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How Donna Martin graduated

Looking at an important Generation X protest through the eyes of social movement literature.

Millennial and postmillennial activists today are leading many social movements across the country and around the world. But in the middle of a protest, it can be hard to know if your movement is succeeding. To help, I’d like to offer an evaluation of one of my generation’s most visibly successful protest movements  —  that surrounding the graduation of Donna Martin from West Beverly High School, which took place 25 years ago this spring. This instructive and historic moment was helpfully dramatized in the Beverly Hills 90210 episode “Something in the Air” (season three, episode 28, 1993).

To briefly review the events of the movement, Donna, a senior at West Beverly, had been found drunk at the prom after drinking a few glasses of champagne provided by her boyfriend’s father. School and district leaders, following the district’s new zero-tolerance policy on drug and alcohol use, suspended Donna and told her she could not graduate with her friends. She would be required to take summer school classes and enroll in a substance abuse program before she could receive her diploma.

Several of her friends, led by school newspaper editors Andrea Zuckerman and Brandon Walsh and inspired by the newspaper’s faculty adviser, Gil Meyers, organized a demonstration. Nearly all the seniors agreed to walk out of their final examinations and protest in front of the school board during Donna’s appeal hearing. Seeing the number of students involved and unable to continue their meeting, the school board relented, and Martin was allowed to graduate on time.

Was this protest, and its outcome, in keeping with what we know about protest movements? To examine that, I looked at Erica Chenoweth’s article “How Can We Know When Popular Movements Are Winning?” which delineates the features of successful social movements. While social movements come in a variety of shapes and sizes, the successful ones tend to feature large and diverse groups of participants, a commitment to nonviolence, flexibility and innovation, and loyalty shifts. I examine each of these in turn.

Size and diversity

The size of the protests  —  allegedly involving several hundred students, easily overwhelming a five-member school board with no staff  —  was surprising. Participants were taking a risk that their non-participation in the final exam would result in a failing grade. What’s more, they were doing it to defend, well, the right of a popular kid to participate in a ceremony with her friends. Donna seemed to have a reputation as someone who wasn’t completely awful, which I suppose was no small thing at that school, but it’s impressive that this issue caught fire.

One would be hard-pressed to describe the students of West Beverly High as a diverse lot. Nonetheless, the protest did feature a gathering of students with a variety of agendas. At one key part in the episode, several members of the junior class approached Walsh and Zuckerman to offer that all 300 juniors would join the seniors’ protest if they included opposition to a new school dress code in their list of demands. The seniors accepted the proposal. Thus, we see real coalition politics at play. The juniors offered their labor and subsumed their priorities within the seniors’ agenda (“Donna Martin graduates!” turned out to be a catchier chant than “No dress code!”), and in the end, they got what they wanted through coordination.

Nonviolence

Yes, the West Beverly students’ actions were always peaceful. They were provocative and assertive, but they never destroyed property or threatened people’s lives or safety. Now, to be sure, they were never really threatened with physical violence. Had police officers or school board members attacked the kids, it’s difficult to know how they would have responded. But fights were pretty rare among this crowd. (Importantly, the gun-wielding Scott Scanlon was already dead at this point, and Dylan McKay’s violent turn lay a season in the future.)

Flexibility and innovation

Okay, this was not a particularly creative lot. Brandon seemed to draw most of his ideas from his father’s experiences at college antiwar protests a generation earlier. But organizers did manage to craft their messages and tactics in a short period of time, organizing and communicating with participants via phone tree before internet usage was widespread.

Loyalty shifts

Several of Donna’s close friends were initially reluctant to join the protests. Steve Sanders was on academic probation and was worried about expulsion. Dylan was worried that anything less than a perfect performance on the finals would jeopardize his chances of getting into UC Berkeley. But their joining in the protests signaled the movement’s broad acceptance. Further, once several school board members expressed a willingness to hear the students’ concerns, it suggested that a change was in the air. Interestingly, the final school board vote was close, with the three women on the board voting to allow Donna to graduate and the two men voting against it.

As a younger generation organizes social movements to remedy injustices and improve their world, they may wish to turn to such examples from their Generation X forebears.