Antiwar Students Rising

Antiwar Students Rising

As the student peace movement grows stronger and more sophisticated, can it ignite the silent antiwar majority on campus?


At the January 27 peace march in Washington, an unlikely group of students paraded together. It was a lineup that would have been unthinkable four years ago: College Democrats, young socialist radicals, black and Latino students wearing Make Hip-Hop Not War T-shirts, representatives of the student wing of a DC think tank and a reborn Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). “The fact that College Dems and the ISO [International Socialist Organization] were marching together without killing one another–that’s a huge change,” says David Duhalde, whose organization is a member of the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition (NYSPC). While radical groups have tempered their tone and tactics, mainstream progressive student organizations have become less cautious and more willing to engage in direct action–and all sides, for the first time in years, are eager to work together. “We’ve realized the war is more important [than our differences],” says Duhalde.

In preparation for the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, the NYSPC, a coalition of student groups, has been collaborating with a wide array of organizations–from the SEIU 1199 Young Worker Program to the Hip Hop Caucus, a new organization founded by the Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., and Campus Progress, the campus program of the Center for American Progress–on a six-point agenda. The agenda, to be released March 19, is aimed at helping “young people live better lives in America,” stressing workers’ and immigrants’ rights, national healthcare, environmental protection, education, and war and peace.

Even the Campus Antiwar Network, widely perceived to have been dominated by students from the ISO, has broadened its membership and reached out to other groups. CAN is mobilizing students for two weeks of campus actions from March 12 to 25 and is asking the NYSPC, SDS, the Hip Hop Caucus and other student and youth organizations to join them in a march on the Pentagon on March 17. “The movement as a whole is learning from past mistakes,” says Chris Schwartz, a recent graduate of the University of Northern Iowa and one of CAN’s vocal leaders. “To the average college student at Iowa, it looks ridiculous if organizations opposed to the war can’t work together.”

SDS, thus far, is working independently of CAN and NYSPC. After only a year, the resurgent SDS is emerging as perhaps the most active student organization in the antiwar movement today. While SDS favors direct action over engaging in the electoral sphere, its ideology is informed by a strategic realpolitik. “Folks like Karl Rove have the sophisticated understanding that people communicate in stories,” says Joshua Russell of SDS, “and we’re trying to tell a new story about American power.” SDS will incorporate the narrative that America ought to be viewed as an empire instead of a benevolent superpower into a “Port Huron-style” manifesto that will clarify the aims of the nascent organization.

In the wake of Howard Dean’s arrival as DNC chair, College Democrats of America (CDA) has gone from being reviled by left-wing students for its lock-step mimicry of the Democratic Party to working closely with other campus antiwar groups. Led by former Deaniacs like national spokesperson Ethan Porter and inspired by Dean’s model of decentralized power, CDA has given much greater autonomy to local chapters. As a result it has expanded mightily (CDA’s list of members has doubled since 2004). “It’s not our place to tell campus chapters what to do or what to think,” says Porter. When the Washington Post reported that CDA members were marching with radical student organizations in January, no one scrambled to put out a press release dissociating the organization from SDS. Instead, Porter says, “we were like, Thumbs up, high fives!”

Campus Progress, which had long been quiet on the war, is now becoming a major player in the student movement, providing antiwar speakers, hosting screenings of films like The Ground Truth, and giving students on campuses across the country grants and training to help them organize antiwar actions. They’ve even hired two full-time organizers to mobilize students against the war. “We try to base our national campaign work on cues from students in our orbit, as opposed to trying to force national campaigns on them,” says Campus Progress’s Emily Hawkins. “Now, a number of factors have created at least the possibility of more serious public reaction against the war, including among students and other young people.”

Almost all major campus antiwar groups are working closely with veterans, through groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War, and bringing them to speak on campus at teach-ins. Iraq vet and Bowdoin student Alex Cornell du Houx recalls his unit receiving a CARE package in Iraq from Bowdoin College Democrats and a Bowdoin peace activist group. “When the other guys in my squad found out where the food came from, they reacted very positively,” says du Houx, now working for a CDA media team. “It changed their perception of the College Dems and peace activists.”

Four years ago numerous polls found that students, like the majority of the population, overwhelmingly supported the war. Now students, more than any other age group, oppose the war. Without doubt, student antiwar activists are more sophisticated and coordinated than ever before. But the question is whether the movement can ignite the silent antiwar majority on campus. It remains to be seen if the legacy of the Class of Iraq will be one of acquiescence or resistance.

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