Leehey: Protests are not effective

Cameron Leehey

It is 10 a.m. Monday. The bus pulls away from the Memorial Union, and I find myself wondering what I expect to accomplish at the State Capitol.

From a pool of tens of thousands, less than two busloads of ISU students are in attendance as we set off to Des Moines to protest the latest round of proposed education spending cuts.

Hoping to reach the critical mass necessary to garner the attention of the public by means of a compelling image in the press, we are all wearing red and gold. With fewer than 150 of us, though, the gesture seems doomed to futility.

Why am I here?

Upon arriving, I find Sen. Herman Quirmbach — a Democrat who represents Ames and the surrounding areas — eating lunch on the ground floor. I ask if I may join him, he obliges.

Having met and spoken with Quirmbach previously, I already know him to be a straightforward realist and, deeming his master’s and doctorate in economics from Princeton to be sufficient assurances of expertise, I ask him: “It has been said that these budget cuts will not affect the cost of tuition, is that true?”

Without equivocation, Quirmbach informs me that the proposed cut of 6 percent to the ISU budget will correspond with a 12 percent increase in tuition. He tells me that the legislature has the ability to avoid cutting education funding, avoid tax hikes and balance the budget. The reason, he said plainly, behind the proposed reductions to all education funding in the state of Iowa is to afford greater corporate tax cuts.

A floor above us, a group of Republican loyalists are gathered in protest of our protest, waving portraits of Ronald Reagan and signs reading “WWRD,” “Bipartisanship LOL” and a handful of slogans deriding us for using GSB funds to finance our transportation to Des Moines. An obese member of their flock holds up a hand-written sign proclaiming, “Trim the Fat.”

Despite the attack being levied against us for our civic participation, we manage to remain disengaged from them. I am thankful that those in our group refrain from arguing with the loyalists, keeping the groupthink image of the partisans at arm’s length from our cause.

Branching out individually, some of us roam the building searching for proponents of the education spending cuts — Republican House and Senate members from our hometowns — so that we as their constituents can hold them personally accountable.

Neither I, nor anyone I know of, are able to track down a single Republican senator or representative; they evade us completely.

As executive members of the student governments of Iowa State, University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa take turns eloquently elucidating the various long- and short-term consequences of these proposed spending cuts in education, I fear we have already lost. The articulations of the student speakers echo off the marble surfaces of the capitol and fall to silence; when we leave, our message leaves with us, unheard and unheeded.

What good are our protests, I wonder, when those at whom they are aimed refuse to listen to us? Our complaints, without teeth, seem wholly ineffectual.

This thought bothers me tremendously. Those pressing for cuts in education funding have no reason to believe our votes are at stake, as we appear to be nothing more than a wad of people opposed by another wad of people. On the ride back to Ames, I cannot point to any accomplishment of the day, no footing gained for our cause.

It dawns on me. These elected officials can dismiss a student group that appears for a few hours on a single day, and they can effectively avoid us, but a large part of their job consists of listening to our concerns as individuals. This has to be a task accomplished without a rallying cry.

For our representatives in the legislature to take our collective concern seriously, we must approach them as individuals and demonstrate that our vote is cast with this issue heavily in mind. A group can be dismissed at once; individuals must be dismissed one at a time.

If our representatives choose to ignore us one by one, they must face the fact that they are sending future votes to a political rival, one at a time. This is how we can amplify our will in the aggregate, by taking matters into our own hands.