Student Activists Are Making Noise, but Is Anybody Listening?

Student Activists Are Making Noise, but Is Anybody Listening?

The Chronicle of Higher Education

From the issue dated August 3, 2001

 

As a new movement takes shape, protesters struggle with ideology, apathy

 

By ANDREW BROWNSTEIN

Ann Arbor, Mich.

 

A baptismal rain falls upon the stained-glass windows of the University of Michigan Law School, as students inside bow their heads and join hands in prayer.

 

They come from Harvard and Brown, Penn State and Wayne State, fresh from a season of protest many call the most intense

in recent memory. This afternoon, instead of railing against the administration or shouting down the demons of global capitalism, they are here to talk to each other.

 

"Common blood flows through common veins!" they chant.

 

The inaugural meeting of the National Student/Youth Conference to Defend Affirmative Action & Integration and Struggle for

Equality could more simply be called a meeting of the choir. Many hope it marks the start of a new student movement, a renaissance of the activism that charged campuses in the 1960's.

 

But few among the 100 or so in attendance at the June meeting think that will be easy. In the not-too-distant past, it looked like students would shake the foundations of society. Now, the 60's are a generation ago, and "Revolution" is the soundtrack to a Nike commercial.

 

This year evoked a sense of deja vu. The sit-ins were longer, the administrations more cowed, the concessions larger. Yet for all the allure of these protests -- and some demonstrations drew students by the thousands -- most failed to touch the apathetic heart of the modern college student. For him or her, the protest is a sideshow in the carnival of higher education, and just as easily ignored.

 

That's why the activists are networking The Ann Arbor conference may sound like a revival meeting, but organizationally it looks like a conference of Rotarians. There are workshops ("Linking the Struggle for Affirmative Action to the Environmental and Anti-capitalist, Anti-globalization Struggle") and best practices (how to manipulate the media). Members of the Black Caucus at Pennsylvania State University, who occupied the student union for 10 days last spring following racist death threats, wear "Hello, My Name Is ..." stickers and fraternize between sessions over ice cream with members of the International

Bolshevik Tendency.

 

The setting is fitting, given the rising stakes in national politics. The law school is appealing a federal judge's ruling that struck down its use of affirmative action in admissions. It was after that defeat that the Rev. Jesse Jackson called upon students in Ann Arbor to hold a national civil-rights conference. Many observers believe the suit, headed for the federal appeals court in

Cincinnati this fall, will ultimately reach the U.S. Supreme Court for a final referendum on the legality of admissions preferences.

 

 

Ben Royal, a sophomore at Michigan, was one of several foot soldiers who traveled to college campuses in April in search of recruits for the conference. Tall and thin, with intense eyes and a wild mane of Art Garfunkel hair, Mr. Royal looks like he stepped out of an earlier protest era.

 

In a green 1992 Toyota Corolla, he and three friends drove eastward on the protest trail. There were plenty of roadside attractions. "It was sort of a nationwide sweep -- stuff was happening on all these campuses," he says. "But it all seemed to be happening in isolation."

 

Protesters, he found, weren't communicating. Even students in Boston were unaware of similarly themed demonstrations elsewhere in the city. That confirmed Mr. Royal's belief that a conference was needed to "draw these students out" and get them talking about common approaches.

 

One of the first stops was Harvard University, where 26 red-eyed, smelly students were in the middle of a 20-day occupation of the administration building. Along with others who erected a shantytown of pup tents in Harvard Yard, they were protesting the low wages paid to the university's service workers.

 

The genesis of those demonstrations underscores the changing nature of today's student activism. Harvard, like many other campuses, had been the scene of several protests against the sale of clothing manufactured in third-world factories, often called sweatshops. But those actions came under fire for being too removed from national concerns. The Activist, a college publication of the Young Democratic Socialists, suggested the protesters were part of the problem: The anti-sweatshop movement "is predominantly white, and perhaps even more troubling, it is predominantly middle class."

 

Administrators who have been on the receiving end of some of the most vociferous anti-sweatshop protests noticed the disconnect. "Minority students are quick to say, Why are you focusing all your energy on Guatemala or Indonesia? What about

South Tucson?" says Peter Likins, president of the University of Arizona.

 

Partly in response to such criticisms, the Harvard students switched their focus to unfair labor practices back home. They held

rallies and began demanding that the university pay all its employees $10.25 an hour, which the progressive Cambridge City

Council had declared the city's "living wage."

 

Almost immediately, the issue began to click with students in a way the anti-sweatshop campaign never had. "We were guided by the absurdity of the notion that Harvard, the richest university in the world, with an endowment of $19-billion, has workers living on poverty wages," says Stephen Smith, a junior majoring in sociology who was among those who stayed with the sit-in until the end. (Poverty, at Harvard, means just under $10 an hour, and, officials say, a handful at $8.05 an hour, the lowest wage paid to any university employee.)

 

Demonstrators took to the administration building, redecorating the walls with protest posters and laying out their sleeping bags among the antique chairs and Persian rugs of Massachusetts Hall.

 

In Michigan, Mr. Smith told the conference crowd that the sit-in was guided by tough bargaining tactics and a keen sense of public relations. Once they had the support of a large number of students, the protesters gathered more than 400 faculty signatures and lured Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat, and John Sweeney, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., to Harvard Yard.

 

"These people legitimize your movement, so it's not just students," Mr. Smith explained to the gathering. When negotiations faltered, the demonstrators threatened to play their trump card -- graduate students -- "because organizing them scares the

bejesus out of the administration."

 

Ultimately, Harvard agreed only to name a new committee to re-examine the question of a fair wage. Nonetheless, the move by the nation's oldest and wealthiest university sparked a series of copycat demonstrations.

 

The episode also marked an important facet of the new activism -- the convergence of students and organized labor. Over the past few years, labor, which has been losing much of its blue-collar base, has made a concerted effort to recruit on campuses.

Professors and graduate students have looked to unions for organization and money, and union members have lent their muscle to a range of student causes. The collaboration has been evident not only on campuses, but in larger demonstrations like those in Seattle and Quebec City, where students joined sometimes-violent protests against globalization.

 

At Harvard, the result was a disciplined action made for prime time: The David-and-Goliath struggle made good copy, as students reminded reporters in daily, sometimes hourly, cell-phone briefings. This is a revolution, after all, of pagers and modems. One protester inside the administration building hammered out a column for The Nation on his laptop. Some called home to let Mom and Dad know they were all right. There were no arrests. Far from it -- Cambridge police officers brought the protesters deodorant and dinner.

 

For some, the protesters were effective by default -- administrators did not stand up to them. Donald Kagan, a classics professor at Yale who has watched student demonstrations since the 1960's, says universities send a "morally misguided message" when they don't enforce rules of decorum and allow student protesters to succeed without meaningful sacrifice. To Mr. Kagan, the softness of administrators, many of whom came of age during the Vietnam era, is evidence that they are "unwilling to protect the campus from attacks from the left."

 

"The answer to any bully who promises to make trouble is to give them whatever they want or just hope they go away," he says.

 

The battle of the Harvard students, with their expensive degrees, was one largely removed from their collective experience. As the sit-in for a living wage unfolded, students at Penn State fought for what they believed was a matter of life or death.

 

For students at the Michigan conference, who listened to the presentation about Penn State's turmoil with nervous excitement, the tale provided a visceral edge to the weekend's affirmative-action rhetoric. LaKeisha Wolf, until recently the president of the campus's Black Caucus, described a harrowing year in which she and other students received death threats. The last was impossible to ignore: "Those like you have been run off and killed. You, also, will just disappear." The letter stated, ominously, that a young black man had been killed and and that his body would be left in the woods near campus.

 

A week later, the body of a black man turned up 20 miles from the university. Prophecy fulfilled or coincidence, the discovery seemed to offer tangible evidence of students' worst fears.

 

The truth of the threats often seemed a moot point. The letters tapped into a current of distrust between black and white students that has always flowed just below the surface. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Pennsylvania has one of the largest concentrations of hate groups in the nation. Minority students at Penn State, who make up 11 percent of the student body, have long complained that the predominantly white campus lacks services that cater to their needs and that they are frequently the targets of racist taunts.

 

"The attitude was often like, You niggers should be glad you're here," says Brian Favors, a leader of the protests who recently left his post as a staff member in the dean of students' office. "You feel that at Penn State."

 

Mr. Favors and other students fought the system with its own records. They discovered that the university had failed to carry out several aspects of a diversity plan for which it was receiving federal funds. When their appeals to the administration failed to yield results quickly enough, they got political. They went to the state legislature's Black Caucus armed with testimony from more than 300 students alleging racist incidents at Penn State. Last December, they pushed the university's president, Graham

B. Spanier, to admit in writing that the university had failed to enact many of the plan's recommendations.

 

"They were able to outmaneuver the university because they were more politically savvy when it comes to race relations," says

Carey Fraser, assistant professor of African-American studies at the university. "They were sophisticated enough to turn to the political process when it was clear that talks with the administration were going nowhere."

 

Following the April threats against Ms. Wolf, students took their struggle to the student union -- some, out of fear of death threats; others, no doubt, out of fear of finals. For 10 days, the members of "the Village" as the community of protesters was known, prayed, danced, and railed against the administration. They made laminated buttons and launched a Village Web site.

They produced reporter-friendly pamphlets with a time line of events and held nightly town meetings urging students with laptops to blitz the news media with e-mail. In the end, much to the chagrin of professors who felt officials caved in too easily, university administrators gave the demonstrators much of what they asked for: a pledge to add four faculty members to the tiny African-American-studies program, and $900,000 to establish an Africana Studies Research Center.

 

It is hard to know for sure -- and administrators aren't talking -- but the impact of the threats and the body on the university's bargaining position was probably considerable. The body, it turned out, was that of a man from Brooklyn, N.Y., who had no known ties to Penn State. The students told the Michigan audience that the body was among four found near campus, although, according to investigators, one was found as far away as Pittsburgh. None of the dead was linked to the university. As for the threats, some officials and faculty members have speculated -- off the record, of course -- that some were hoaxes. But so far, they have offered no evidence.

 

Mr. Favors acknowledges that the students used the charged episode as leverage to achieve their diversity aims. ("We'd be foolish not to," he says.) But he dismisses the hoax allegations as "ludicrous."

 

"Someone writes a letter and says that in a week a body will be found, and then a week later, police find a body. You think that's a coincidence?"

 

More than 20 residents of the Village caravaned to Ann Arbor. They remain a close-knit group, with strong feelings about the bonds forged among minority and white students during the sit-in. Some members of the group are working with a consultant to package the Village experience for a college tour this fall. Ms. Wolf, after months of wearing a bullet-proof vest and living

under 24-hour security, told the audience the protests were "God's way of showing us what was possible."

 

"Everywhere you went, people were having meaningful conversations about their differences," she says.

 

The Harvard and Penn State presentations, like the protests at those universities, were models of organization and pluck.

Elsewhere at the conference, however, many sensed the birth pangs of a movement. Some presentations lacked rhetorical fire.

Students from the University of California at Berkeley, who had orchestrated a huge march against the affirmative-action ban there, went on for 90 minutes in a set of off-the-cuff speeches. Some participants accused the conference organizers of being overly democratic and refusing to cut off speakers with more wind than wisdom. When a University of Michigan presenter started to ramble, Eddie Baker, a law student at New York University, began to squirm in her chair and rustle the quilt she brought to protect herself from the unseasonably cold June weather. "I don't know why they can't stop talking," she said to herself. "We get the point."

 

During the questions that followed, Ms. Baker spoke up. "When you talk with the media, you've got to talk in soundbites. You are not going to have three hours to make your point."

 

Now was a good time to practice, she told them.

 

There were also disquieting echoes of protests past. David A. Gerber, a professor of history at the State University of New

York at Buffalo, was an activist in the 1960's and 70's. He says he knew ideology was beginning to erode the antiwar message when speakers began demonstrations with promises to avenge the death of Che Guevara. "It was just a tremendous drain of time and energy," Mr. Gerber says.

 

Well, Che has not gone away. His wild-eyed visage stared out from several booths representing the Revolutionary Workers League, the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Equality Party, not to mention the International Bolshevik Tendency.

Pamphlets about racist achievement tests and the racist death penalty shared shelf space with one called "Cuba and the Coming American Revolution."

 

It's not the paraphernalia of the radical-left participants that bothered some students; it's their zealotry.

 

"It worried me a little, to be honest," says Mr. Smith of Harvard. "It is very easy for certain groups to say, because of our larger beliefs about capitalism, we're going to exclude X, Y, and Z. Once you do that, you're lost."

 

The target of much of their venom was the man who suggested the conference in the first place, Jesse Jackson.

 

Mr. Jackson, who had been scheduled to address the gathering, canceled due to illness. And that's probably a good thing. Had he attended, he would have endured more than one lecture about being a "reactionary bourgeois politician," as one speaker called him, in addition to an attempt to purge the new organization of his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition's sponsorship. (The move failed. Whatever their ideological differences, the groups need each other for political and financial support.)

 

The students also put to a vote whether they should describe themselves as "militant." That motion passed, overwhelmingly. A

Penn State student wondered aloud if it was too early in the struggle to use such terms, but his less incendiary appellation, "vigilant and vibrant," met with groans.

 

In describing what "militant" means, Mr. Royal of Michigan quoted Malcolm X's famous promise to fight racism "by any means necessary." If that means offensive tactics like the violence that tore through the streets in Seattle, so be it, he said. Militant also apparently means a somewhat fluid view of free speech. When a Brown University student took to the podium to describe how protesters there trashed student newspapers that carried an ad criticizing reparations for slavery, few questioned his view of the destruction as "a revolutionary act."

 

The escalating tactics of student demonstrators have not been lost on college administrators, however.

 

Last summer, Mr. Spanier told fellow officials at Penn State that this was going to be the busiest protest season in years. It wasn't just that groups on campus were mobilizing, he says. More and more conferences about protest tactics were popping up. Other presidents spoke of manuals published by various national organizations that described how to conduct effective protests and get them covered by the news media .

 

The changing tone was brought home when a Penn State official found a locally produced manual that described how to take over the administration building. "It was very specific," Mr. Spanier recalls. "It went into where certain doors were and where certain locks were located."

 

Mr. Spanier says he was "surprised by the level of sophistication" of many of the training manuals that fell into his hands.

 

For activists, there's no shortage of material to choose from. Labor is reaching out to students with programs like Union

Summer, in which activists learn how to organize; two of the Harvard protesters were graduates of the program. The Direct

Action Network offers helpful hints in the event of a police scuffle: Tie your hair back so it can't be yanked, and screech in pain if they grab you, whether it hurts or not. The Web site of the Ruckus Society offers detailed instructions on how to hang from a building or billboard for a staged media event. But it cautions safety: "A good activist is a living activist."

 

Mr. Likins, the Arizona president, says he learned last fall just how efficient and organized protesters had become when several anti-sweatshop demonstrators padlocked the entrances to his campus's administration building and chained themselves to the doors. They brought a lawyer with them, Mr. Likins says, and seemed to know exactly how much they could get away with before a misdemeanor became a felony.

 

Since the protesters were blocking an entrance to a well-traveled building, Mr. Likins didn't hesitate to have them arrested. In doing so, however, he illustrated the danger of being strict with demonstrators: Arrest them, and risk creating martyrs.

 

"They understood very well they would achieve the goals of public arrest and getting on the evening news," Mr. Likins says.

"It's not a bad tactic, when you think about it."

 

The movement may be getting smarter, but that doesn't make it any more unified. With as many causes as Web sites, protesters often strain to connect with each other, let alone the campus at large.

 

Reparations for slavery? Pay hikes for janitors? Those do not seem like the sorts of issues to draw the majority of students

away from keg parties and Playstation II.

 

"They're just fringe groups," says Joseph Konzelmann, a sophomore majoring in economics at Harvard who counter-demonstrated against the living wage. "They're rebellious spirits in search of a cause. They're just looking for something to complain about."

 

Howard Zinn, the radical historian and retired Boston University professor, joined Harvard students this spring and saw something different.

 

Mr. Zinn, referring to the civil-rights struggle and protests over the Vietnam War, says that, in order to build a movement, "the issue of right and wrong has to be very clear."

 

He believes that underneath many of the recent protests, there is an emerging theme that could galvanize students in the years to come: the widening gap between rich and poor. "The potential is very much there for these groups to coalesce into a national movement."

 

Mr. Gerber, the SUNY historian and former antiwar demonstrator, doesn't see it happening. Today's students, he says, are "apolitical by virtue of 1,000 diversions."

 

He believes that the greatest chance for a renaissance in activism would be if something happened that challenged students' sense of personal security -- if, for example, President Bush nominated a Supreme Court justice intent on overturning Roe v.

Wade.

 

"There is a tyranny in seeing everything through the eyes of the 60's," says Mr. Gerber. "Today, there are small groups of very disciplined people who are very passionate about what they believe in. I wouldn't call them a movement. There's really no mass support for what they do."

 

But don't tell that to the group who assembled in Ann Arbor. As the weekend came to a close, they retired to a co-op where many of the Michigan students dwell and share duties like cooking and cleaning. At night, visiting students were packed so tight in their sleeping bags that it was hard to walk without tripping over someone. They engaged in a wild poetry slam, two hours of intimate verse with a heavy hip-hop influence. As they drifted into morning, talk turned to religion, politics, and the chances of forming a movement.

 

"It's what I always imagined living in a commune would be like," says Harvard's Mr. Smith. "We stayed up all night. ... We were delirious from talking."

 

A Beatles song once described a youth of another era with "hair down to his knee." Three decades later, the haircuts are different but the soundtrack remains the same.

 

That was evident the next morning, when the students again clasped hands in prayer.

 

The verse was one that Penn State's Villagers used to loudly mark the hours of their sit-in at the student union. "Now! More than ever," one student began, and the other protesters followed in call and response. "All the brothers and sisters," they shouted -- and a few looked up, a little self-consciously, savoring the electricity of what they hoped was a historic moment -- "must come together!"

 

When it was over, a Brown student, one who had taken part in the trashing of the student newspaper there, took his eye away from his Sony digital camcorder and pressed the "off" switch.

 

The revolution will be televised, after all.

 

 

Copyright 2001 by The Chronicle of Higher Education