OPINION: Campus protests are back. That might be a good thing.

I’ll admit it. When I came to Alaska in 1972, I was a flaming hippie with an unbelievably big and unruly Afro hairstyle. Yep, I was doing cultural appropriation long before anyone had even put those words together. I came here from a world of unrest in America. Campuses around the country had erupted in the 1960s in protest of the Vietnam war and support of the civil rights movement. Despite being in a very conservative Catholic women’s college, I managed to participate in a lot of the activities of the sixties.

But then something seemed to happen in America. It was called the ‘70s. The ‘70s started out as a continuation of the ‘60s in most ways. Protests continued, and Richard Nixon was considered as bad, if not worse, than Lyndon Johnson. But eventually, we became more interested in drinking, drugs, dancing and disco than the wider world around us. John Travolta and “Saturday Night Fever” became the symbols of a decade whose clothing, music and glitz defined us.

Meanwhile, Nixon did for us what we couldn’t do ourselves — he destroyed his own administration and legacy, thanks to his tapes of all those White House conversations. And that quickly, the ‘60s were in the rearview mirror and, God help us, cocaine and the ‘80s were approaching with lightning rapidity.

It seemed as though our college campuses went into shut down after the ‘60s. Peace reigned, mostly. Paying for increasingly expensive degrees took over where once we had worried about civil rights and stupid wars. And then it seemed as if our campuses went from peaceful to sleepy to comatose.

Colleges are there to express and exchange ideas. But the only discussions that seemed to be happening were how to get out from under the horrendous debt incurred while earning a degree.

But now, suddenly, it’s as though our campuses have awakened from a long, deep slumber and are once again the sites of unrest, protests, vigils — the whole nine yards of rebellion that shows that at least some students are paying attention to the world outside of their campus.

I’m not sure who is right or wrong with these protests. I just know when police descend on campus to arrest students protesting something they view as wrong in the world, my youth returns to me with a vengeance. Suddenly I’m back in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1967 and I’m facing tear gas, police and the National Guard. I, personally, was there to sit and do acid at the Pentagon with Timothy Leary in the hope of getting the building to levitate so we could shake all the evil out of it. I don’t think it worked, but at least we tried.


The thing we need to probably keep in mind is that unrest on campuses forces dialogue that may be uncomfortable but necessary. Those protesters of the ‘60s changed the course of America for the next 50 years. Everything from pushing for environmental protections to women’s rights to a lowered voting age came from students who would not accept the status quo. Yes, we may owe America an apology for not giving up the power we wrested from the establishment in the ‘60s. Yes, we may now be the establishment. In fact, in the actions taken by the last two surviving relics of the age — you know, the guys who are running for president again — we see the establishment in full force. As Walt Kelly wrote in his comic strip Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Any students of the ‘60s should see that we have become the establishment — we have seen the enemy and they are us.

And we see police once again on our campuses. Students were shot and killed on campuses in the ‘60s during protests. We can only hope that lesson has been learned and not forgotten: Don’t shoot the students.

I don’t know how long these protests will last or if they will have the completely upending results that the protests of the ‘60s did. I’m just happy to see students involved in something other than their student debt. What’s happening in the world matters. I’m glad they are noticing.

Elise Patkotak is an Alaska columnist and author. Her book “Coming Into the City” is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.

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Elise Patkotak

Elise Patkotak is an Alaska columnist and author. Her book "Coming Into the City" is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.