April 28, 2008
Late last year, progressive foreign policy lost one of its shining stars. Dr. Randall “Randy” Forsberg, leader of the nuclear freeze movement, passed away after a long battle with cancer. Forsberg was the founder of the Nuclear Freeze Campaign, a national effort to abolish nuclear weapons. She conceptualized the Freeze idea in 1979 while working as a researcher at MIT; the grassroots movement soon caught fire across the United States. The Freeze recruited hundreds of local leaders across the country, and its apex was a rally in Central Park in 1982 attended by an estimated 700,000 to one million protesters calling for a halt to the arms race. Forsberg, in the words of Arms Control Association executive director Daryl Kimball, “demonstrated how the power of ideas and civil society can change long-held conceptions of weapons and war, and how to achieve peace.”
Forsberg’s passing presents an opportunity to asses the current nuclear abolition movement. Is the post-Cold War millennial generation meeting the anti-nuke challenge? Journalist and nuclear weapons expert Jonathan Schell has noted that the nuclear abolition movement has never been able to recapture the energy that brought close to a million people to Central Park in 1982, despite the fact that the danger of nuclear weapons remains ever-present. “It is no simple matter to take stock of the nuclear predicament,” notes Schell says. “…Under the Bush Administration, the nuclear policies of the United States–and of the world–are in a state of greater confusion than at any time since the weapons were invented.”
At the same time, it would seem that young people have other political interests–the issue of nuclear weapons does not make it on to the public agenda of national student organizations such as Campus Progress and the United States Students Association, which focus on issues like global warming, the Iraq war, and college affordability. But this perceived silence from large, multi-issue student groups masks an increase in campaigns and activism (including the now-yearly Think Outside the Bomb conference) around nuclear weapons issues by students and young people. Youth awareness is largely driven by established policy organizations such as Peace Action and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and is having a serious impact on the debate about the current nuclear arsenal.
A Movement with Structure
Katherine Fuchs, organizing and policy associate for Peace Action (a Freeze Campaign descendant) doesn’t buy the idea that young people aren’t concerned with nuclear weapons. In an interview, Fuchs noted that a recent poll conducted by World Public Opinion found overwhelming opposition to nuclear weapons among all respondents, 29 percent of which were under age 30 (PDF). Students today may be the first post-Cold War generation, but that doesn’t mean that nuclear weapons aren’t on their minds. The Bush Administration’s focus on North Korea and Iran has spurred interest in the issue after a near decade of dormancy.
Travis Sharp, communications director for the abolitionist Council for a Livable World and affiliated Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation also doesn’t believe that students and young people are unconcerned about nuclear weapons. He notes that the Council’s outreach to young people in the last year has been a tremendous success.
The Council’s programs bring military professionals to towns with large populations of students and military veterans; these experts speak on a variety of topics, but always address the issue of nuclear weapons. Outreach efforts have been so successful that in 2007 the Center hired a coordinator solely to organize the trips and conduct follow-up. Students working on these issues have called the trips “refreshing,” especially when they hear military generals confirm their own nuclear abolition analysis.
The Center for Arms Control also runs three blogs on nuclear weapons; according to Sharp, a “significant number” of the readers are students. He also says that his experience working directly with college students tells him that the student movement against nukes isn’t dead. His comments are confirmed directly by students themselves.
“Students and faculty at the University of California have a unique role to play in actively questioning this misguided U.S. nuclear weapons policy and UC’s involvement in its implementation,” wrote UC San Diego student Achraf Farraj for the Daily Californian in 2007. Farraj became engaged in the issue thanks to an outreach trip conducted by the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.
What are students doing on the ground after outreach by organizations like the Center and Peace Action? Much of their work involves challenging the existing nuclear-weapons paradigm. Perhaps the most interesting student activism is taking place on the campuses of the University California system, which has a unique role to play in America’s nuclear weapons complex.
“Every nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal was designed by a UC employee,” notes the website of UC Nuclear Free, a regional coalition dedicated to ending the UC system’s relationship with the Department of Energy. The University of California network houses a multibillion dollar system of three research labs, two of which conduct weapons research. These labs have been part of the UC system for decades, going back to the development of the atomic bomb–and since the beginning, students and professors have been resisting the weaponization of higher education.
Students see plenty of problems with the idea that higher education should be dependent on, and supporting, weapons research. Activists such as Jonathan Williams of Peace Action and Will Parrish of the Think Outside the Bomb see obvious connections between the ballooning nuclear-weapons industry and deflating student aid available for those who want to attend public colleges in California.
UC Nuclear Free has conducted actions in a campaign calling on California’s Board of Regents (the governing body of the UC system) to divest from the bomb labs. Since 2001, they’ve written letters, held hunger strikes, and organized aggressive campaigns to pressure the board. Parrish, formerly an organizer and coordinator for UC Nuclear Free (which itself exists as part of a larger Coalition to Demilitarize the UC), sees their work as important in a broader context. “We look a lot at the UC’s history as an imperialist university–this is no ivory tower that we’re talking about here,” he noted via email.
Parrish’s comment underscores how and why the anti-nuclear work in the UC system is becoming national. Activists contend that the research itself and associated direct costs represent only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the militarization of schools. In 2005, UC Nuclear Free’s sponsoring organization, the Santa Barbara-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, took the campaign national by helping to form the Think Outside the Bomb Network in 2005.
From Complex to Classroom
Students around the nation note that militarization is something that happens not just in the research labs, but in the classroom as well. Jonathan Williams, the student coordinator for Peace Action (another cofounding organization of Think Outside the Bomb) understands that all too well. As a physics student at University of Baltimore, he saw how weapons research drove much of the academic environment. “There were no ethics discussions in the classroom,” Williams said in an interview. He also found that almost everything in his physics major–the classes, the research, the career track–were all closely tied to the weapons complex.
Students nationwide have reacted in several ways to the militarization of higher education in the post-Cold War world.
First, according to activists like Parrish and other leaders of the California coalition, students are using the university itself as a means to challenge the establishment. Students in the UC system have run school-accredited classes on the University of California’s relationship with nuclear weapons, bringing hundreds of students to courses such as “The University of California and the Military-Industrial-Nuclear Weapons Complex: Past, Present and Future,” and “Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction” every year.
Students have recently set up an independent oversight committee to keep tabs on the nuclear research conducted on campus. Chartered in 2007 at UC Santa Barbara, the UC Student DOE Lab Oversight Committee represents a beacon for students who want to challenge corporate weapons investment on their campuses–producing investigations, policy briefs, and generally uniting students, faculty, and advocacy organizations for change.
Since 2005, students from across the country have been gathering at Think Outside the Bomb conferences to learn from the California model and build on their own organizing. Parrish notes that activists who look closely at the entire process of nuclear weapons find that the negative effects of weapons production (higher cancer rates, environmental destruction, etc.) tend to burden communities of color the most. Nowhere is this more true than in Native American communities of the Southwest. Tribal activists joined with peace groups and environmentalists in 1994 to form the Shundahai Network, which advocates for an end to nuclear testing.
The future of U.S. abolition efforts lies in the work of students, and the willingness of established activist and policy groups like Peace Action, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and the Council for a Livable World to make serious investments in inspiring the next generation. Randy Forsberg spent much of her life developing the organizations that will nurture the next generation. It is this first post-Cold War generation that has a serious chance to reverse the growth of nuclear weapons, and to potentially lead the way to abolition.
Find out more at The Council for a Livable World’s Facebook group.
See more at The Council’s YouTube page.
The documentary Tresspassing explores Native American health issues related to nuclear weapons and nuclear storage facilities.
Adam Waxman is a Publishing Fellow at The American Prospect in Washington, DC. His work has appeared in print and online, including Alternet and The Nation Online. Contact him at adam DOT waxman AT gmail.com.