Student Activism in U.S. on Rise; CUNY History Prof Creates Google Map to Prove It

A mass walkout on December 1: Just one facet of what CUNY historian Angus Johnston calls an "extraordinary autumn for student activists"
A mass walkout on December 1: Just one facet of what CUNY historian Angus Johnston calls an "extraordinary autumn for student activists"
Photo by Jesse Myerson via Twitter @JAMyerson, used with permission

A historian at the City University of New York who specializes in student activism has created a nifty Google map that charts 50 student protests, walkouts, and demonstrations that have transpired nationwide over the past four months -- and the landscape is illuminating.

"We are in a moment of an uptick of student organizing," Angus Johnston tells the Voice. Johnston created the map in order to provide a visual sense of the magnitude of the movement. "A lot of these protests fly beneath everybody's radar, never make it into the national news, and never get to people [who are] plugged into stuff on the national level."

Culling from online searches, mailing lists, and private conversations, Johnston, an adjunct assistant professor at CUNY's Hostos Community College campus, pulled together 50 examples of what he calls "low-hanging fruit": actions that have taken place over this past semester that involved at least 100 college students or a few dozen high schoolers.

The map reveals what Johnston views as a few broad trends. The first and most obvious is that young people have rallied around the cause of Michael Brown, the black teen who was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Johnston says students are using Ferguson-solidarity demonstrations as a platform to bring attention to racial issues on their own campuses. Second, a striking number of protests have been organized by high school students. Like many cities, New York saw high schoolers walk out of class en masse on December 1. But other secondary-school students have also staged protests this fall over issues like limits to curricula and hall-pass policies they view as infantilizing.

"I'm not sure what's driving that," says Johnston, who theorizes that it might suggest an increasing level of engagement in issues involving politics and education.

Protests over tuition fees, staffing decisions, and sexual assault on campus are represented on the map.

Johnston believes the incipient nationwide trend might presage a more unified movement close to home.

"The really interesting thing about college-level organizing in New York City is, you have two different stories," Johnston explains, drawing a distinction between a school such as CUNY on the one hand and private institutions like Columbia, the New School, and New York University. "For the most part, CUNY and the private elites have not found a way to act as part of the same movement."

Over the past few years, students at private universities have fought over issues specific to their schools, like the new NYU campus in the United Arab Emirates, or the New School's infamously abrasive former president, Bob Kerrey. CUNY students, meanwhile, frequently find themselves waging fragmented campaigns at their fragmented campuses -- against tuition increases, controversial curriculum reforms, or proposed policies that limit freedom of speech.

Student groups have united briefly in the past -- during Occupy Wall Street in 2011, for example, and after Hurricane Sandyin 2012 -- but for the most part the schools tend to keep their demonstrations to themselves.

In late November, however, that tide suddenly turned. "From what I've seen, everybody is participating in the recent Ferguson protests: CUNY, Columbia, NYU, the New School," Johnston notes.

He predicts local students will likely find "common ground" on another issue: the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses.

In September, Columbia University student Emma Sulkowitz made national headlines for a performance-art piece: Sulkowitz is carrying a twin-size mattress everywhere she goes on campus, vowing to continue to do so until a fellow student, whom she says raped her, leaves the school.

This past spring, CUNY's Hunter College became one of 55 schools subject to a federal probe for mishandling sexual assault cases.

And in early November, NYU president John Sexton brushed off students' questions about sexual assault on campus, saying, "You're falling into one of the unfortunate foils of modern journalism where it becomes a 'Gotcha' or 'How can I create controversy?' "

Johnston has posted his analysis of his findings on his blog, He says he'll augment the map over the next few weeks, adding data on new protests and filling in gaps he may have missed.

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