For protesters, it's marks not Marx
Global concerns for new generation of campus activists
By Frank Ahrens
THE WASHINGTON POST
April 20 - The door of Bernard Pollack's apartment at George Washington
University is covered with "No More NAFTAs" signs. You knock, ready to meet
a campus hippie. Instead, Pollack is wearing a dress shirt and tie, hair
neatly combed behind his ears.
"WE'VE GOT to dress like this," he explained, "because there's less of a
chance of getting caught."
Pollack's girlfriend has applied the cultural camouflage too:
A "Bush" campaign button is pinned to her red backpack.
Last Friday, Pollack, 20, a sophomore majoring in international affairs,
and three friends piled into a car and headed for the Canadian border in
Vermont. Their target:
This weekend's Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, and the Free Trade
Area of the Americas treaty (FTAA), a hemispheric pact they believe will
help corporations at the expense of poorer nations.
Pollack and his friends are the faces of campus activism in the 21st
century: Articulate, well-off, predominantly white, techno-savvy,
impressively well-informed and nondoctrinaire it's hard to find students
mouthing Mao and Marx. Today's activists do more volunteer work than their
predecessors, yet they are driven students who know that a high grade point
average is crucial for good jobs and graduate school. With finals only a
couple of weeks away, Pollack and his friends are taking textbooks to
The protesters of the 21st century do not have a single galvanizing aim,
such as ending the war in Vietnam, or a defining moral crusade, such as the
antiapartheid protests of the 1980s to convince companies to stop doing
business in South Africa. Today's causes are more nebulous, more nuanced
than the issues of years past, but in some ways more far-reaching:
pragmatic issues of environmentalism, human rights, and Third World
"This is not an ideological movement," said Craig Rimmerman, professor of
political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., and
author of a book on campus activism. "It is one rooted in issues of justice
and fairness and dignity. These young people are very much concerned about
other people who are less fortunate and how they're being treated in
politics and corporate decisions that have negative impacts."
WEB OF CONCERNS
"Globalization" is the umbrella cause of much of this generation's campus
activism. The protest signs at almost every current demonstration "Save
the Environment," "Forgive Third World Debt," "Boycott Unocal" and even
"Free Mumia Abu-Jamal" (the former journalist and convicted cop-killer on
death row in Pennsylvania) can all be traced to globalization by an
elaborate connect-the-dots that seems to elude the news media and skeptics.
For Pollack and like-minded activists, the FTAA is another wrong-headed
step toward what they see as the worldwide spread of corporate rule at the
expense of poorer nations. Last year's World Bank/International Monetary
Fund meetings here in Washington were picketed for the same general
reasons. "Fair trade, not free trade," demonstrators chant.
"I couldn't explain the World Bank in a sound bite," Pollack said,
emphasizing the complexity of the interlocking causes. Peace and prosperity
have removed war and depression from the protest realm, and their bumper
sticker-simple slogans. Today's issues require a "multiplatform," they say.
Pollack's apartment is packed with friends and fellow-travelers to Quebec,
and they list their objections to the FTAA, in the protest language of
" . . . the biocorps are patenting foods . . . "
" . . . impossible for generic AIDS drugs to be
produced . . . "
" . . . giving corporations the right to sue nations . . . "
A NEW GENERATION
Such pockets of protest exist on numerous campuses, touching on many
topics. An anti-sweatshop rally at George Washington drew 750 people
earlier this month. Earlier this week, students at more than 90
universities including the University of Virginia fasted for a day to
protest corporations doing business in military-controlled Burma.
Yale University students plan a protest against the FTAA, as do student
groups at Humboldt State University in California, the University of
Georgia, Virginia Tech, Ohio State, DePauw, the University of Wisconsin at
Madison and a dozen other schools, according to an anti-FTAA Web site.
Some of today's activists have strong bloodlines. Pollack's mother,
Barbara Kain, 50, grew up in Montreal in the '60s and persuaded her parents
to house American draft dodgers. At 19, she protested the Vietnam War in
Washington and finds it no small irony that her son attends college in the
city where she was arrested for demonstrating. Her son was an organizer
from an early age; he staged a cancer walkathon at age 12. She thinks
things are tougher on today's activists.
"He told me the other day, 'Mom, you fought with flowers. We're fighting
with gas masks,' " Kain said by telephone from Canada. (Mother's indulgence
stopped her from reminding her son of Kent State.) "I think today, the kids
are protesting bigger-time stuff than we did," she added.
No hard data exist showing whether there is more or less campus activism
now than in Kain's day, however that might be judged, Rimmerman said. The
traditional hotbeds of campus activism Berkeley, Antioch, Columbia remain
such, as students pick up new causes through the generations.
Today's students go straight for the multinational institutions such as
the IMF and the corporations, which they say wield the power of
nation-states. Further, they recognize, today's issues are more
complicated, with more gradations of right and wrong. For instance, on the
topic of free trade, today's students understand that NAFTA-style pacts
"You have to ask yourself: Is 8 cents an hour worse than no cents an hour?"
said Nolen Gertz, 19, a George Washington University philosophy sophomore
helping to send off Pollack. "Of course not. The question is: What is the
cost of creating jobs?"
Such complexities have caused some rifts within the movement. The anarchist
"Black Bloc," largely responsible for violence in Seattle during the 1999
World Trade Organization meetings, condemns the mainstream activists for
working within the system, rather than smashing it.
Despite internal differences, most of today's campus activists are united
by one important trait, another researcher said.
"These people are much better informed than the activists of the '60s,"
said Gary Weaver, an American University professor of international
relations and author of a book on campus radicalism.
The Internet and e-mail give today's activists an information-gathering and
organizational network that their parents lacked. During last year's World
Bank demonstrations, protesters coordinated activities via cell phones,
pagers and instant messaging devices. Pollack's group took a cell phone to
Internet access to primary source material such as Securities and Exchange
Commission documents helped American University activists in their
successful effort to get Sodexho Marriott Services Inc. kicked off campus.
The activists collected 900 signatures on petitions and won the support of
the student government and several faculty members. The new food vendor
takes over in July.
In hindsight, '60s campus activism looked pretty simple in the writing of
history, students were either for the System or against it. The Marriott
fight illustrates the complex nature of today's protests: The AU students
protested Marriott's presence on campus because its largest shareholder,
Sodexho Alliance, a French company, is also a minority shareholder in the
Corrections Corporation of America, operators of private prisons. Private
prisons, the students said, have worse conditions than state-run prisons.
Further, the students oppose private prisons in principle because it is in
the interest of the prisons to favor tougher crime laws and longer
sentences in lieu of rehabilitation, they say.
"We had to do the hard work, because if we didn't, there goes the
credibility of the movement," said Kevin Owen, 22, a political science
senior who helped lead the Sodexho protest. By nature, Owen dresses so
conservatively he jokes that his activist friends call him a "narc."
At AU, said Owen, about 25 students form the core of most activist
movements. Operating out of the basement of the Kay Spiritual Life Center,
alongside Muslim and Jewish student group headquarters, they hang out in
the tiny Community Action and Social Justice office. The walls are covered
with slogans and posters, denouncing guns, meat, corporate sweatshops,
racism and so forth. Some members of the group consult lists of "approved
manufacturers" before they buy an item of apparel.
About a half-dozen AU students from this group planned to go to Quebec
City in clean-cut disguise, like the GWU protesters. Shauna Stribula, 20,
a freshman, said she was going to "wear a skirt, take out my piercings,
take a big wad of cash and tell [the border guards] I'm going to the casinos."
And, like many of their compatriots, the AU students are somewhat flummoxed
by their inability to summon a single, simple slogan that doesn't sound
like a grad-level economics course.
"There are so many underlying issues human rights, the environment,
trade," said Ali DiMatteo, 22, a senior political science major. "It makes
this a difficult movement to label."
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