Students Wrestle With War
Many campus campaigns, like Tamayo's at Penn, had been emphasizing the hunger crisis, finding that, as in antisweatshop organizing, appeals to students' humanitarian sympathies are powerful. In Afghanistan, according to Oxfam, there are 7.5 million hungry people, 1.5 million of whom are children under 5. While it is true that the Taliban have obstructed relief organizations for years, many international aid agencies, including the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, agreed in October that the US bombings had made the situation even worse. Oxfam called for a pause in the bombing, "at least in some zones," so relief convoys could deliver food and other supplies to those in need. Activists found that by joining such calls, they could appeal to people who had never been to a political meeting. "This is something everyone can get behind," says Amy Warner of Clark University, "even people who want to kill everyone involved in September 11."
"The trouble with the peace movement is that we're always speaking to the choir," says UMass activist Lisa DePiano, who, with other Catholic students, is organizing a twenty-four-hour fast beginning November 30 at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, intended to call attention to hunger in Afghanistan. "We always see the same people at teach-ins. The fast is a great way to get a wide range of people involved who are concerned about hunger. We are attracting not only typical anarchist lefties but conservative Catholics." The UMass fast will be accompanied by an all-day discussion on world hunger. In addition to raising awareness on campus, DePiano hopes that visible action by Catholic students like herself will encourage church leaders to take a stand against the war.
Activists have also organized fasts at the Universities of Texas, Hawaii and at least twenty other schools; many participated in a national fast on November 7-9 initiated by students at Occidental College. Cornell Students for Peaceful Justice has organized a monthlong rolling fast, in which more than fifty students will take turns going without food.
Just weeks ago, this humanitarian focus seemed the best possible direction for the peace movement. Now that's not so clear. At this writing, there were reports that more food aid was entering Afghanistan. News stories pointed to some ambiguities, asking whether the US presence was still contributing to the hunger crisis and even suggesting that in some places US troops, or at least the fall of the Taliban, was alleviating the problem. "The humanitarian angle has been our main focus," says UC-Berkeley's Chris Cantor. "But now the United States is helping, and the situation is dramatically improving. That criticism is not as valid anymore." Cantor's group will "wait and let this play out," he says, admitting that "if the United States pulled out right now, Afghanistan would be in real trouble." Meanwhile, he says, peace organizations may increasingly turn their attention to the "war" at home--racist scapegoating and the frightening assaults on civil liberties.
But the peace groups best able to adapt to the changing global situation are those that don't suffer from that unfortunate activist malady of "having to have all the answers," as Lara Jirmanus, a recent Harvard graduate working with the Boston Student Anti-War Coalition, puts it. To Cornell's Dana Brown, who is also a national organizer for STARC, which is running a national education campaign emphasizing the connections between violence and economic deprivation, the complexity of this war demands constant conversation. "You obviously can't just stand in the middle of campus waving a Stop the War sign," she says. Cornell organizers have had several extra meetings in the past few days, to talk about how best to respond to the changing situation. They are not calling off their fast, but they are asking new questions. Approaching "triumph" in Afghanistan, will the United States now attack Iraq? And more immediately, will the Bush Administration face its responsibilities to devastated Afghanistan? "There still is a humanitarian crisis. What is the United States going to do about it?" Brown asks. More broadly, she and other peace activists are asking, "What should the US role be in Afghanistan? Why is the United States refusing to be part of a UN peacekeeping force? None of us are pro-Taliban, but we know how they came to power. We see the footage of the Northern Alliance dragging people out of their homes and executing them. If we're not extra careful, we could end up supporting another repressive regime."
Given both the frightening consensus in mainstream public discourse and the absence of satisfactory answers from the left, real conversation is no small contribution. Tamayo says her fellow Penn students, for all their bellicosity, have been eager to discuss the war. "At 3:30 this morning," she says, "people were still walking by, just wanting to talk. We're being told that we shouldn't question the government right now, but [the peace camp] provides a space where people can debate. We've had a lot of people coming up to us--people who don't agree with us--and thanking us, saying, 'If nothing else, you guys have created a lot of dialogue on campus.'"