The Protest Poster in University-Based Activism

By: Ramon L. C. de Haan

When we dare to speak in a liberatory voice, we threaten even those who may initially claim to want our words. In the act of overcoming our fear of speech, of being seen as threatening, we engage in the process of learning to undo domination. When we end our silence, when we speak in a liberated voice, our words connect us with anyone anywhere, who lives in silence … This is an important historical moment. We are both speaking of our own volition, and out of our commitment to justice, to the revolutionary struggle to end domination. 

– bell hooks[1]

As bell hooks was penning her letter in December 1996 to the student coalition END (Education Not Domination) based at The New School, one of several groups that would coalesce in “The Mobilization for Real Diversity, Democracy and Economic Justice,” the movement was only just getting started. The Mobilization, as I will refer to it in the rest of this entry, was active between 1996–1998 and could be seen as the restart of an era of increased university-based activism at The New School, after the relatively quiet decades after the 1960s, and extending into the twenty-first century. What started out as a student inquiry into the possibility of offering tenure to visiting professor and prominent Black feminist Jacqui Alexander, devolved over the course of a year into a gruelling hunger strike, occupations of the Graduate Faculty2 building, private security hired for TNS president Jonathan Fanton, and the demonization of Alexander in public media.3 

In this entry, I turn to the protest poster as a small part of university-based activism; and to further ground myself, I will particularly look at the context of The Mobilization to create larger analytical insights on the protest poster as an object, as well as a reflection on the challenges and possible futures for both the protest poster and university-based activism. I will first provide further background information on The Mobilization, after which I turn to the protest poster as an object as well as its possible futures. Twenty-six years after The Mobilization started, marginalized folks speaking in a liberatory voice remain a threat to the institution – an institution that has only become further entrenched in the deadly project of neoliberalism, deeper anchored in the white safe haven of anti-Black racism, even more effectively smothering its subjugated students, exploited staff, and contingent faculty in its toxic smoke and Covid-riddled air. In other words, this remains an important historical moment, a moment that never ended, and so I too am today “speaking of our own volition, and out of our commitment to justice, to the revolutionary struggle to end domination.”

“Flyer for Mobilization protest and forum,” as part of the Jo Townson collection of Mobilization papers in The New School Archives.[4]

“The Mobilization” as (Im)Mobilization

The Mobilization started out as a student-led initiative in the Spring semester of 1996 to try to get the university to offer tenure to Jacqui Alexander, who was hired in a joint position at Lang and the Graduate Faculty as a visiting professor of gender studies and feminist theory on a three-year contract. Very quickly, as it became clear that the school had no intention whatsoever of offering a permanent faculty position to Alexander, the conversation became much larger. In direct light of the denial of tenure, The Mobilization started formulating an analysis of “the unspoken policy of a revolving door for faculty of color,” which refers to the practice of offering short-term contracts to faculty of color, who are subsequently discarded, only to be replaced by new temporary Black and other minoritized scholars and artists, which resulted in the Graduate Faculty having only one tenured professor of color during the years Alexander was at TNS.5,6 Yet, The Mobilization extended beyond this: it became a coalitional space for other adjunct and part-time faculty members, as well as security guards, food service workers, and administrative staff whose labor was (or, better, is) exploited. Students, both Black and of other oppressed identity positions, found a space of advocacy, to tackle the betrayal felt by “the absence of certain knowledges” in Eurocentric, white curricula.7 Allied white students and faculty who were “willing to interrogate privilege and to renege on the promise of white race loyalty” joined eagerly.8 This wide ranging coalition, yet with a similar goal, was also reflected in a decidedly intersectional vision statement:

We … share a common vision of how communities of difference can work to abolish structural inequalities of different kinds. This entails opening frank and principled dialogues about our respective histories and different relationships to power and privilege. We share an ethical and intellectual commitment to understanding the histories and knowledges of particular movements and struggles involving class, race, and decolonization; different feminisms; lesbian/gay/queer liberation and theory; and transnational and anti-imperialist perspectives and critiques.[9]

Among the most important efforts and actions of The Mobilization, we should recognize the December 17, 1996, “Day of Struggle and Celebration” (see figure 1), when faculty of color declared a State of Emergency, as well as: several letters to various members of the administration, including president Fanton and Dean Friedlander, memos, and posters around campus (see figure 2 for another example); a hunger strike by students and Alexander that lasted over two weeks, held in the lobby of the Graduate Faculty building; teach-ins under the name of the New University in Exile;10 and an extremely contentious forum on May 6, 1997, where opponents of The Mobilization expressed themselves in straight-up abusive terms towards supporters of The Mobilization, and Jaqcui Alexander specifically. 

“Diversity is Not a Special Event,” as part of the Jo Townson collection of Mobilization papers in The New School Archives.[11]

To indicate how university-based activism is always a political struggle – and in the case of The Mobilization, explicitly so – consider the following remarks by two “counter-mobilization” faculty members at the May 6, 1997 forum. Professor of Sociology Andrew Arato, who remains at the NSSR till this day, noted to the members of the Mobilization that “Your halcyon days are over! Negotiations are stopping now […] The faculty is not going to sit down with you! […] As far as we’re concerned, you don’t exist.”12 As James Miller, also still professor at the NSSR in Politics and Liberal Arts, put it: “I’ve witnessed hunger strikes before. In the 1960s, I met César Chavez, a great activist with genuine spirituality. Jacqui Alexander, to put it mildly, is no César Chavez.”13 Alexander replies in her chapter on The Mobilization: “As if such were the terms upon which the Mobilization had argued for.”14 And that is exactly the point: university-based activism, and perhaps all activism, is a struggle around questions of authority (“you don’t exist,” “Jacqui Alexander is no César Chavez”), knowledge production, and truth making. These domains of struggle return in the object of the protest poster. 

The Protest Poster as Object

To allow for the analysis of the protest poster to be more future-oriented, I want to include two extra examples of protest posters – as they exist in our current digitally-mediated society – as a way to connect the 1990s to the 2020s and further. While the materiality of the protest posters has changed, there are striking similarities between the posters of 1990s and the 2020s. Consider figures 3 and 4:

New School Labor Coalition (tnslcoalition), “Join staff, students, and faculty for a rally this week…,” Twitter (image), October 12, 2020.[15]
New School Labor Coalition (tnslcoalition), “This event is open to all!” Twitter (image), October 6, 2020.[16]

Physically speaking, the media created by the New School Labor Coalition17 (NSLC) are no longer the printed letter-sized posters and flyers we saw used in The Mobilization. These new media include hashtags, and they are in their primary design – especially during a socially-distanced, work-from-home pandemic – highly shareable social media images. Yet, if we reflect back to the two posters from The Mobilization they share far more than they differ: both eras of posters use bolded, capitalized text to grab attention (“MOBILIZE”; “DIVERSITY IS NOT A SPECIAL EVENT”; “JOIN US TO DEMAND”; “SOLIDARITY NOT AUSTERITY”) in combination with mute, soft colors. Format-wise, bullet point lists are used to concisely showcase demands (figures 2 and 3), familiar experiences (figure 1), or even, without the formal bullet point, listing hashtags further crystallizing the NSLC demands (figure 4). Equally important is their primary function, which can be divided into two categories: to share information or a particular message, and to call people into action. Central to both is the message, hope, goal of achieving institutional change. 

As a form of knowledge production, the posters of The Mobilization faced a challenge the NSLC didn’t: in the NSLC media, information could be quite literally linked, further expanded on, and explained, on a separate space that would allow for the slow, reflexive process of taking in knowledge, i.e. a website or blog. As such, materiality and purpose coincide in The Mobilization poster as it had to be both snappy enough to get one’s attention (which is where the typographical and formatting instruments come in), yet extensive enough to explain what exactly was going on – an almost insurmountable task. The result of this challenge can be seen in the poster of figure 2: a full letter-sized page of text in combination with formatting strategies (e.g., the bullet point list, bolded text, etc.). When we compare this Mobilization poster to the NSLC media, we can easily see that the latter fits the model of social media organized activism: to pull people in with attractive images formatted for our iPhone screens. However, this also means that there is a separation between the two goals of disseminating information and calling people into action. We don’t actually learn what “SOLIDARITY [times 4] NOT AUSTERITY AT THE NEW SCHOOL” is about, and why this call is made, from the media in figures 3 and 4. The challenge for the NSLC-type protest media, then, is actually the opposite of the information-heavy Mobilization flyer of figure 2: to get the necessary information to the people who come across the poster on social media, to get them to “click out” of their feeds. In other words, the difficulty in designing these protest posters lies in finding the balance between the goals of activating people and informing them about what they’re supposed to be activated by.
We might say that the poster in figure 1 did a better job of balancing these goals than the poster in figure 2. One explanation could be that their audiences differ: figure 1 is directed, in its declaration of a “day of struggle and celebration,” at those who know what is meant when it lists the tiredness of “hearing professors tell you ‘This isn’t a race class,’” of white students “calling you a reverse racist.” Even its separation of the events – “DEMONSTRATE” “REJUVENATE” “ATTEND THE FORUM” – is meant to attract those who already know how important, how life-affirming, that message of “MOBILIZE” is. The poster in figure 2, in contrast, serves a different purpose and audience: it needs to do the work of explainingwhat, how, why diversity at The New School was (is?) a failed project, framed and understood as a “special event,” not an intrinsic, permanent aspect of a supposedly progressive university. It tries to broaden the coalitional base of The Mobilization – i.e., in the context of The New School, attract more white students, faculty, and staff – and as such needs to do more epistemic labor, more knowledge production, which in the times of the 1990s meant literally more text on the paper. In terms of the progression of The Mobilization, the poster in figure 2 also came after the poster in figure 1, meaning that there was a more formalized, perfected list of demands ready to be disseminated. However, processes of knowledge production are inherently political: they center on questions of power, authority, and access to and proliferation of a certain truth. A central problem for The Mobilization (and university-based activism in general) was ultimately the “inevitable contradiction of having to rely on the very structures of domination to bring about transformation, of ‘demanding’ democracy when the structures to support it were nonexistent.”18

Disciplining Speech, Curtailing Action: Possible Futures

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.

Audre Lorde[19]

While the phrase “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” is perhaps the most quoted in the oeuvre of Audre Lorde, it is actually the entire paragraph that is more pertinent. The Mobilization started out of the very embodied knowledge that “survival is not an academic skill,” but a question of life and death – and as such, the stakes for those involved in The Mobilization were always higher than the defendants of the status quo like Arato and Miller. And as The Mobilization was in essence a struggle over authority, knowledge production, and truth making, the question was always “which and whose meaning would stand as truth and whether the standing of those who claimed to speak from the truth of a different epistemic history (different form the hegemonic story) would have what they say count for exactly what they mean.”20 The biggest danger of activism, then, is not so much the act of speaking, but the disarmament of it by, in the words of Rae Langton, “stop[ping] that speech from counting as the action it was intended to be.”21 The function of the institution, through its actors in the counter-mobilization, was to discipline The Mobilization by contesting their meanings, by questioning and challenging their authority, by suggesting that their hunger strike wasn’t a real hunger strike, by denying their lived experiences as truth, as a valid epistemic reality, as something to be taken as it is said, done, and intended. Denial, deflection, demonization. 
The crux of the issue at stake, then, is this: how do we escape the trap of the master’s tools “never [being] enable us to bring about genuine change,” when we are engaging in “the act of overcoming our fear of speech” (as bell hooks put it) and actually start speaking, chanting, printing, and clicking the “share” button? When we reaffirm The Mobilization’s commitment as “communities of difference [to] work to abolish structural inequalities of different kinds”? To settle down, retreat into silence, is to give up on the revolutionary struggle; to give up on survival. How can we keep on the fight for liberation, the start of the revolution? Audre Lorde gives us some direction, when she mentions that we must stop to “define the master’s house as their only source of support.” One option would be to go underground, into the “undercommons,”22 steal what we can and organize in disguise. But when an institution is, by design, toxic to its core, what can we do to rebuild it in an abolitionist sense? What is worth saving when the foundation is rotten? When we reject the capitalist idea of “owning property”? When the master’s tools extend from SAT prep to dissertation defenses and tenure reviews? How can we actually start the process to the abolitionist university? University-based activism, and its posters, will remain a crucial part in this, in its function of disseminating knowledge, recruiting allies and calling folks into action. Yet, some questions remain for us to reflect on: what does its politics, materialities, and goals look like throughout this process of abolition? How will the poster be operationalized, reimagined, and reassembled as an abolitionist tool when it is relocated “in another space, outside the master’s house”?23 Whatever the operation will be, we must keep in mind Alexander’s question at all times: “Which truth will prevail, which dreams will be enacted?”24

1. bell hooks, cited in M. Jacqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 137.

2. The “Graduate Faculty” was renamed (or rather, re-re-renamed) the New School for Social Research in 2005. Over the years the division now known as the NSSR has had different names, from “Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science”, to “School of Politics and Social Studies,” to “Graduate Faculty”, to “New School for Social Research.” For more information, and a timeline including other divisions of what is today The New School, see  

3. See Alison Schneider, “A Haven for Oppressed Scholars Is Accused of Oppression,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 11, 1997,; Eyal Press, “Nightmare on 12th Street,” Lingua Franca, August 1997, 34–43.  

4. NA0002101_000001, 1996, Jo Townson collection of Mobilization papers, NA.0021.01, box 1, folder 9, New School Archives and Special Collections, The New School, New York, New York. URL: 

5. Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing, 127.

6. Today, the state of diversity at the NSSR is not much better. According to the latest available date, from Fall 2020, out of 84 faculty members (both full-time and part-time), only four are Black; only one professor is a Black woman. See: 

7. Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing, 131.

8. Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing, 130.

9. The Mobilization for Real Diversity, Democracy and Economic Justice, letter to President Jonathan Fanton, 2 February 1997, cited in Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing, 118.

10. The “New University in Exile” refers to one of the origin stories of The New School, when it became a refuge for Jewish scholars from Western Europe in 1933. Interestingly enough, this name – The New University In Exile – has been reappropriated in 2018 as “The New University in Exile Consortium,” whose objective is “to nurture academics who have been persecuted and uprooted by creating a sense of intellectual community among exiled scholars.” No mention is made about this additional history of the former New University in Exile during The Mobilization. See:  

11. NA002101_000002, circa 1996–1997, Jo Townson collection of Mobilization papers, NA.0021.01, box 1, folder 1, New School Archives and Special Collections, The New School, New York. URL: 

12. Video in part 2 of: Laura Poitras, “New School Struggle,” Master’s Thesis, The New School for Social Research, 1998. Digitized from Videocassette (VHS), part 1 and part 2 

13. Poitras, New School Struggle, part 2; see also a full recording of the forum here: “Footage from Mobilization Protests and Forum at The New School,” 1997, Mark Schmidt collection of Mobilization materials, NA.0020.01, box dmx1, New School Archives and Special Collections, The New School, New York. 

14. Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing, 167.

15. New School Labor Coalition (tnslcoalition), “Join staff, students, and faculty for a rally this week…,” Twitter (image), October 12, 2020. 

16. New School Labor Coalition (tnslcoalition), “This event is open to all!” Twitter (image), October 6, 2020. 

17. The New School Labor Coalition (NSLC) was a coalition of the different unions at TNS to fight against the mid-pandemic layoffs of 122 employees and the role of consultancy company Huron in this process. Unions included SENS-UAW (Student Employees), SHENS-UAW (Student Health Employees), Teamsters Local 1205 (clerical staff), ACT-UAW (Part-Time Faculty), and a newly established chapter of the AAUP (faculty). For overviews see also: Gina Bellafante, “This School Was Built for Idealists. It Could Use Some Rich Alumni,” The New York Times, October 16, 2020.; Aman Baria, Srishti Yadav, Kalpa Rajapaksha, and Akhil SG, “The New School Is in Crisis,” Jacobin Magazine, December 2, 2020.  

18. Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing, 158.

19. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 2007), 112.

20. Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing, 124.

21. Rae Langton, “Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 22, no. 4 (1993): 299.

22. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe, New York, Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2013).

23. Thank you Shannon for this insight!

24. Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing, 179.