The New Student Movement | The Nation


The New Student Movement

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The early-nineties struggles haven't vanished without a trace; indeed, it sometimes seems as if, through the anticorporate movement, they have returned to their early-seventies roots as movements for radical liberation. Many of the leaders are women, and feminist analysis informs the movement's focus; the antisweat activists, for instance, frequently point out that most sweatshop workers are women. And although the struggle against homophobia has largely disappeared from the student progressive agenda, the tactics--militant, theatrical and often campy direct action--of early-nineties groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation have clearly influenced the new crew of student activists.

This article is part of the Haywood Burns Community Activist Journalism series.

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Liza Featherstone
Liza Featherstone is a journalist based in New York City. Her work on student and youth activism has been...

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In the latest action against the union-busting low-wage retailer, labor organizers may have finally found a strategy that works.

Ha llegado el momento en que demócratas y progresistas conscientes sigan el ejemplo de Nueva York y tomen distancia de este oscuro seductor.

Anticorporatism also has the potential to be a movement for racial justice. Farah Mongeau, a University of Michigan law student and member of U-M's Students of Color Coalition (SCC), points out, "[Sweatshop labor] obviously affects people of color. People of color are the ones who work in the sweatshops." Yet, although many core organizers are South Asian, the antisweatshop movement is mostly white. Organizing by students of color is on the upswing, but its relationship to the anticorporate groups can be uneasy. Some students of color say this is partly because white activists receive better treatment from those in power. At Michigan in February, SCC members protesting a racist secret society held a sit-in at the same time as the antisweat organization and resented the fact that while they were ignored for weeks, the predominantly white group got a meeting with the president immediately. Likewise, Justin Higgins, sophomore class president at North Carolina Central University, a historically black and working-class college, who in February had just joined the regional student anti-WTO/IMF coalition, said he wasn't planning to go to Washington, DC, and wasn't sorry to have missed Seattle. "If there had been black students [in Seattle]," Higgins said, "there would have been real bullets, not rubber bullets."

On the other hand, some less visible economic-justice campaigns on campus have been more racially mixed: those fighting university tuition hikes, for instance. And the student movement's relationship with labor may help break down its whiteness. In its early stages, very few black students were involved in the Johns Hopkins action demanding higher wages for university workers, for example, though the low-wage workers at the school are predominantly people of color. But when local unions got involved in the sit-in, they were able to recruit members of the black student group. On other campuses, multiracial alliances between anticorporate and prison activists are beginning to emerge (see "Hip-Hop Politics on Campus," page 16, on the role of hip-hop music in this coalition). In early April students at ten campuses launched a boycott campaign against Sodexho-Marriott, which operates more than 500 campus dining halls, is the largest investor in US private prisons and is also currently facing censure from the National Labor Relations Board. In an April sit-in at SUNY-Albany, activists, in addition to sweatshop-related demands, insisted that the university drop Sodexho-Marriott if the company did not divest from private prisons and improve its labor practices.

Part of the problem with early-to-mid-nineties student "identity politics" was an obsession with representation--only queers could talk about homophobia, only people of color could talk about racism--which seriously limited its constituency. Such first-person politics also restricted diverse activists' ability to work together and find common ground. Yet its premise--drawn from seventies feminism--that the personal is political laid the foundation for one of the core assumptions of the current anticorporate movement, which is that because we are consumers, we are personally implicated in the depredations of capital. In the antisweat movement, students initially got involved because they were horrified to find out about the exploitation behind products that were a part of their everyday lives. Says Penn sophomore and USAS member Roopa Gona, "We're talking about our clothes." Student public-education campaigns about Starbucks--which, in mid-April, was pressured into buying Fair Trade Coffee--and genetically modified food also focus on buying power. The consumer experience is one that everyone has in common, rather than one that emphasizes power differences among students.

Exposing the sweatshop horror behind ubiquitous logos is subversive, especially in a culture completely hypnotized by them. The whole purpose of logos and brands is commodity fetishism; we are supposed to crave them but not question the conditions under which they were made. But, as Naomi Klein observes in her new book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, companies trafficking in image are particularly vulnerable when those images are tarnished. Obscure information-technology companies can quietly outsource their data-entry work to Mexican sweatshops, but companies like Disney, Starbucks and the Gap are different: Their prominence in consumers' hearts and minds makes it far easier for activists to publicize their wrongdoings. Like other contemporary anticorporatists--those vandalizing and protesting under Golden Arches worldwide, for instance--students have expertly used big capital's catchy logos against it. And just like the Nike swoosh, "we can think of the university itself as a brand, a logo, that students consume," says veteran antisweat activist and University of North Carolina junior Todd Pugatch. Universities, especially prestigious ones or those with high-profile sports teams, depend on image, too. The recognizability of the University of Michigan's big yellow M, like that of McDonald's, can backfire if the logo comes to symbolize exploitation and corporate greed.

Still, brand targeting has limits. One of the ways in which contemporary capitalism maintains its hold on us is by defining everyone as consumers--rather than, say, citizens, workers or activists. A crucial problem for the anticorporate movement is how to appeal to a wider public without reducing politics to shopping. And students are realizing that simply as indignant shoppers, they can't be very effective. Boycotts in the apparel industry are futile because all major clothing companies use sweatshop labor, explains Laurie Eichenbaum, a Penn senior and USAS organizer who was wearing a red Old Navy fleece when I met her: "There is no good alternative." Saurav Sarkar, of Yale Students Against Sweatshops, says, "That's the most common misperception about us. People say, 'Oh, I don't want to stop buying clothes at the Gap.'" Crucial to the anticorporate movement's gradual evolution beyond consumer consciousness and toward labor solidarity and broad structural change, as UNC's Pugatch observes, will be its relationship with workers, in the US labor movement as well as in the global South. If the WRC develops as the students hope, it will help give workers and unions a stronger voice in the apparel industry, rather than simply conferring a Good Housekeeping-style seal of approval on "sweat-free" brands.

Despite this emerging vision, not all students come to anticorporate activism with a radical outlook. "People are drawn in by the horror stories," says Maria Roeper, but then they start seeing how the whole system works. Students are also radicalized by their university's intransigence and by the realization that institutions only change when they're forced to do so. David Corson-Knowles, a Yale freshman and spokesperson for the Student Alliance to Reform Corporations (STARC), a national group founded at Yale, says he thinks his group will eventually convince the Yale Corporation--which has the CEO of Procter & Gamble on its board--to invest responsibly "because we're right." But in a group discussion in a coffee shop near campus, it's clear that students from the Student/Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) and the Yale chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops--older groups that have been struggling with the administration for longer and use more confrontational tactics--beg to differ. Yale SLAC activist Laurie Kimmington, a senior, says of the university's administrators, "They want to do nothing, as much as possible." Danielle Linzer, a Penn sophomore and STARC leader, admitted this might be the case. STARC, she acknowledged, had a "more conservative approach to reform" than United Students Against Sweatshops, but, she said, "we're a newer group, so we haven't yet been stalled the way they have."

All in all, it's impossible not to feel at least cautiously optimistic about this new movement. "We are training an entire generation to think differently about"--pause--"capitalism," says Kimmington. She glances at my notebook and at the STARC activists across the cafe table and giggles cheerfully. "Oops, maybe I shouldn't say that."

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