Protest and Pushback on Campus

Protest and Pushback on Campus

Student protests against the presence of military recruiters on campus are on the rise. So are angry–sometimes violent–pushbacks from conservative students and campus police.


As a campus police officer put Tariq Khan in a chokehold, a lunchtime crowd at George Mason University began egging the officer on. Chants of “Kick his ass! Kick his ass!” were intermingled with cries of “Punch him!” “Kick him!” and “Take him down!” Two students–one had earlier ripped a sign off Khan’s chest, the other had repeatedly called him a “pussy”–and a computer-lab staff member assisted the officer in “apprehending” Khan, as university spokesperson Dan Walsch put it, by piling on top of him and twisting his body until he cried out in pain.

Khan, 27, a four-year Air Force veteran and a junior at GMU, had been walking through the Johnson Center on September 29 when he saw a Marine recruiter. He made up a sign, “Recruiters lie. Don’t be deceived,” and silently stood next to the recruiter’s table. Less than thirty minutes later he found himself in the chokehold. Backup police dragged Khan from the building, and one of them pulled out pepper spray. “I’m being nonviolent, and this officer is going to pepper-spray me! If you have a cell phone, please take a picture,” Khan says he shouted. Aimee Wells, a junior and a library staffer, says she pulled out her camera-phone and the officer put away the canister, saying, “Don’t worry. Nobody’s getting pepper-sprayed today.”

Khan, a sociology major, was taken to the Fairfax County jail and charged with disorderly conduct and trespassing. While there, he says, one officer told him, “You people are the most dangerous people in the world.” Another officer, he says, warned him that if he didn’t behave, “They’ll hang you up by your feet.” Police photographs show a bruised and bloodied Khan. A campus investigation is under way into the actions of the police, the staff member and the students, but no charges have yet been brought. “Buz” Grover, the balding, gray-ponytailed computer lab staffer who jumped on Khan and pulled his arm back, looks about six-foot-six and weighs maybe 280 pounds. “I assisted the officer,” he said, “but beyond saying anything else I think I should consult with the university first…. Basically, someone doesn’t want to take responsibility for his actions, and I’m not inclined to help them do that.”

Last semester, the counterrecruiting protest movement was just getting warmed up. New York’s City College; William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey; San Francisco State University; and the University of California-Santa Cruz all saw confrontations that resulted in varying degrees of police and/or administrative action against counterrecruitment protesters. Though it’s still early in the 2005-06 school year, the counterrecruiting movement has picked up serious steam nationwide, and is being met with angry–sometimes violent–reactions. “It’s getting really ugly,” says Liz Rivera Goldstein, chair of the National Network Opposing Militarization of Youth and a mother of two draft-age sons.

The same week that Khan was arrested, student protesters in Wisconsin and western Massachusetts were met with similar displays of force. Ultimately, though, it may be Holyoke Community College (HCC), located in one of Massachusetts’s poorest towns, the predominantly Puerto Rican Holyoke, that has recruiters the most worried. Protests against military recruitment may not be welcomed by recruiters on campuses in Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Madison or Manhattan, but they’re not unexpected. These campuses, based in deeply liberal areas, have a strong sense of community and a proud history of protest. Besides, well-educated liberals don’t necessarily make the most fertile soil for recruitment. Says Holyoke sophomore Charles Peterson, “It’s OK for Amherst or Hampshire College to have politics, but once working-class students start protesting, then state cops in riot gear get called in.”

Community college students tend to be less affluent than their four-year peers, making them easier targets for the low-wage military. “That’s why [recruiters] prey on HCC,” says Peterson, 24, a student senate vice president, citing the school’s large Hispanic and African-American populations. “They’re everywhere on campus.” Compounding their vulnerability, community colleges are less organized, for the simple reasons that the tenure of students rarely runs past two years and students commute to class instead of living on campus. Mobilizing a fleeting class of impoverished commuters would try a professional organizer’s mettle–for 20-year-olds the challenge is daunting. So Army National Guard recruiters may have been a bit disturbed to see fifteen to twenty protesters from the Antiwar Coalition–a chapter of the Campus Antiwar Network–surround their table on September 29 at HCC, the same day Tariq Khan was being dragged out of the George Mason University student center.

The protest had been preannounced; state police in riot gear were waiting for them, say demonstrators. Boxes marked “gas masks” sat on the ground nearby. It was a show of force stronger than the four-year schools have seen. Accounts vary as to what exactly happened, but the chaos ensued when campus police chief Peter Mascaro grabbed a sign from a student. The college claims the sign had a wooden stick taped to it, making it inappropriate for the demonstration. The students say video footage clearly shows there was no stick. Mascaro’s reaction, they say, was to the sign’s admittedly provocative content: “Cops Are Hypocrites.”

Peterson won’t comment on what happened because of possible criminal charges, but HCC spokesperson Erica Broman claims he told the college he was trying to help the student whose sign was grabbed from falling. According to Broman, he grabbed and bruised an officer’s arm. “The officer gave him pepper spray, which, of course, subdued him,” Broman says. Peterson was banned from campus. A student who witnessed the pepper-spraying rejects the university’s claim, as do accounts of the incident online. The student asked not to be identified. “They recognized that I was in a leadership position and attacked me when they got the opportunity,” says Peterson, who is an outspoken critic of the war on campus. A week later, nearby University of Massachusetts-Amherst students jointly organized a march with their Holyoke counterparts in support of Peterson, who has since been allowed back on campus.

Peterson says he has been told that criminal charges have been filed, but he has not received official notice of them. Khan, who is married, faces a November 14 court date and is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. It was during his last year in the military, he says, when he was stationed at Osan Air Base in Korea, that he first became politically aware. “There were a lot of protests outside the base,” he says, “and they were always chanting, ‘Yankees go home!’ ” I wondered, Why are we here, if they don’t even want us here?” He says he began reading Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, and began questioning the military system. “I had always known there were a lot of jerks around, but I didn’t recognize the whole system behind it, why all these people are jerks.” He has since written a pamphlet based on his Air Force experiences–“3 Good Reasons Not to Join the Military.”

On September 26, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, about twenty-five student protesters were threatened with arrest as they peaceably assembled at a CIA/Marine/Air Force recruiting table during a job fair. They were told by police they were violating campus policy, says Ben Ratliffe, a senior and member of the campus Stop the War Coalition, but they wouldn’t say which policy. “I’m not going to debate you on this. You have three minutes before you’re all arrested,” Ratliffe, a cultural anthropology major, says the officer told the group. When he and his partners reached for their handcuffs, the group ran out of the building. The students returned to similarly greet Navy recruiters on October 10, and were met by fifteen to twenty cops. “They were ready,” says Ratliffe. He says they were given the same vague threat and left again. Dennis Chaptman, a school spokesperson, says the students violated section 18.06(30) of the code, which covers pretty much anything: “No person may engage in violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, unreasonably loud or otherwise disorderly conduct under circumstances in which the conduct tends to cause or provoke a disturbance, in university buildings or on university lands.”

At UC-Santa Cruz last spring, student protests against the war caused recruiters to leave a job fair. With the momentum from that victory, students set up a tent city at the university’s gates; one of its goals was to permanently bar recruiters from campus. Police arrested nineteen people the first night. And at San Francisco State University, two antiwar groups were sanctioned for what members described as petty, trumped-up charges that stemmed from demonstrations they held against Air Force and Army Corps of Engineers recruiters. The groups are still on probation, and had university funding pulled. According to student organizer Kristin Anderson, a junior with Students Against War, three campus leaders–Michael Hoffman, Katrina Yeaw and Pardis Esmali–are currently facing disciplinary action on similarly trumped-up, bureaucratic charges. “When it comes down to it, the university doesn’t want us protesting on campus,” she says. Plans are already under way to protest Marine recruiters set to hit campus on October 27.

Peterson, Khan and others say their movement won’t relent until recruiters are completely banned from the nation’s educational campuses. They’ve got a long way to go. Erica Broman says HCC is unwilling to jeopardize the $7 million it gets annually in federal dollars, which it would lose if it banned recruiters. Spokespersons from GMU, UC-Santa Cruz and Madison–all of them public, perhaps not coincidentally–expressed the same concern.

“It’s not just Madison or Mason or Holyoke. It’s a national trend,” says Madison senior Ben Ratliffe. “They’re missing their recruiting numbers. It’s a massively unpopular war. They certainly don’t want a movement like this to take hold.”

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