Passion never goes out of style

by Mick Rhodes |

A very interesting turn of events took place last Saturday afternoon, about 16 hours after we posted a story about a student protest at Pomona College.

I had assigned a reporter/photographer to cover the Friday protest after seeing a flyer on Pomona Divest Apartheid’s Instagram page that read, “Shut down Pomona College. No money for genocide!” As I suspected, the demonstration turned out to be an intense event with passionate young people exercising their First Amendment rights.

When I got a look at the photos, I was surprised to see all the protestors wearing masks. I read the story and learned this was both to protect their anonymity, and for health reasons. Fair enough.

I edited the story, wrote some photo captions, and posted it on our website. It was journalism 101: cover protest, shoot photos, report.

The weirdness began about 4 p.m. Saturday, when my email and voicemail inboxes began blowing up. After about an hour I had dozens of messages, all variations on the same form letter, each asking that I remove photos from our story. They contended that by publishing photos of some of the student protestors we were putting them in danger. They feared Pomona College would retaliate against them in some way because they took part in the protest.

I found this argument farfetched. First off, I found it hard to believe the brass at an esteemed, very expensive liberal arts bastion like Pomona College would conspire to harm students who took part in a mostly peaceful (Pomona College administration alleges some protestors grabbed students trying to enter Frary Dining Hall, which if true, may violate the school’s code of conduct) protest on campus.

Protests on college campuses are vital to our democracy. Often they’ve proved over time to have been at or near ground zero for much good trouble. I find it difficult to believe that Pomona College President Gabrielle Starr would disagree.

So, I contacted Starr’s office to see if she might be able to shed some light on these assertions. Unfortunately, she was too busy for an interview. So, onward we go, without the advantage of her voice in both our updated protest story in today’s edition, and in this column. Too bad.

All the form letter senders said they feared protestors would suffer “real harm” and possibly be victims of “doxxing” if the Courier didn’t take the photos down, or blur the protestors’ faces. Doxxing is the unauthorized digital dissemination of a person’s personal information by actors with malicious intent.

I thought long and hard about the legal, journalistic, and moral implications of this argument. I found a post on NPR’s Public Editor section of its website to be helpful in putting the situation into context:

“Photojournalism often puts a face on the story and documents the circumstances,” read the post from NPR Public Editor and Chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at The Poynter Institute Kelly McBride. “Blurring faces can erase the power of that work, as would selecting only images that do not contain identifiable faces. Protesters’ faces communicate a range of emotions — joy, anger, sorrow. Without those emotions, the story would be incomplete and inadequate. Most — though I recognize that certainly not all — have chosen to be part of these protests fully aware they are entering a public space and at personal risk. The journalists’ job is to convey reality.”

In the end, I chose transparency and kept the photos up. In fact, we are publishing them in this week’s print edition as well. Not because I don’t believe there may be repercussions for the protestors, but from the administration of Pomona College? I don’t believe that is a real thing, save for the handful of protestors the administration contends may have violated the school’s code of conduct. I would have really liked to have clarity on this from Starr, but again, that didn’t happen.

I am always heartened to see kids protesting on college campuses. To my mind, it’s invaluable to discover one’s political passions during these pivotal years. I’m glad they’re making noise. That’s what youth is for. But part of that choice to protest involves exposing themselves to scrutiny from those who disagree. It’s a built-in component of that exchange. It’s inconvenient to be sure, but it’s the price one pays.

In 2018 my kids and I took part in the nationwide gun control rally, March for Our Lives, in downtown Los Angeles. I posted a bunch of photos of the kids’ signs, which they made on their own, on my socials. I was proud of their ingenuity and passion. After the day’s events, I posted more photos of them and I marching and of some of the more clever signs. Within a few hours the posts had generated several derogatory comments on my Facebook account, including one that struck me as vaguely threatening. I was angry, but rather than engage with the allegedly fully grown bully who was threatening my then 8, 13, and 16 year-old kids, I just blocked him and moved on with my life.

Of course, some threats are more serious than others. Had I felt my kids were in real danger I would have been much more concerned, and notified police. But like most all keyboard warriors, the bluster was harmless in the physical realm. It was jarring and unnerving to be sure, and it took me a few days to relax again, but until writing this column five years later, it hadn’t crossed my mind.

I have to hope the Claremont Colleges protestors have a similar experience, that one day they’ll look back and be proud for taking a stand, and the noise and empty threats will have faded, leaving only exhilarating memories of purposeful work.

I also hope these passionate, politically engaged students maintain that energy as they leave the bubble of a liberal arts education. Protest is a foundational, necessary American tradition, and I for one am glad to see it hasn’t gone out of style.

1 Comment

  1. R. EDE

    I attended Pomona College in the 1960s. Fair to say there were more than a few demonstrations/protests. I do not recall a single mask. COVID protections, I get that intimately. Not having the courage of your convictions such that you need to hide your identity, is cowardly.

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