When most Americans think of student activism, they are likely to recall the Port Huron Statement of 1962, UC-Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement in the mid-1960s, Kent State in 1970, the antiapartheid and Central American solidarity protests of the 1980s or the more recent fights against sweatshop labor on campus. But this past week here at Princeton University suggests that the list needs updating.
Since Tuesday, April 26, at 11 AM, hundreds of Princeton students have engaged in more than 130 hours of continuous reading, singing and even freestyle rapping in front of the Frist Student Center, donated by the family of Senate majority leader Bill Frist, a graduate of Princeton’s class of 1973. The protest began after a group of progressive students decided that we had an opportunity to make a symbolic statement about the fight over the filibuster in the Senate. Students flocked to sign up once it began, curious as to what we were doing outside one of the busiest buildings on campus. Taking half-hour shifts, we have recited from the Princeton University student phonebook (through the middle of the Bs), the Declaration of Independence, Shakespeare’s plays, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, physics textbooks (exams are around the corner, so we’re trying to multitask) and Supreme Court opinions. We’ve used a megaphone to amplify songs, including “Hava Nagila,” “O Solo Mio” and the Princeton University fight song. We’ve endured rain, cold weather and harassment by inebriated Republicans. Yet we still continue to speak nonstop, hour after hour, fueled by coffee, pizza, cereal and seemingly boundless energy.
We’re also fueled by a strong belief that Senator Frist’s attempt to eliminate the filibuster of extremist judicial nominees constitutes a democracy-threatening encroachment on the rights of the minority and almost every progressive achievement of the past 100 years. Senate Democrats have worked with Republicans to confirm 204 of the President’s 214 federal court nominees. Nonetheless, Frist is upset because Democrats have decided to filibuster ten of these nominees–a group that, collectively, holds a vision of American society devoid of consumer protections, civil rights legislation and fair labor laws.
But the filibuster stands as one of the only protections for the minority party in the Senate. As Congressman Rush Holt, who filibustered in front of the Frist Center this past Friday, reminded us, “Any fool can design a government run by the majority. In fact, almost by definition, the majority can get what it wants. What is very, very hard is to design a government, self-governed by the people, representing majority rule, that protects the rights of minorities.”
Even if all the President’s disputed nominees were to be confirmed through Senator Frist’s “nuclear option,” the Princeton filibuster will have been a success. It has energized the progressive movement on this campus and has shown the nation that college students are engaged in politics and care deeply about the issues–contrary to what the pundits like to say about youth apathy. Moreover, it has given individual students a sense of empowerment–a feeling that they have a voice, even as first-time voters and political constituents, and that their vision for an America that continues to aspire toward the dream of its founders must and will be heard.
As one participant told me, “I filibustered because I want to believe that we really are a democracy.” Bill Frist, are you listening?