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Chris Rickert: 50 years after Dow, UW-Madison activists look inward
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Chris Rickert: 50 years after Dow, UW-Madison activists look inward

Dow riots, 1967

Vicki Gabriner, in costume as part of a protest, was one of the first people arrested during the Dow riots on the UW-Madison campus in 1967.

When the 1960s are caricatured as a sex-, drugs- and rock-n-roll-fueled free-for-all, the 50th anniversary of the Dow Chemical protests at UW-Madison serve as a reminder that college students are capable of caring about international injustices and believing they can influence what their government does about them.

A lot can change in 50 years, but it still seems too short a time to go from an activism centered on a war halfway around the world to one centered on creating “safe spaces” on campus.

It’s hard to come by recent examples of UW-Madison student activism that are comparable in scope to the Dow protests and other campus activism of the 1960s, or even to the anti-sweatshop push of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The best I could come up with were protests against the allegedly unwelcoming environment on campus for people of color.

There’s #theRealUW hashtag that draws attention to real and perceived instances of racial intolerance, for example, and in April 2016, a few hundred students marched to protest the arrest by campus police of a black student activist who had spray-painted messages including “The devil iz a white man” and “You are oppressed” on campus buildings.

Student activists of the ’60s protested the racism-by-statute of the Jim Crow South. Today’s activists criticize a UW-Madison that aims for racial diversity in admissions and offers scholarship programs for minority applicants, while the UW-Madison student council passes a resolution calling for free tuition for all black students.

Race hasn’t been the only campus concern that dovetails nicely with the politics of personal identity.

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In an op-ed column in this newspaper Wednesday, two female UW-Madison students and interns at the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now said a male professor and civil liberties expert was not qualified to comment on the federal government’s reversal of Obama-era rules on handling allegations of campus sexual assault.

“Because ‘rape culture’ does not affect him, he does not get to speak to its existence,” the students wrote.

Speaking of speaking, handfuls of students also protested speeches by conservative speakers Ben Shapiro and Charles Murray.

This led Republicans to start pushing for a law that would require the expulsion of students who disrupt speeches, which led the Board of Regents to enshrine the requirement as UW System policy, which spurred students to protest these new guidelines for, well, protest.

None of this is to say that today’s college students are the least woke to injustices the severity of which they’re unlikely to experience, taking place in countries they’re unlikely to ever visit. That distinction probably goes to my own Generation X — the original slackers.

There are also campus groups created specifically to draw attention to the world outside of campus.

A member of UW-Madison Students for Justice in Palestine, for example, told me the group is active but not how many members or events it has, and the UW-Madison student chapter of Amnesty International held a fundraiser in April that raised $125 for Syrian rescue workers.

It’s no Dow protest, but it’s a start.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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Fifty years ago next week, thousands of students on the UW-Madison campus — and the rest of the country via news photos and film clips — witnessed a protest-turned-riot that put the anti-war spotlight on the city, shattered the trust between the university and many of its students, sent nearly 70 people to the hospital and forever became known as the "Dow riot."

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