A picture of activism at Brown

As anti-war movement lags, community members discuss causes

By
Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Though student activists may describe the campus climate as less lively than the University’s activist-friendly reputation led them to expect, recent protests suggest Brown students are willing to stand in the cold for what they believe in.

Back in December, six students cared enough about workers’ rights to get arrested for blocking traffic on a bridge during a protest. In February, 20 students attended a downtown rally to support aid for the homeless.

On the Main Green two weeks ago, a small but loud 10-person protest against University apparel made in sweatshops drew curiosity and some mockery from onlookers enjoying the sunshine. Nearby, students sold bus tickets to a Sudan divestment rally in Washington, D.C.

But while roughly 50 anti-war protesters gathered outside Meehan Auditorium before a recent speech by Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Brown students were a minority of the individuals shouting slogans and waving signs bearing anti-war messages.

As Brown students express interest in other causes, has the war in Iraq faded from the on-campus political consciousness?

Shock, awe and discouragementElizabeth Sperber ’06 has been involved in anti-war activism throughout her time at Brown. As a first-year, she belonged to the anti-war group Not Another Victim Anywhere, founded in reaction to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The group shrank as the “situation got more bleak” over the years, Sperber said.

As debates in Congress about the war in Iraq heated up, Sperber couldn’t find a campus group dedicated to action against the impending war. In 2002, she founded Students Against the War in Iraq, a broad coalition that soon encompassed the Brown Democrats, the International Socialist Organization and NAVA, among other groups. SAWI sponsored a well-attended rally the day after war was declared, but its momentum, too, declined as the war continued.

A national “move to electoral politics” in anticipation of the presidential election crowded out grassroots activity in 2004, Sperber said.

Last semester, she co-founded Operation Iraqi Freedom to fill the void left by SAWI. Even as national opposition to the war has risen, attendance at OIF meetings has dropped over the academic year to less than a dozen people.

“You don’t see the anti-war majority opinion expressed directly through anti-war activism on this campus. If you did we would be out there on the (Main Green) rallying right now,” she said.

Anti-war activist and Professor of English William Keach said the movement was ahead of the “shock and awe” bombing campaign in the spring of 2003. But as the war dragged on, he added, a “predictable” feeling of defeatism “knocked the wind out of the anti-war movement.”

One core member of OIF, Kelly Nichols ’09, said the absence of an anti-war group when she arrived at Brown last fall surprised and disappointed her. She agrees with others that the campus is overwhelmingly liberal but not especially radical, adding that students “are tired of the same old rhetoric.”

“There needs to be more done,” Nichols said. “What, I’m not sure. (Just) protesting is not doing anything.”

Casualty to apathyAlthough many Brown students may not focus heavily on the anti-war movement, do they care about other issues, or have students become more apathetic in general?

Yesenia Barragan ’08, a veteran of several activist groups, argues that Brown students have actually become more selfish. Barragan said she was surprised by the lack of student alarm in response to the January arming of Brown’s Department of Public Safety officers, especially in light of the significant resistance to the proposed addition of pluses and minuses to the University’s grading system.

“(I was) really shocked about how many people went up in arms about something that was really selfishly motivated” rather than mobilizing for issues such as immigrants’ rights, she said.

Keach agreed that issues beyond the Brown community might not benefit from the high degree of activism regarding issues that hit closer to home. “I wish the Brown anti-war movement were as broad and energized as the Save the Bookstore Coalition,” he said.

Senior Lecturer in American Civilization and former Students for a Democratic Society activist Paul Buhle said the prolonged nature of the conflict in Iraq has created “despair, apathy and a deep sense of cynicism,” even after a peak in on-campus activism leading up to the war. It’s not that students don’t care, Buhle said. Instead, they just can’t figure out what actions will make a difference.

But Eric Larson GS disagrees that students are more concerned with issues directly affecting them. A member of the Student Labor Alliance engaged in activism at Brown, he sees “considerable support for causes that don’t necessarily relate to campus in any direct way.” He cited the Justice for Janitors campaign and the downtown hotel workers’ strike as examples.

Too many movements to choose fromOn a 28-degree Saturday morning in February, 50 students stood on the steps of Faunce House demanding the University divest from Sudan. Later that afternoon, University Chancellor Stephen Robert ’62 P’91 emerged from University Hall and announced the University’s plans to divest.

But despite the protest’s success, Scott Warren ’09 said student turnout at the protest could have been stronger. More students might have cared about the issue if they had realized its importance, he said.

The large number of causes worthy of students’ attention – from divestment, to homelessness to marriage equality – may explain the lack of massive protests, Warren said. Without large-scale movements, there is “no rallying point with the whole community,” he said.

Zachary Townsend ’08, who will compile a history of activism at Brown as part of a summer Royce Fellowship, agreed that the variety of causes demanding attention makes it more difficult to devote a significant amount of energy to any one in particular.

“It’s a small group of people spread over more issues,” he added, explaining that he himself is a member of many activist groups and sees “the same 50 people” in all of them.

But Warren said some students not involved in student groups might be waiting until after graduation to make a difference. “People feel that college can be a time to cultivate skills, and after college people can use those skills to make a difference in the real world,” he said. Still, he added the world doesn’t go on hold for four years, and neither should students’ engagement with larger issues.

“We shouldn’t wait around to learn the politics of homelessness in the classroom” before tackling the problem, he added.

Activism then and nowIs activism’s diminishing profile at Brown just a reflection of a national trend pervading a younger generation?

Robert Self, assistant professor of history, who specializes in American political movements, said much of the activism associated with the 1960s was student-driven. Students “pioneered activism” at the forefront of the nationwide anti-war protests and the civil rights movement in the South, he said.

Self said large-scale events and ideological differences among generations contributed to the campus foment and student protest of the era.

“I don’t think that there is anything comparable to that now,” Self said. “(There) isn’t this sense that there is really a movement.”

Regarding the relatively quiet political atmosphere on campuses today, Self said, “I don’t think you can attribute everything to – oh, students don’t care.”

“Today’s generation … is more cynical about politics,” Self said. Students in the 1960s “believed they could force the nation to live up to their values.”

But some students still do care. “A lot of people feel (activism) is this liberal thing that doesn’t really make a difference – but I think it does, and it can,” Warren said. He added that there is a widely accepted but mistaken perception that “activism is not the best way” to effect change.

He said his experience in the divestment movement demonstrates that students standing up for issues that matter to them can potentially influence local and state legislatures.

Townsend, who coordinates the anti-human trafficking Polaris Project in Rhode Island, is equally optimistic. Brown students really can effect change, he said, their sense of powerlessness notwithstanding. “Anyone can do it,” he said, adding he believes “you should work to change whatever community you are in.”

Townsend said, “Activism isn’t dead, it’s just changed.”