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BU’s John Silber Did Not Support Free Speech on His Campus

Boston University student anti-apartheid protestors in 1986. Photo of 2010 scan of a page from the April 30, 1986 edition of the Daily Free Press by Jason Pramas. Original Daily Free Press photo by Paul Callard.
Boston University student anti-apartheid protestors in 1986. Photo of 2010 scan of a page from the April 30, 1986 edition of the Daily Free Press by Jason Pramas. Original Daily Free Press photo by Paul Callard.

And I know that because his Boston University administration expelled me for participating in nonviolent student anti-apartheid protests in 1986

Recently, CommonWealth Magazine published an opinion piece by Rachel Silber Devlin, the daughter of former Boston University Chancellor John Silber, who published a book about her father last year and is giving a talk about him at BU today.

Her article paints a picture of a man who “always believed strongly in the rights of each individual and was protecting the constitutional rights—freedom of speech and freedom of assembly—of those who were trying to participate in the public discussion of issues.” And clearly seeks to link her distaste for individuals and organizations who seek to shut down civil debate rather than encourage it to her father’s views and practices. Which is obviously her prerogative.

However, although I’m not in the habit of speaking ill of the dead, I must disagree with Silber Devlin that John Silber was the model of the enlightened academic leader who encouraged reasoned debate and “had an idea of activism as an activity that was respectful of the constitution and not destructive.”

To anyone who didn’t agree with him on the sprawling campus he ran for more than three decades, John Silber repeatedly did precisely what his daughter says he inveighed against as an intellectual in her CommonWealth essay: He used the power of his office and the significant resources at his disposal to “shout his opponents down” (generally in fora in which they were never afforded the courtesy of a reply) and he regularly resorted to using “brute strength” to stifle his opponents’ voices on campus—thus demonstrating time and time again that he definitely believed that “might makes right.”

As was the case when he threw me out of Boston University in June 1986 for what was absolutely protected speech activity.

At the time, I was a undergraduate communications major in the BU College of Communication (called the School of Public Communication when I started college in August 1984) and a member of the Boston University Southern Africa Task Force, the student organization working with like-minded staff and faculty to push the school to fully divest of all its investments in the then-racist state of South Africa. For over a year before I joined the group in spring 1985, its members had tried to engage the BU administration in open debate on John Silber’s stance (a common one among powerful American corporate and political leaders of the time) of continuing to do business with the rogue nation where a small white minority kept its Black majority oppressed by its “apartheid” (apartness) system of legalized racial discrimination.

Silber and his administration resolutely refused to interact with us in any meaningful way. Instead, they did to us what they did to any student organization that was a thorn in their side. They ensured that the Student Activities Organization—which they had created to take something like half of the money raised from students from the mandatory Student Activities Fee we were made to pay (on top of the already ridiculously high tuition and fees we had to pony up annually) and use those funds to pay a bureaucracy to disburse the other half of the money—blocked us from receiving operating funds, an office, and the right to reserve campus facilities for our events. Emoluments of the very type that the Silber administration lavished upon conservative student organizations.

The same illiberal treatment was meted out to an array of (actual) liberal, left-wing, and human rights organizations. Notably, the genuinely independent, donation-funded, campus newspaper bu exposure (formerly the newsletter of the banned Student Union, the independent predecessor student government to the administration-controlled Student Senate, that the Silber administration defunded during the failed 1976 campus upheaval aimed at his ouster) that I also worked on along with colleagues from many effectively banned student groups.

Such anti-democratic measures did backfire, however. Leading to a significant campus anti-apartheid protest movement by fall 1985 that ultimately involved hundreds of students by the following spring. Our tactics were the tactics of nonviolent political movements in the tradition championed by BU’s most famous alumnus, Martin Luther King, Jr. And indeed many of our rallies were held at the university’s MLK Plaza because the kind pastors that ran the campus chapel controlled it, if memory serves.

The SATF held an array of educational events. We leafletted the campus community and passers-by constantly in those pre-Internet and pre-cellphone days. Howard Zinn, famed historian and longtime BU professor (himself having suffered greatly at the hands of Silber and his administration on numerous occasions), let us take over his 300-person class that I was taking in the spring 1986 semester at least twice to talk to that sizeable group of students about our campaign. Students from across the political spectrum, I hasten to add, since Zinn’s class was widely known to be the only place on campus where free speech was actually allowed. No accident that the class was held off campus (though surrounded by it) in a Nickelodeon movie theater.

We built a coalition that included many BU student organizations and the staff and faculty labor unions in favor of divestment. We held dozens of protest actions small and large. Twenty of us even went on hunger strike in late March 1986—for eight days in my case. A period in which I remember Rachel Silber Devlin’s father making a number of particularly unkind remarks about us in the campus and regional media. 

And what did John Silber and his Boston University administration do in response to our activities during that 1985-1986 school year? They used the BU police force that Silber had armed previously in the face of much dissent to drive us out of public spaces on our own campus. Public spaces we had every right to be in. 

For example, just prior to the protest that prematurely ended my brief BU sojourn, the SATF held a “study-in” on the first floor of BU’s main library—with strong support from the librarians, it must be said. After a few days, the Silber administration had its police remove us from the library. Our own library. Where we blocked no one and interfered with no one else’s ability to study or learn. We were simply present and bore witness to the need to overturn what we believed (correctly, I still maintain) was an unjust university policy.

Every time our SATF or any other student group held any kind of left-leaning protest action anywhere on (or at times, just off-) campus, Silber or any number of his powerful (and handpicked) vice-presidents or department heads would send the BU cops in to roust us. And there were many opportunities to protest, because John Silber invited a steady stream of leaders from reactionary governments around the world (South Africa prominently included) to be feted at significant university-sponsored events. While anyone “to the left of Attila the Hun,” as I liked to quip sardonically in that period, who had the global standing to debate such worthies was very pointedly not afforded the same courtesy.

I could go on sketching my own portrait of BU campus life in the mid–1980s at some considerable length, but to arrive at my point, what my fellow student activists and I most assuredly did not do was shut down anyone else’s ability to speak or debate. To the contrary, SATF members spent much of our time trying to get the Silber administration to really engage in dialogue with us rather than trying to simply continue to dismiss our growing ranks as unrepresentative of the student body. Only to be rebuffed at every turn. Hence, our divestment campaign was forced to focus more and more on protests.

As March turned to April, then, we decided to hold a thought-provoking educational action that was being used by anti-apartheid activists on campuses across the US that school year—a tactic we had attempted before in front of the College of Communication building on October 10, 1985. But the BU police had quickly dismantled it. 

For our second try, we secretly (or so we thought) built the frames of a few shacks that we meant to symbolically represent the “shantytowns” that Black South Africans were often forced to live in as they toiled in an array of menial, low-paid, jobs to which they were restricted. Surrounded by heavily armed police and military units as a primary means of social control. Endlessly hectored and harassed by the powerful South African government, backed by the US as it was throughout the still-hot Cold War. Too often unto death throughout the decades of the apartheid regime.

Just before the day of our planned protest, the BU police somehow found our shack frames and illegally tossed them … much in the way that campus janitors were caught illegally dumping entire stacks of our bu exposure newspapers in the trash on numerous occasions. As a result of what? High spirits? Acting without orders (ha!)? Who can say, right?

We managed to prepare new shack frames and on the morning of April 24, 1986, we arrived in front of the George Sherman Union to find BU police and right-wing department heads College of Communication Interim Dean and International Relations Department Chair H. Joachim Maître and College of Communication Assistant Dean Ronald Goldman already waiting for us—the two high-ranking academicians (who even then were quite controversially overseeing a mysterious federal government-backed “Afghan Media Program” to train the kind of fundamentalist Muslim guerillas that now run Afghanistan as “journalists”) loudly mocking us as we unloaded our materials. 

And the moment we started setting up our shacks, not blocking a single entrance of the large “community” union building in any way, mind you, the BU cops rushed in and started violently arresting Southern Africa Task Force members. Eleven of us were handcuffed and driven to the Area D Boston Police station. The BU administration said in a Daily Free Press article of April 30, 1986 that its cops arrested us “for interfering with the efforts of B&G (Building and Grounds) workers to dismantle the structure (sic, I believe we built at least two structures) and for physically obstructing police cruisers on Commonwealth Ave.”

The Boston Police at first refused to formally book us or lock our cells, telling the BU police that the city of Boston had fully divested from South Africa and we hadn’t done anything wrong (“a real bunch of criminals you’ve got here,” I recall one of them saying to BU cops). So a BU police lieutenant went cell to cell with a Polaroid and “booked” us. Eventually the BU administration managed to get us charged. Hours later our supporters paid our bail and we were released on our own recognizance.

John Silber and his administration waited until June, when most students were on summer break, to hold a kangaroo court of (again) handpicked students, faculty, and administrators empowered to judge us under the Code of Student Responsibilities (formerly the Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities that the Silber administration had unilaterally changed to eliminate all student rights in campus disciplinary proceedings) that the other 10 members of the “BU 11,” as we came to be called, and I were not allowed to attend. Naturally, we were all found “guilty”—despite the fact that the city of Boston hadn’t processed our misdemeanor cases yet and later dropped all charges against us. 

Two members of the BU 11 had their degrees withheld until January 1987, the equivalent of a suspension, according to the hilarious September 1986 bu exposure article on our arrest by fellow arrestee Eileen Eckert. One got disciplinary probation until graduation (under which you’d get in worse trouble if you were dinged for even the tiniest infraction dreamed up by the Silber administration). Two got disciplinary probation until January 1987. Five were suspended until January 1987. And Eileen got this wrong since I was no longer at school when she wrote her piece, but I was given the worst sentence: One year of suspension plus disciplinary probation until graduation should I ever manage to return to BU—supposedly because I had been briefly arrested by BU police (and internally cited by the administration) at another protest that spring.

But my “judges” knew perfectly well that I would not be returning. Because the worst punishment the administration hit me with was done completely on the quiet. They rescinded my half scholarship without comment. And I don’t come from money. A fact of which they were well aware.

The Silber administration, to conclude my reverie, expelled me. For participating in a completely nonviolent student protest capping off a long series of similar protests. After using the puppet leaders of the BU Student Senate, where I was on the verge of getting a majority of senators to come out in favor of our university divesting its South African investments (and possibly even declaring ourselves to once again be an independent student government), to throw me out as one of two senators from the College of Communication in violation of Senate bylaws midway through my final school year. Not long before getting the top editors of the main (nominally) independent student newspaper, the Daily Free Press, to remove me as a very junior editor and columnist—having threatened to stop buying ads representing the majority of the paper’s budget should they fail to do so. 

And these actions against me were a result of what exactly? More high spirits and more low-level functionaries operating without authorization?! No. If one understands anything about Boston University between 1971 and 2003, it is that its administration was John Silber. Nothing of any consequence happened on that campus without his ordering it or at least signing off on it. 

So Rachel Silber Devlin will forgive me for stating that her view of her father’s attitude toward protest at the university he ran with an iron fist is a complete fantasy from the perspective of those of us who actually did it. 

In my opinion, informed through extremely direct personal experience as it is, John Silber did not want protest of any kind at his university, if he didn’t agree with it. And he rigged the system he controlled from top to bottom to prevent students, staff, and faculty with views at variance with his from exercising our rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, not to encourage them. That thousands of BU community members, some of whom I hope will join me in taking the time to publish their experiences* in the weeks to come, did so anyway underscores their tenacity in defense of those core democratic tenets, not Silber’s munificence.

Nearly thirty-seven years later, I have never received so much as a back-channel, unofficial apology of any kind—let alone remuneration for all the money that my parents and I spent for my two academic years as a student with no diploma to show for it or, god forbid, an honorary degree—from Boston University. In recognition of the real harm they did to me and my family.

For all that, I do forgive John Silber. I remember having been planning to visit him if he was willing to see me, when the news came that he had passed away. Which is a shame because I would really have liked to get his perspective on the events I just recounted. Since I owe him a debt of gratitude for teaching me the real value of reasoned debate in our failing democracy … whether he meant to or not.

*BU community members who protested against the Silber administration are welcome to contact me at, if any of you would like the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism to publish opinion articles about your experiences.

Apparent Horizon—an award-winning political column—is syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, editor of the Somerville Wire, executive director of the Somerville Media Fund, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.


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  December 5, 2018 BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS   More than 200 Tufts University students, faculty, and allies from surrounding communities held a march and demonstration last week to protest […]


Let’s talk


October 17, 2018



So you’re a journalism student. This is a tough time to do what you’re doing. No question. According to Data USA, American colleges grant well over 10,000 journalism degrees a year. And sure, some of those are graduate degrees; so not all of those diplomas are going to newly minted journalists. Only most of them. But according to the Pew Research Center, the number of newsroom jobs dropped by 23 percent between 2008 and 2017—from 114,000 to 88,000. A loss of over 26,000 “reporters, editors, photographers and videographers” who “worked in five industries that produce news: newspaper, radio, broadcast television, cable and ‘other information services’ (the best match for digital-native news publishers).”


Many of the journalists who lost their jobs in that period are trying to hang on in a swiftly shrinking news industry. And those who have jobs are desperate to keep them.


Yet colleges keep pumping out trained journalists.


Here in the Boston area, we continue to have a reasonably strong news sector. But it’s taken some serious hits in the last couple of decades. The region’s flagship daily newspaper, the Boston Globe, has downsized its staff repeatedly over the years through buyouts and occasional layoffs, and its main competitor, the Boston Herald, was recently bought by a venture capital firm and has become a shadow of its former self in short order. Radio news outlets like WBUR and TV news outlets like WCVB have been somewhat more stable, if smaller, employers of journalists. The biggest weekly newspaper, the Boston Phoenix, folded outright in 2013. And an array of community newspapers have suffered from waves of mergers and consolidations—leaving fewer jobs in that part of the market, as well.


Meaning that students like you keep getting degrees in journalism—and related majors like communications, English, and literature. And you keep fighting to wedge your foot in newsroom doors in hopes of grabbing any of the declining number of full-time reporter jobs while the grabbing’s still decent. Despite the lack of anywhere near enough of said jobs to go around in cities like this one.


Why? Well, from my frequent conversations with aspiring journalists from schools around the area, near as I can figure, you all uniformly think that being a journalist is an important job and you’re very keen to do it. I’m sure journalism’s enduring popularity with students is also partially due to the surprising tenacity with which an air of romance and adventure hangs around the profession—helped along by an array of books and movies from All the President’s Men to The Year of Living Dangerously that remain touchstones in popular culture. Even as journalism’s reputation continues to take a beating from right-wing politicians and their followers.


The one explanation for your collective ardor for jobs in a waning profession that I’ve never heard from any journalism student is that you all are somehow doing it for the money. And how could you? Journalism is one of the worst-paying professions out there—with an average annual wage of $51,550 for full-timers in the US last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though more and more working journalists are freelancers without a steady gig… rendering even that figure functionally fantastical.


Nevertheless, such passion is precisely what motivates my colleagues and me at DigBoston. We’re certainly trying to make a living as working journalists… and trying to make it possible for as many of our peers as we can to do the same. But we’re mainly in the news game to provide our readers with the information they need to be engaged citizens (and residents) in our still relatively democratic society—while covering all the stuff that makes life worth living. And to have fun doing it.


For us, money isn’t the most important consideration. Not because we don’t need money to survive like (almost) everyone else. We totally do. Rather because if that were all we were focused on, we wouldn’t be able to practice journalism in this era of uncertainty. Since we know that nobody has yet hit upon a new economic model to fund news production anywhere near as successful as the failing old models once were.


Despite that fairly grim reality, we really like to help train other people to be journalists. Especially young people who have decided to take the leap and devote their lives to the trade. To pass the torch and all that. So, periodically, we like to write notes like this one to let journalism students know that if you’re serious about risking everything—your future economic security, your love life, and your sanity (on occasion)—to speak truth to power, or simply for the joy of writing solid copy about any subject that you’re really passionate about, then we want to talk to you.


We have an increasingly robust internship program at DigBoston. We’ve been attracting a growing number of fantastic and talented students to spend 6-8 hours a week working with us for a semester (or two). And we haven’t reached our capacity. We even accept recent graduates in some cases.


It’s a competitive application process, and we don’t pick everyone. But if you’re a journalism (or photography or multimedia or visual arts or design) student interested in working with a crew that does what we do first and foremost in the service of democracy, drop us a line at


Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.


September 12, 2018



So you’re a first-year undergraduate. You’re in college to cram your head full of knowledge, true. But you’re also there to build your personal network. Because the friends and allies you make while taking courses could very well stay with you for your whole life. And the stronger you build this interlocking web of connections, the better your job prospects (and existence in general) will be. The best way to do that—the most lasting and meaningful way—is to graduate. Everyone who does so has a profound experience in common. A strong bond forged in the fires of a seemingly endless series of term papers, labs (for you scientists), crits (for you artists), and exams. You get through that together, you can do anything… together.


However, to graduate you need to meet the standards of the people who stand between you and your degree of choice: your professors. And it may seem to students new to higher education that the profs hold all the power in the relationships they have with you and your classmates.


Two considerations should mitigate this concern. First, some professors—the best of them—will become part of your network. Help you get jobs, get into grad school, and so on and so forth.


Second, you are living in an era where professors have less power in the academy than they’ve had since the Renaissance (American higher education being based, as it is, on older European models). You see, if you had been a college student in, say, Italy in the 16th century, you (being a rich male, as you would have had to be) would essentially be hiring older (also male, but often pretty broke) scholars to teach you what you wanted to study. The universities of the period were basically groups of students paying groups of professors to teach them. Each group had certain rights and responsibilities, and power on campus was distributed between them.


In the intervening centuries, professors seized more and more control over higher education—culminating in the mid-20th century when they pretty much controlled the academy from top to bottom. Most of them were granted “tenure” by their colleges, guaranteeing them a permanent job in the interest of academic freedom.


Fast-forward to today, and many professors—at least at the undergraduate level—have fallen upon hard times. Over the last half century, American higher education has become more and more corporatized. Colleges today are run like businesses. And many are big businesses indeed. Campus administrations have professionalized. Most key staff are no longer professors, but specialists trained to run universities along capitalist lines.


One important job these administrators have is to keep students relatively happy—while extracting the federally guaranteed student loan money most bring with them. The better to convert them to donors after they graduate and become alumni.


Unsurprisingly, as time has gone on, administrators have sucked up larger and larger portions of college budgets. So, less and less of most schools’ budgets are being spent on professors. Causing faculty power to decline. Thus, in today’s higher ed establishment, a smaller and smaller percentage of professors are tenured faculty with good salaries and lifetime sinecures.


A slightly larger percentage of lower-paid professors are tenure-track faculty spending several years at the mercy of their administrations and tenured colleagues in hope of landing a rare tenured professorship. And the vast majority of faculty are adjuncts—contract professors who, at many institutions, don’t know whether they’re going to have enough courses from semester to semester to pay their rent and keep food on the table. Unless they unionize (a movement that’s spread across public universities in the last quarter century and is gradually taking hold in private ones), the amount of money they get per course can be very low indeed and job security will be nonexistent. Yet even when unionized, adjuncts have trouble making ends meet.


And where does all this leave an enterprising student like yourself? In a bit of a catbird seat, if you know how to manage your profs.


Doing that involves four simple steps. The first three are practical tactics you’ll want to focus on with your most helpful professors. And the fourth is a “nuclear option” you can deploy if you’re unlucky enough to get a bad teacher while completing your undergraduate coursework.


1) Do what your professors ask you to do

If you want to convert your professors from indifferent functionaries to active allies, you’ve got to get their attention. In a good way. And how best to get a prof’s attention? Follow directions carefully. Give them what they ask for in homework assignments, papers, and tests. Don’t go overboard. Good professors understand you have other courses. Just do what they want you to do, the way they want you to do it. Right there that puts you in the top 10 percent of students in a typical undergrad class. Particularly with adjuncts who have very little time to spend with each student, since they need to teach as many courses as possible—sometimes at more than one school—to attempt to make a living wage. The less work you make for professors, the more they will be pleased with you. The more pleased any faculty member is with you, the better your educational experience is going to be.


2) Give your professors good evaluations

Every semester, at most colleges, your administration will ask you to give a fairly comprehensive evaluation of each course you take. This, in effect, allows you to evaluate your professors’ performances. What most students don’t know is that faculty are usually shown the evaluations—minus their students’ names. And what even fewer know is that many faculty members can tell which students gave which evaluations. Meaning they know who trashes them, and who praises them. So, be sure to mention something in your write-up that will help your professors know which eval came from you. Don’t be too glowing in your praise. But be fair. They will be much more likely to become your allies going forward if you are.


3) Help your professors with their careers

Professors, especially adjuncts, are always looking for chances to stand out from the pack. In hopes of getting more secure long-term employment. Or, if they already have tenure or are tenure-track (or at least have a solid union contract), in hopes of getting the types of “gold stars on their foreheads” that lead to better gigs. Those desired promotions come by making administrators like deans and provosts happy. And stuff like winning grants for flashy research projects is exactly the type of thing that makes such top dogs happy in today’s academy. Because it makes them look good to their higher-ups: campus presidents and boards of trustees. Given that, if your professor mentions an opportunity to assist them with some grant writing or research work or preparing for a big conference or whatever—and you can spare some time—help them out. Don’t be a suck-up or teacher’s pet. Don’t jump on every opportunity that presents itself. That can backfire, or become inappropriate in any number of ways. But maybe once a semester do them a solid. That’s the kind of thing that leads to a long-term connection and adds professors to your personal network.


“But surely,” you’re now thinking, “every professor isn’t good.” Isn’t helpful. Some professors are, in fact, obstacles that could stop you from getting your degree and solidifying your all-important personal network of classmates and good faculty.


Correct. In a system of higher education where most professors didn’t get any practice teaching unless they were in the minority of graduate students that decided to be teaching assistants instead of research assistants, bad teachers are an unfortunately common fact of college life.


And here’s where your newfound knowledge of the falling status of professors comes into play.


4) The enemy of your enemy is your friend

If you have a bad professor… and I don’t mean a professor that makes you work for your grades. Those are generally the good ones. I mean if you have a professor who is feral. Arbitrary and capricious in their teaching method and in their treatment of students. Someone who gets off on giving low grades because they think they can do so with impunity. If you get a teacher like that, do not waste too much time complaining to them directly. Nasty professors are inclined to think they’re better than you—even if you make more money working at Starbucks than many of them make as academics. So they’ll tend to ignore your protestations. Better to try a different tack. Remember how administrators have steadily taken control of today’s corporatized academy? And how they want students to be happy? You go complain to them. To the highest level administrators that will sit down with you. In person. And encourage your classmates to do the same. And keep doing it. If enough people complain, and the complaints are legitimate, it will negatively affect problem professors’ careers. To forestall that—and being unable to retaliate since the eyes of the administration are on them—said profs will likely moderate their behavior. And you will have won.


Have a great school year, folks. Study hard, don’t party too much, be decent to your fellow beings, and you’ll be fine.


Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. He has also been both an adjunct and a “regular” professor at some college or other. And helped organize faculty unions at same. He has degrees and stuff.


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Photos by Chris Faraone

March 10, 2016


With their schools facing up to a $50 million deficit next year, over 2,000 Boston Public School students from all over the city marched on the Massachusetts State House and Boston City Hall this week to demand that BPS be properly funded going forward.

Clearly the messaging and targeting of the action owed a lot to BPS parents groups and teachers unions who have become more militant of late as the funding situation has grown worse. Thanks to budget-stealing charter schools being pushed by Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker—and the pair’s shameful recently inked deal to throw upwards of $270 million in public funds and tax breaks at General Electric to move their headquarters to Boston. Resulting in lots of “Million$ for GE, Budget Cuts for Schools” stickers and at least one “Fuck GE” sign being sported by the young activists. Plus at least one other student yelling “One Term Walsh” from a megaphone opposite Boston City Hall during the demo, according to Universal Hub. But no one forced these kids to take to the streets. They know when they’re being screwed. And who’s doing it.

All of which foreshadows the political payback to come. In part from the many BPS student protestors who will be able to vote in the next mayoral election. Leaving Walsh on the defensive at a speech to the Boston Municipal Research Bureau—a business-oriented think tank— the day after the student protest. Trying to explain how the massive giveaway to one of the worst corporate criminals on the planet is a fine idea that will somehow make Boston the first polity that it doesn’t completely screw over.

Which probably explains the Boston Globe subsequently reporting that the mayor was “fuming” about the protest in a piece that went fishing for evidence that the teachers unions were manipulating the students for their own ends. Walsh is running scared. Unfortunately for him, although coming off as rather eager to point the finger at union-led pro-public education coalitions like the Boston Education Justice Alliance (BEJA) and the national Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, the Globe discovered that the students really did organize the big protest themselves—with coalitions like BEJA playing only supporting roles. The Boston Herald, meanwhile, contented itself with straight union bashing.

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What’s unspoken is that the best proof that the unions didn’t have much of a role in the protest is that historically they’ve shown little ability to mobilize significant numbers of students in the Bay State. Typically, union-backed coalitions like BEJA will pull a few dozen to a few hundred people to such protests. Students or non-students, the story is always the same. The people who turn out will be a mix of union and nonprofit staffers—paid advocates, although often not specifically paid to work on a particular campaign and doing so in their spare time—and dedicated activists from the involved communities. That is, the generally small number of people who are motivated enough to take a stand on any given issue. Even one so important as the future of public education.

For really important actions, unions (and allied nonprofits) will do their best to bus in members from around the region. But even then, numbers will often be disappointing because—right-wing conspiracy theories to the contrary—unions don’t control their members. They can pay for transportation to make it easier for members to turn out to political actions from a broad enough geographic area to bulk up their usual numbers, but they have no way of forcing members to participate. Especially when important local and state hearings are often held at inconvenient times for working people and students alike.

If their control over their members is minimal, union control over K-12 students is nonexistent. This is one reason why last month’s BEJA-led protest drew only a couple hundred activists. A portion of whom were students who had been activated by BEJA member-organizations like the Boston-area Youth Organizing Project (BYOP). Yet it is precisely the ability of groups like BYOP to educate young people on important issues like public education funding over years that was really behind Monday’s action. Students, as human actors, are perfectly capable of looking at the available information on a topic like education reform and making their own decisions. But even the best grassroots political organizers can’t predict when or even if their educational work will ever pay off with mass mobilization on their core issues. Plus with every issue having at least two sides, it’s always possible that students will back the charters—and some definitely do.

In this case, and to their credit, lots of Boston students have decided to back the underdogs in the charter school debate—teachers unions, parents groups, and other advocates for a strong public education system. Rather than the extremely well-funded pro-charter groups. Many students heard about the looming cuts to the BPS budget, on the heels of years of similar cuts, from both the news media, their unionized teachers, advocacy coalitions like BEJA, and youth organizations like BYOP. Then they got angry. Then they got active.

So the big props for this student action go to the young people who turned out their classmates for what was—for many of them—their first protest. From Snowden International School students who sent out an initial call on social media last week to other incipient student leaders from Boston Arts Academy, both Boston Latin campuses, Jeremiah Burke High School, Brighton High School and many more, Boston’s best and brightest young people organized a cross-class, multiracial walkout. On a school day. At significant risk of getting disciplined by their pro-charter administration. To demand redress. To demand that their city and state governments fund their right to a decent K-12 education.

Some of the student protestors, including key youth organizers, were connected to the existing pro-public education coalitions that were inside the State House on Monday morning testifying to the Joint Committee on Education to #KeepTheCap on the number of charter schools allowed in Massachusetts. But it was the existential crisis facing BPS students that impelled so many of them to take action on their own behalf. On their own terms. Making it, without a doubt, one of the best grassroots political demonstrations Boston has seen in quite some time. Much like the Market Basket workers movementtwo years ago. And that’s why the students made such a powerful impression, and immediately won over large swaths of the general public over to their cause. Locally and nationally.

Mayor Walsh may be angry that the students were bold enough to call him out on the charter issue—and related issues like the GE Boston Deal. But he has only himself to blame. He can’t have it both ways: sucking up to the rich and powerful, and being a man of the people. He has to choose. Is he for the students of Boston? Or against them? Right now, it’s looking like the latter.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.