Students Wrestle With War
"It's uncomfortable, wet and disgusting," laughs Yomaira Tamayo cheerfully, "but I'm sleeping." Tamayo, a freshman, is one of thirty-five University of Pennsylvania students sleeping in tents on College Green, the main thoroughfare of the campus, to call attention to the role of US bombing in Afghanistan's humanitarian crisis. Asked how many fellow students agree with her group's position on the war, Tamayo admits, "Not a lot. This is a pretty conservative campus."
Her school is conservative, but hardly unique in its hawkishness. A study conducted in mid-October by Harvard University's Institute of Politics found that nearly four in five college students support the US bombing in Afghanistan. A recent New York Times article even featured war supporters at the University of Michigan's Eugene V. Debs House, the radical co-operative that housed this Nation writer for most of her own undergraduate years.
Given the unfriendly climate on campus, activists have had to be very thoughtful about how best to frame criticism of the US action in Afghanistan. "We have to accept that we are the minority," says Kelly Howland, a student at Massachusetts College of Art, who helped organize the recent antiwar conference at Boston University, "and really figure out how to appeal to the public." In a war that renders traditional left anti-interventionist arguments nonsensical to most Americans, including many on the left, it is difficult for activists even to agree with each other on the conflict's causes or on the reasons for opposition. In recent days, that problem has been compounded by the progress of the war itself. The airwaves have been flooded with optimistic images: women taking off their burqas, men shaving their beards, a cinema opening in Kabul. It is becoming increasingly tricky to know what people of conscience should advocate. "The first step is realizing you have a problem," jokes Christopher Cantor of the Berkeley Stop the War Coalition. "And I think the peace movement is doing that. The situation on the ground has completely changed, and we have just started to deal with it." To make matters more confusing, says Dana Brown of Cornell Students for a Peaceful Justice, "it is harder to get good information lately."
Still, among students, this war has inspired a far-flung and passionate opposition movement. The weekend of November 10, hundreds of student activists gathered at regional peace conferences at Boston University, Georgia State University, George Washington University, Chicago's De Paul University and the University of California, Berkeley, to plan campaigns and establish coalitions. (A similar conference of students in the Northwest is planned for early December.) Not all of these gatherings were successes; students found themselves divided, especially on questions of process, with anarchists and radical democrats favoring consensus and other forms of direct democracy, while others, especially members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), preferred majority rule. But on-campus organizing has been impressive. Students at the Universities of Indiana and Wisconsin, and Maui Community College, have established "peace camps" similar to the one at Penn, evoking the famous Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp, which lasted more than a decade after it was established in 1981 by British women protesting a NATO cruise-missile station. Others have held teach-ins, vigils and fasts.
This new peace activism, which has already touched at least 400 campuses, builds on networks and habits of dissent established by the student anticorporate movement, which has focused largely on economic justice, whether for the garment workers sewing college sweatshirts overseas or the dining hall workers students see every day. Many of the organizations--most notably Students Transforming and Resisting Corporations (STARC)--prominent in those campaigns are equally visible in antiwar organizing.
But whereas recent high-profile student campaigns (those against sweatshops, for example) have tended to attract students from elite private schools and large state schools, the peace movement has extended to less predictable quarters, including rural Southern schools (North Carolina's Appalachian State University and the University of Southern Mississippi); historically black colleges like Morehouse; community colleges from Boston to Hawaii; urban public universities like CUNY and the University of Illinois, Chicago; and high schools and middle schools. A newly formed National Youth and Student Peace Coalition will startle anyone who imagines that all peace activists are white folk-music fans; it includes the youth division of the Black Radical Congress and the Muslim Student Association.