Column: Magick and Protest at the University of Missouri

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Graduate students protest at the University of Missouri. Photo courtesy of Carrie Miranda.

Graduate students protest at the University of Missouri. [Photo Courtesy of Carrie Miranda.]

Our circle clusters around an altar in a south St. Louis back yard, framed by the red brick walls of buildings in the alley and painted in the orange glow of sodium lights from the street. I am eating my piece of communion along the circle’s western edge – I always call the spirits of the west, if given the chance – and listening to the opening notes of The Doors’ song The End, playing over wireless speakers from the altar. I don’t care for recorded music in ritual, as a rule, but it works for me tonight. It’s Samhain, after all; this is the end, indeed.

An hour later, while standing in the kitchen eating a toasted cheese ravioli, I check my phone. The headline: Mizzou football players go on strike.

I may have uttered an expletive.

Let me back up. I go to school at the University of Missouri. I’m a PhD student in the English department there and, over the course of this semester, there have been large protests and demonstrations put on by a variety of student groups. I am part of the Steering Committee for one, the Forum on Graduate Rights, which has called for better conditions for graduate students.

Many of the protests have centered on racism at Mizzou, and one of the activists involved in those anti-racism protests, Jonathan Butler, began a hunger strike on Nov 2 with the aim of removing University System President Tim Wolfe from office. The football players’ announcement came six days into the hunger strike[1], a week during which there were mass demonstrations and other actions on campus. The story and the timeline are much more complicated than I have room for here; I suggest this piece by the student newspaper, The Maneater, as a good starting point.

Within 18 hours of the announcement, my organization had called for a walk-out in solidarity with the anti-racist protesters; within 48 hours, both Wolfe and University Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin had resigned their positions. The media narrative had largely shifted from the protests and their aims in general to an interrogation of the relationship between the protesters and the media.

The day after the resignations, the Forum on Graduate Rights held a rally for social justice across the street from Jesse Hall, the campus’ main administration building. I served as the emcee. We had speakers from the faculty, the graduate students, and from the group of anti-racist protesters at the core of the story, Concerned Student 1950, followed by a silent march through the administration building to the omphalos of the University of Missouri, the historic columns that stand at the center of our quadrangle. We ended our action with a chant: Mizzou, united, will never be defeated. And then we dispersed, off into interviews with newspapers and radio stations; off into figuring out how to salvage our course syllabi; off into a night of anonymous threats and wildfire rumors – off into a world we knew would be different in ways we could not fully predict.

I’m not really an activist by temperament – indeed, before August, I don’t think I had ever participated in any protests at all. Many of the people I work with now have been doing these things for years, some since they were teenagers; in that respect, I’ve had to catch up on a lot. The debates within activist circles about the best ways to organize and mobilize, the best ways to achieve our goals, and the best ways to deal with internal conflicts as well as external ones all came fresh to me. But in other ways the whole process felt quite familiar.

I know I’m not the first person to draw the connection between protest and magick – I read Gods and Radicals too – but I am struck by the correspondence. Magick seems like a sudden thing, I think, to those who do not work it: burn some incense, draw some diagrams, light a candle, and poof, watch it happen. To the outside world, what happened on my campus over the past two weeks might seem the same way – Megyn Kelly, the Fox News anchor, claimed that “in a period of 72 hours, a small group of angry black protesters managed to force the resignation of the two highest-ranking officials at the school,” for example. And if all one knew about the story was that one person had gone on hunger strike and eventually a group of football players joined in solidarity with that individual, it would look that way. Work the spell, wait three days, and watch the world change.

But when I think of the actual magick I have worked in my life – the way I meditated on the bindrune that would become my wife’s wedding ring for months, or the pact I made with Óðinn for my academic studies, or the most apt comparison of all, my family coven’s ongoing ritual of maintaining itself for the past three decades – it becomes clear to me that few forces are as subtle or deliberate as magick. Magick takes time, and preparation, and most of all, patience. As it is with activism too: the “72 hours” narrative neglects months of work by thousands of students and staff members, not to mention neglect that stretches back far beyond the tenure of those two administrators. Dramatic moments of change happen only because the will of the actor – the magician, the activist, the one-and-the-same – prepared for those moments long in advance.

Thinking back now to our Samhain ritual, I remember what my friend Tom, one of the officiants, said: that although we think of Samhain as a time to remember the dead, it is also a time to begin working through the burden of the past. A time not only to remember our ghosts, but to start moving past them. I look back on these two weeks, and everything that led up to them – at all those ghosts we’ve carried – and I hope that my friend’s words prove to be right.

[1] We celebrated Samhain a week late this year.