This is the best protest story you’ll hear today.
In 1766, 130 years after Harvard University was initially founded, its students revolted over rancid butter. For years, the school struggled to provide acceptable provisions, and at long last, the students said enough was enough.
Asa Dunbar, future grandfather of American essayist and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, set the protest in motion. Climbing atop his chair in the student dining room, he famously proclaimed:
“Behold, our butter stinketh!- give us, therefore, butter that stinketh not.”
Dunbar’s fellow students rallied around him, adopting his cry as their own. And so began what is believed to be the first student protest on an American college campus. The Great Butter Rebellion of 1766 caused considerable contention between the students and the administration— when the university president was unable to pinpoint the culprits, he suspended half the student body. The students refused to back down. Eventually, Harvard’s Board of Overseers was forced to step in, reinstate the students and replace the butter.
The Great Butter Rebellion may have been the first student protest, but it was far from the last?—?it wasn’t even the last food-related protest on Harvard’s campus, as evidenced by the Bread and Butter Rebellion of 1805 and the Cabbage Rebellion of 1807.
Campus activism has since significantly expanded its reach. Student protests helped shape both civil and women’s rights and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) played a crucial role in sparking outrage against the Vietnam War.
In more recent years, student activism helped amplify the Occupy Wall Street movement, gain exposure for Black Lives Matter and shed light on campus rape and sexual assault. In 2015, Harold Levy, a former chancellor of New York City’s public schools, told The Atlantic, “There’s a renaissance of political activism going on, and it exists on every major campus.”
Traditionally, organizers rely on the old standbys: sit-ins, rallies, marches, vigils and picketing. But every now and then, student protesters circle back to the days of the Butter Rebellion and employ more unconventional tactics. Here are a few of the more unorthodox student protests.
Students dressed up as pandas to protest Panda Express.
In 2009, students at the University of California, Berkeley took issue with the idea that a Panda Express might open up a franchise on school grounds.
As of 2014, 42.3% of Berkeley’s admitted students are Asian Americans, and students felt that Panda Express’ American bastardization of Chinese cuisine might be culturally injurious. Additionally, students worried the food was unhealthy and would “severely damage UC Berkeley’s reputation as a leader in sustainability.” The restaurant offered to compost and agreed to make concessions for the many vegetarians on campus, but ultimately, the deal fell through and the restaurant never opened.
A student carried her mattress for nine months to bring attention to on-campus sexual assault.
In 2012, Columbia University undergrad Emma Sulkowicz was allegedly raped by a fellow student. In 2014, Emma embarked on her senior thesis for her visual arts degree, a project she dubbed Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight). In her performance art protest, she carried a 50-pound mattress everywhere she went on campus. Emma said the project would end when her alleged rapist was expelled from school or left the university of his own accord.
Per her own parameters, Emma was not allowed to ask for help, but was allowed to accept help if it was freely offered. The accused student was cleared by the university of all wrongdoing and Emma carried her mattress across the stage at her graduation in May of 2015.
Students held a bake sale to criticize affirmative action.
In 2011, UC Berkeley was up in arms about a potential California state legislation, SB 185, which would allow college admission officers “to consider race, gender, ethnicity and national origin during the admissions process.” The Berkeley College Republicans protested this bill with an “Increase Diversity Bake Sale,” a satirical event in which customers were charged different prices for goods on the basis of their race and gender. Student organizers agreed the bake sale was inherently racist, but argued that so was affirmative action.
Similar bake sale protests occurred around the country at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, the College of William and Mary in Virginia, the University of California, Irvine and Southern Methodist University in Texas. All of the aforementioned bake sales (with the exception of UC Berkeley) were quickly shut down by school officials, citing discrimination or unsafe environments. SB 185 was later vetoed by California governor, Jerry Brown.