What began early this semester as a group of graduate students airing out grievances has blown up into a semester of endless protesting and tension from multiple efforts at the University of Missouri. From decades-old racism to cuts in grad student healthcare, students have raised their voices and demands to the higher-ups, with very little satisfaction. The common denominator? Students felt unheard by the administration put in place to make things right.
A video surfaced last week showing the struggle between ESPN freelance photographer Tim Tai and Melissa Click, assistant professor of communication, who vehemently denied media access to one of the #ConcernedStudent1950 protests. Tai cited his First Amendment right as a member of the media to capture the public event, the same right which gave the protesters the ability to be there.
Baylor class of 2013 graduate and former Lariat photo editor Matt Hellman has seen the semester unfold since the beginning skirmishes. Coincidentally, Hellman is in the viral video, documenting the outrage himself. As a current Mizzou grad student and assistant director of photography at the Columbia Missourian, Hellman uniquely holds ties to both sides of the argument — the protesters and the media.
Considering you’re both a grad student and member of the press, you must have a different perspective on what’s been going on. Tell me about what that’s been like.
For the grad students, we’ve been fighting our battling ever since the beginning of the semester, and it really hasn’t changed much for us seeing as though they haven’t addressed those fully. Yeah, they stopped them from happening, but they haven’t figured out if they’re going to let those things happen or reverse it and let grad students continue going on full-tuition waivers or not. We’re still holding protests and trying to fight that battle.
Have you been a part of those protests?
As a media member, I haven’t attended the protests. I did attend the walkout [on Aug. 26], but I was covering it for media, so I was there in a more formal capacity. Aside from media, on a personal level, I did agree with what they were doing, and I would support them if I wasn’t covering it.
You’ve mentioned that the last week or so was when the national media really latched onto Mizzou. What do you think that turning point was?
For sure, it was the Nov. 2 event when Jonathan Butler decided to go on an indefinite hunger strike where he basically said he’d rather be on the strike until he died or until Tim Wolfe resigned his position. And that’s when everyone started picking up on it, when it started to really become a big deal. The students started to take more emotional connection to it, the football team especially.
Has this negatively or positively affected the way the country views Mizzou?
Mizzou’s at a standstill right now with that because the country, I think, is waiting to see how this all blows over. It’s more of a longer-term issue, especially with these other universities joining in with their own causes. It’s becoming a hot issue at Yale, Syracuse, Stanford; UT’s even protesting. With all these other schools doing it, it’s not going to be about Mizzou that much longer. Yeah, we were the spark who lit the fire, but it’s growing to a more national education issue.
So, you keep using “it.” What is “it” to you? What is this one issue that you think will catch fire nationally?
More of the racial and inequality issues on campus. Generally, students are feeling a bit detached and neglected by their administration, but that’s pretty straightforward from Mizzou’s perspective. One of their demands was for them [administration] to be more engaged and have better representation among the student body and faculty. I believe one of their demands was that 10 percent of faculty members within the next few years be African-American or other ethnicities.
It seems the grad students were the first to voice their cause this semester. Do you think having both of these causes going at the same time has helped each other?
The two protests probably helped each other, specifically because Jonathan Butler, who was leading the [#ConcernedStudent1950] protestors and basically became the figurehead of the protestors, is also a grad student, so he was feeling the same pressure. So his protest was joining both causes, and I believe the faculty acknowledged that as well. They decided to host their protest the same day that the big rally and walk out on campus happened on Nov. 9.
Obviously, the racial tension efforts have been significant, but I think it’s been so huge that we don’t hear about the other fight that’s been going on with the grad students, very little at all. That’s not the focus of what the media has played this upheaval to be. Why do you think that is?
The grad student fight if very separate from the racial issue, which is generally, in the recent past, a hotter issue than any other educational issue and something every university has had to acknowledge at one point or another in its history.
Do you think both the president and chancellor’s resignation will solve any of these problems or alleviate any tension?
I honestly can’t tell. The ripple effects of this are going to have to be seen over at least six months to a year before any real change can be noted. It’s all too in the moment right now. The administration and students are all reacting off of instinct right now.
So, about this video that’s gone viral. You’re in it capturing photojournalist Tim Tai’s stand against the protestors forcing him to leave. You were also videoing the scene. What was going through your mind?
As a media member, I wasn’t thrilled with the way the #ConcernedStudent1950 people were handling it. We were in a public location that, according to our First Amendment, we had as much right to be there as they did to photograph or film what we wanted. That being said, it’s up to each individual journalist on their morals to back off or to continue to stand up and fight for their right. In that situation particularly, my only position were I was standing was to 1) make sure nobody got hurt and 2) that both sides were being equally represented in the footage.
What emotions were you feeling? You were a member of the media documenting this, but you were also, in a way, supporting their cause indirectly.
Standing right next to Tim, he was keeping his cool, standing up for the position of the media and expressing the fact that we have a First Amendment right to be there. And I supported his statement, and I wasn’t about to walk away from him or remove myself from the situation because I was in a rightful place, covering a topic that needed to be covered. Even though the story changed to more of an interaction between journalists versus protestors, it was still my job to stand there and hold the ground and continue doing my job.
How significantly do you think these events translate into how media covers racial tension on college campus?
For us, the change came the next day. Members of their groups were handing out slips of paper with information on the First Amendment rights, and how media was supposed to be there. They should support and acknowledge the media, and talk to them. After everything that happened, that was probably the best way they could have handled it. And it’s our job as media to acknowledge that.
In this particular situation, what does the First Amendment mean to you?
The First Amendment, in my opinion, gives us just as much of a right to cover them as it gives them the right to protest peacefully. If they’re going to be protesting on a public spot, then we have the right to photograph, interview and be in the presence of that event and tell their story. They do not have to talk to us; that’s their prerogative. They’re allowed to say or not say what they want. And we’re not going to force them, but we are going to do our jobs as best we can.