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An oral history of student activism since the 1980s

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SENIOR STAFF WRITERS
Friday, June 1, 2018
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2018
Herald Archives
Students begin fasting to protest apartheid.

RONALD REAGAN (1981-1989)

Having grown up in the midst of the Vietnam War and the peak of distrust in government, students during the 80s were highly skeptical of the government, protesting CIA recruitment, University investment in South Africa, and the nuclear arms race.

Jeremy Varon ’89 “We are the children of Watergate. There had been this horrible usurpation of power by this monster, Nixon, and there had been the most horrible war, Vietnam. The liberal establishment was reestablished, and then the message for a lot of us, for liberal households, was, ‘Order has been restored. America is America again.’ And then Reagan gets elected, and this falls like a hammer. Everything we were taught to believe about America seemed in crisis — standing up for the underdog, commitment to social equity, that peace is preferable to war. It felt like a call to action — very much like Trump, but I think people weren’t so stunned and paralyzed and overwhelmed with rage and shock that it was easier to enter into activism.”
Andrew Meyer ’89 “We didn’t know it at the time, but those were the final years of the Cold War. And so it was a superheated geopolitical situation. People had this feeling that we were reliving through a sea change in the politics of the country. A lot of our forebears, a lot of the generation of the 60s and the early 70s, they were feeling like we were living through an era of reaction — like a lot of the progress they had made was being undone.”
Todd Weir ’88 “I was always nostalgic for the 60s. I always felt like the 60s were the time when one should have really been a student. In retrospect, I think we were still living in the aftermath of that political culture. I think there were a lot of continuities, actually, in the way we went about stuff and how we thought.”
Jason Salzman ’86, suicide pill campaign “Those of us who admired the 60s were thinking, ‘Shit, if only we had been at Brown in the 60s.’ The activism is always greener.”

ANTI-APARTHEID MOVEMENT

Students demanded that the University divest from South Africa. Above, Marie Testa ’86 presents a list of demands to the Corporation.

Colette Matzzie ’88.5 “Saying Brown should divest — it was such a new concept. The idea that you would take what are usually just sort of these conservative investments made on the basis of return only and say, ‘How does Brown’s money support a dictatorship?’”

SHANTY-TOWNS

University Archives

Students construct Shantytowns on the Main Green to protest the University’s investment in companies doing business in South Africa.

Maria Testa ’86 “It was an illustration really, a constant reminder that these are the conditions of people living in South Africa, that we are, with our money, with our U.S. money, with our Brown University money, supporting the regime that allows people to live in conditions like this. That was considered to be the symbolic movement across the country, that we are going to soil our beautiful campuses with shanty towns.”
Herald Archives

Students end fast protesting apartheid on 10th day.

Paul Zimmerman ’88 “We were not successful in the short-term, immediate goal of getting Brown to divest, but I think in the benefit of hindsight, we were absolutely successful — the student movement, the general anti-Apartheid movement — in changing public opinion. Within a year, Congress passed the comprehensive anti-Apartheid sanctions act, which had a huge impact. And then within a number of years thereafter, Nelson Mandela was released. The country was completely transformed. Now, did my fast do all that? Of course not. But were people like me doing their part all around the country and, frankly, all around the world? Did that contribute to international pressure? I really believe that the answer to that question is, yes, it did.”

CIA RECRUITMENT

Herald Archives

October 31, 1983. “Brown Students Demonstrate Against Invasion of Granada.”

Jeremy Varon ’89 “This is a local struggle on a single campus that, in our minds, was deeply connected to a larger post-Vietnam anti-intervention politics.”

SUICIDE PILLS

Jason Salzman ’86 “The vast majority who voted for it did not really want suicide pills. I think a lot of students learned a lot about the issue as a result of the referendum. The suicide pills … they were symbolic, but it was also a real proposal. Having suicide pills, in my mind, couldn’t hurt. I didn’t see any danger to them, they’d be locked up, and in the meantime their presence would be sending a message about how serious the situation was.”

GEORGE H.W. BUSH (1989-1993)

The University became the subject of student criticism, sometimes more than national issues.

Naomi Sachs ’92 “What I was more active in seemed a little bit more close to home. It may be that just personally I felt like I needed something that I could get my head around or feel like I could do something about. For me, global politics just seemed too big and too unwieldy and impossible to have a significant impact. Before Brown, I was concerned about human rights, and I was concerned about nuclear holocaust, which seemed like a real threat at that time. Those are what I gravitated to first. And then once I got to know the various other options and once I felt more personally affected by the sexual assault issues and LGBT issues, then it became more personal.”
Nerissa Wu ’89 “I personally moved on to more women’s issues and environmental issues and local social justice issues. Providence at the time — there were pockets of very poor areas of the city. It just seemed like there were different impacts we could have on more local issues because of personal action.”

RAPE LIST

Naomi Sachs ’92 “There were a couple years where this issue of sexual assault on campus was very widespread. And it wasn’t just at Brown, but Brown was one of the main universities in the country that was getting a lot of coverage. It was hard to be a student there and not be touched by it in some way.”

NEED-BLIND TAKEOVER OF UNIVERSITY HALL

University Archives

Students occupy University Hall in 1992 to protest the University’s financial aid policies.

Naomi Sachs ’92 “I was drawn to that (the need-blind sit-in) because it seemed more practical. The students against nuclear suicide was away to speak out against something, but pretending to die in front of the building where the CIA was recruiting didn’t feel like it was having … a measurable impact whereas doing a sit-in and actually carrying on a discussion with the administration for changes in Brown’s policies, that felt more productive.”

 

BILL CLINTON (1993-2001)

Many students felt that America had returned to what it truly was upon Bill Clinton’s election.

Gregory Cooper ’01 “This was before 9/11, we had a budget surplus … There wasn’t the same sense of urgency with respect to our politics that I think people feel today.”


GEORGE W. BUSH (2001-2009)

Students were put off by the political process, turning often to activism instead. The Bush Era saw frequent protests of the Iraq war.

Joshua Segall ’01, protested the 2000 presidential election “It was sort of obvious that this kind of messed up ballot had prevented Gore from being president. We had a sense that the election would be consequential. I don’t think we knew how consequential it would be.”

BARACK OBAMA (2009-2017)

Kate Talerico / Herald
Krissia Perla ’15 MD ’21 “Generally, people were more complacent with the administration at the time.”  

FOSSIL FUEL DIVESTMENT

Arjun Narayen / Herald

Fossil Free Brown joined 400 other campuses nationally and internationally in promoting divestment from top fossil fuel companies. The group, which used to be the Brown Divest Coal Campaign, embraces broader goals after the Corporation decided not to divest from coal.

Emily Kirkland ’13, Brown Divest Coal  Often you have campaigns targeting the university because that’s a way for students to use the power that they have. I learned through working on Fossil fuel divestment was that it’s not about making the case. It’s about building enough power that you don’t give the administration a choice. You have to put them in a position where they have to negotiate with the campaign because they are never going to make concessions just because you present them with enough information or because you are convincing.” 

DONALD TRUMP (2017- )

The Trump Era has thus far seen students come together with Providence community members to protest the administration’s sweeping changes, such as the travel ban and the end to DACA. 

Jasmine Ruiz
Emma Galvin ’18, Student Labor Alliance Organizer “There are bigger fires to put out right now than the stuff internal to the campus. It feels like Trump’s election sort of demoralized energy. People were really overwhelmed and a little more scattered.”

APATHY IN ACTIVISM

University Archives
While Brown is frequently recognized for its activism in the news, sometimes just a small minority of students working for change can give the impression of an entirely activist campus.

Todd Weir ’88, protested CIA recruitment “It was a very intense subculture at the University. The climate, in a way, was excellent because we were a group of people who considered ourselves radical and enjoyed each other’s company. There was a kind of disappointment that we were just a minority, but in retrospect that’s sort of obvious that that was all we were ever going to be.”
David Goldsmith ’88.5, protested Reagan’s foreign policy “There’s a strident core, there’s sympathizers, … there’s the administration, which always tends to be differently sympathetic but a little more tempered, middle of the road … I feel like it was how it’s always been, always will be.”
Jason Salzman ’86, protested the nuclear arms race “As an activist, the climate always seems less active than you want. You’re always wanting more from students. It was a fairly apathetic time, which doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of students who cared and were involved — but the vast majority were not.”
Daniel Sherrell ’13.5, Brown Divest Coal “I met very few truly apathetic people. I just think that not everyone knew where to look to get active on a issue”
Emma Galvin ’18.5, Student Labor Alliance “People will be super down to put on the mask and march in University Hall — and I’m all for it — but I think that there also needs to be relationship-building that happens.”
Scott Warren ’09, protested Darfur genocide “Every generation thinks that they were more active than the newest generation. The reality is that young people are really active. They just take action in different ways.”

PUBLICITY & THEATRICS

Colette Matzzie ’88.5 “There was no such thing as social media. There was no way to get your voice heard online — there was no such thing. So pulling people together in a rally, signing petitions, having a hunger strike in Manning Chapel, which got national press — was the way.”
Todd Weir ’88 “There’s a very theatrical element to protesting. It’s meant for public consumption, it’s meant to be in the newspapers, it’s meant to be on television if possible. It often had this gimmicky element to it.”
John Crouch ’91.5, ACLU student organizer “I didn’t believe in civil disobedience, when you’re disobeying laws that are otherwise just that you don’t think are unfair or unconstitutional, like blocking streets so people can’t get to work, blocking people from getting to class or from hearing speakers who they want to go see. There were always tensions when those of us from the ACLU were working with larger groups from the hard left. We were occasionally working for the same things, but we were there for different reasons.”
Maria Testa ’86, anti-apartheid movement “To be taken seriously, you need to be at the table, but without the protests and the groundswell, I don’t think we would have gotten to the table.”
Jeremy Varon ’89 “They knew who they were admitting. They knew it was a bunch of curious, crazy, precocious rebels. At some level, they were welcoming all the grief that we gave them, and at some level I have to give the institution credit for subjecting themselves to that kind of moral scrutiny. That’s the sense in which my activism feels like a legacy of Brown and not just a legacy of protesting Brown.”