EdBoard: The importance of protesting, petitioning

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

From Carnegie Mellon to the world at-large, protests have always been an important sign of change. For instance, in 2011, members of the community protested Carnegie Mellon’s partnership with the Rwandan government, which has since resulted in CMU-Africa. This past week, protests came to Carnegie Mellon’s campus in a march “Against Carceral Tech.”

On the other side of the world, protests are currently happening in Iran over the death of Masha Amini. Amini, a 22-year old woman from the Iranian Kurdish town Saquez, was arrested by the morality police for “unsuitable attire.” As of Sept. 30, more than 83 people have been killed in the protests. During 2020, Indian farmers protested controversial government reforms, with related protests happening as recently as August 2022.

As the Russo-Ukrainian war continues, citizens in Russia continue to protest. More than 1,000 people were detained in Russia following protests over the announcement of Russian President Valdimir Putin’s plans to draft more than 300,000 men to fight in Ukraine. The protestors’ resilience is certainly admirable, but their limited rights to protest against the Russian government mean danger to their well-being. Some who were detained for taking part in these protests were given draft papers, a practice defended by the Kremlin.

What exactly unites all these causes? The short answer is a sense of justice. Clearly each group has a different cause, but they are all fighting for what they believe in. Both grassroots and national protests play an important role in their respective systems.

For us at Carnegie Mellon, protests and petitions mean getting the attention of the administration so they hear the opinions of the community. When a petition circled over the summer to protest the use of facial recognition technology in police investigations, over 400 people signed. But it was still nearly 400 people short of its 800-signature goal. The petition may have helped push the University toward their July decision against implementing the policy, but it also shows that many students were either not informed of nor interested in speaking out against the proposal.

When Dr. Uju Anya posted her tweets about Queen Elizabeth’s death, grad students sprang to action to draft a petition in Anya’s defense. This demonstrated the enthusiasm students had to stand up for their professor and the larger Carnegie Mellon community.

Petitions are a powerful tool for protest. They may not feel as loud or incendiary as a public demonstration, but they are a critical first step for a movement. Petitions are the thesis statement guiding the development of protests. They help navigate activism and anchor its mission.

Once a movement has rallied behind a petition, the work has truly started. From there, coalitions have to create community. Beyond the systemic changes that they may be pushing for, activist groups invite those interested to join a community of people who share similar values and ideologies. This support can be an integral way to mobilize people, empowering them to drop performative activism on social media and instead engage in productive organizing.

It’s important to recognize that without the ability to protest or petition, we would continue to be victims of a cycle that doesn’t care about what we have to say. Though those in the U.S. are fortunate enough to have the right to peacefully assemble and petition, it’s easy to forget others don’t.

We are very fortunate to have the ability to stand up for what we believe is right; it’s important that we exercise that freedom, even at the community level.