‘Short turnaround time is not an acceptable excuse for inaction’

Well, now I can check “covering a protest” off my bucket list.

If you attend MU and haven’t heard about the Larry James controversy, read up. For those of you who don’t subscribe to the Missourian online, here’s the CliffsNotes version: MU might hire Larry James, a psychologist who was in charge of behavioral science consultation teams at Guantanamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, as the division executive director of the College of Education.

The Missourian received a news release Thursday from the Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation about a protest regarding James’ candidacy that would be held at 2 p.m. Friday. People would gather at the Islamic Center of Central Missouri and walk silently to Hill Hall, which houses the College of Education, and Jesse Hall, which houses Chancellor Brady Deaton’s office, to hand administrators petitions asking for James not to be considered for the position.

I walked into the newsroom at 11 a.m. Friday, just in time for budget, and then proceeded to read everything I could find about the situation. I used that information to form questions to ask the Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation coordinator about the protest: When did the organization begin planning the protest? How many people were expected to attend? How many people had signed the petition?

Turns out the protest had been forming for less than 48 hours. The coordinator had found out about James on Wednesday night when a friend from the Islamic Center asked if he knew about it. He said he was hoping to get at least a few dozen people to attend, and as for the number of petition signatures, he had no idea how many they would collect — the petitions were printed an hour before I called him. He acknowledged the last-minute planning by saying, “Some response is better than no response. The short turnaround time is not an acceptable excuse for inaction.”

About 40 people, at our final count, shared his thought process. College students held signs with messages written in permanent marker. An elderly woman wore a sandwich board with pictures of Keith Hollingsworth’s artwork. Several people of varying ages held signs with photographs depicting human rights abuse. They silently walked to Hill Hall and, once there, several spoke for the media.

Dean Clay’s appearance was a surprise to everyone, I think, especially because he had held a press conference just before the protesters arrived. After telling the crowd he was skipping a meeting to talk with them, he proceeded to listen to what the protesters had to say and respond from his perspective. With the exception of one outburst from a protester (“He was there! That’s enough evidence!” in response to Clay’s statement that no one could prove James’ involvement in human rights abuse), the discussion was fairly calm.

The group was met in Jesse Hall by the chancellor’s executive assistant, who promised to relay information to him. The stop started off much like the first one, but it took a different direction when students started speaking out. Though every supporter added to the protest’s effectiveness, hearing from the student who belonged to the Muslim Student Organization and the student who would graduate with four degrees in 10 years — the people MU strives to serve on a daily basis — gave a glimpse of how it might upset students, which I think impacted the assistant’s reactions.

I later found out the petition had gathered about 65 signatures in its hour or two of circulation, which certainly wasn’t bad — the protest had gotten a response, which is ultimately what the Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation coordinator wanted. What I took away from covering this experience was the impact a small group of people can have in a short amount of time. Administrators knew they were coming and planned accordingly, even holding a last-minute news conference 15 minutes before the protest was scheduled to start to assure the media James would continue to be a finalist for the position.

I’m interested to see what happens in the next few weeks as the hiring process is completed.

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