think the issue is very difficult and cannot be boiled down to a “right” and a “wrong.” However, I will say that it was surprising to me to get to the scene on Monday and see that protestors were linking arms around the tents on the grass to keep out reporters, and that signs were posted to void off the media. To me it seemed that the protest movement and the scale to which it grew was made entirely possible by the media getting the story out there.

In my journalism class on Tuesday, the dean of the J-School spoke to us about the issue involving the student photographer who was physically pushed back by a protestor, a protestor who also happened to be a professor in the MU Communications department. Dean Kurpius said that he and the rest of the J-School were taking the stance that the First Amendment guarantees the Freedom of the Press; the protestors were on public property and the photographer was not trying to intrude inside the tents. I fully agree that there is a fine line between getting the story and being respectful as a journalist, but I did not interpret the photographer’s actions as being out of line in that situation. (Since Monday, protest groups have posted fliers that say they are welcoming of journalists and the media.) However, I will note that on reading this blog post I can certainly see the validity of the “no-media” perspective.

Lastly, I would like to address the massive role social media has played throughout these events. Bottom line: without Twitter and Facebook, this movement likely would not have gotten anywhere close to where it did. Earlier this year in one of my journalism classes we had a lecture on social media and activism. I never would have guessed that we would get to witness this happen first hand at Mizzou. In the past few days, social media has been used both positively and negatively, to spread empowerment and unity, but also to spread hate and divisiveness.

What happened Tuesday night was complete chaos. Anonymous racist threats of violence were posted on Yik Yak and went viral on Twitter. These threats were extremely disturbing and disgusting and were rightly taken seriously by the university and the police. While there legitimately were real and cited incidents of racism and hate on campus last night, much of what occurred on Twitter can be likened to mass hysteria. A rumor erupted that the KKK was at Mizzou in Greektown, and that message spread like wildfire on Twitter. Photos of Klan members–that clearly were not from last night–went viral and there were even rumors of gunshots directly on campus. The hashtag #PrayforMizzou was trending number one as unconfirmed and false information was disseminated throughout the Mizzou community and the nation. While I do believe that the threat was very real and should have been taken seriously, the viral nature of social media unnecessarily escalated the fear of things that were not even confirmed to be true.

Although MUPD tracked down and arrested the Yik Yak poster (who happened to be a student at Rolla), the aftermath of it all carried over to today; all my classes and tons of others were cancelled, and one professor who received nasty backlash for refusing to cancel an exam has since tried to resign from MU. (However, his resignation was not granted.)  After reading the professor’s emails, I agree that they were worded rather insensitively, however, I truly believe that it was not his intention and that his words were misconstrued. The fact that his emails have spread all over Twitter and have driven to him to want to resign upsets me greatly; people make mistakes and this highlights the extremely unforgiving nature of social media.

Do not get me wrong, I most definitely believe that African-American students are justified to feel unsafe on campus right now; I would stay away myself. It makes me so sad that Mizzou has become a place where students do not feel safe walking to class merely because of their skin color. It is the worst and most surreal feeling to open up my inbox and read countless emails from professors and administrators urging us students and faculty to “take safety precautions,” “don’t walk alone” and to “be vigilant” when on campus. As many have stated, it feels like we are back in the 1950s and 1960s. Everyone has a right to his or her own opinion, but to blindly and rudely attack those who disagree with you is completely ignorant, no matter which “side” you are on. As a campus and as a nation we should use this opportunity to open a dialogue about racism and justice, and not just for the African-American minority, but all minorities on campus–race, religion, etc.

With such high tensions on campus right now, it is hard to look further ahead than one day in the future at this point. However, I can only hope that Mizzou and the city of Columbia–the college and the town that hold such a huge place in my heart–will not be known solely for the negative actions of the past few days. I want my school to be known outside of its trending hashtag. When people ask where I go to college, or if they see me wearing a “Mizzou” shirt outside of Missouri, I hope that they recognize Mizzou as the place where positive change happened, and as the school with the student and faculty body that stands up for all members of its community, no matter his or her background.

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