[sixties-l] The Making of a Student Activist (fwd)

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Date: Wed Nov 14 2001 - 01:02:17 EST

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    Date: Tue, 13 Nov 2001 12:04:44 -0800
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: The Making of a Student Activist

    The Making of a Student Activist

    By Abby Ellin
    November 11, 2001 New York Times

    Half a Century of Student Protest

    In many ways, Ryan Nuckel is a typical student activist: he
    doesn't take drugs, he rarely drinks, and he is fueled by a nagging anger
    over the fact that there are haves and have-nots, oppressors and the
    oppressed. He and his fellow insurgents would never consider themselves a
    counterculture: Hippies turned on and dropped out. He doesn't want to drop
    out. He just wants change.

    For Mr. Nuckel, activism was a slow evolution, simmering under
    the surface until he arrived two years ago at New York University. He grew
    up in Babylon, a mostly white middle-class Long Island town, listening to
    the music of Radiohead and Nirvana and reading the speeches of Martin Luther
    King Jr. and anything by Kurt Vonnegut when the assignment was the
    Federalist Papers. His father is a general contractor and his mother works
    in a print shop. Both are Republicans.

    "I was a typical teenager," he says, "greedy, narcissistic,
    cynical and alienated. You grow up in that, and then you become that, and
    it's awful. I felt really alone. And then something happens, I don't know
    what it is, and you realize that it doesn't have to be that way."

    Now 20 and a junior at N.Y.U., Mr. Nuckel is studying history
    with an eye toward writing. He wears the standard student uniform: baggy
    jeans, black-and-white Adidases and a flannel shirt. He is tall and skinny
    with an angular face and chronically disheveled hair. He thinks about his
    words carefully, he likes "love," "solidarity," "unity" and
    "justice," along with "beautiful" as in "Unity is beautiful" and
    "Solidarity is beautiful"and then lets them out in a torrent.

    Sitting in an East Village cafe over one of many cups of black
    coffee, he searches for the roots of his unrest. He remembers his paternal
    grandmother, who died five years ago at age 63.

    "She died with nothing, no money," he says evenly. "My
    grandfather died when my dad was 10 or 11, so she raised five kids by
    herself, working three jobs with welfare, doing whatever a woman with
    minimal qualifications and skills can do, a secretary, a phone switch
    operator, working in restaurants."

    "When I hear about them kicking welfare mothers off the dole, I
    think of my grandmother and my father. How can you be that inhumane? It's a
    small step from there to sweatshop workers who make 25 cents per $100 shoe,
    or the workers from the greengrocers who made $2 and $3 an hour."

    Mr. Nuckel wants to know: "Why do bad things happen to good
    people? Why do people's lives have to be miserable?"

    MR. Nuckel is one of the leaders of Students for Social Equality
    (technically no one runs ita hierarchy would not be sufficiently
    democratic). The organization, founded in 1994 in response to the Republican
    initiative Contract With America, is one of 308 registered with New York
    University's Office of Student Activities. S.S.E. has 300 members and a
    broad agenda of progressive social concerns, with a mission statement
    calling for "alternatives to the politics of conformity, selfish
    individualism and complacency."

    Members' political interests intersect at various points: the
    group is affiliated with the national organization United Students Against
    Sweatshops, and a student might also be involved in the Campus Greens, a
    youth adjunct of Ralph Nader's party, or the Womyn's Center, a feminist
    group. (Overlap is a fairly common occurrence; even the Cartoon Lovers club
    co-sponsored an evening with the Democratic Socialists of America. The two
    groups watched the 1983 film "Smurfs and the Magic Flute," discussed
    communism and ate a Smurf-shaped Carvel ice cream cake.)

    With a guiding hand provided by unions in need of recruits to
    push their concerns, students across the nation are increasingly engaged in
    such organized resistance, especially to issues that can be interpreted on
    campus: better wages for workers, or unionizing teaching assistants.
    Students are directing their famous idealism and agitation at the gap
    between rich and poor and the global tentacles of American corporations,
    staging hunger strikes at Purdue or clothing-optional protests at the
    University of North Carolina (at an "I'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear
    Sweatshop" party). The bumper sticker of the day might borrow from the
    environmental maxim "Think globally, act locally." And the campaigns have
    been effective: Consciousness has been raised and university policies

    In 2001, the American bombing of Afghanistan shifted the agenda,
    though which political viewpoint will prevail on campuses, antiwar or
    pro-administration, is not immediately clear.

    But what has surely emerged in the last few years is an ardor
    not seen for several decades.

    "A lot of factors have contributed to the new activism," says
    Robert Butler, the director of N.Y.U. student activities. "One is the push
    for students to become involved in community service. There's probably a
    direct connection between seeing a problem and seeing constructive ways of
    getting involved in the problem. More issues have come up that students can
    really get a handle on, like sweatshops and the Graduate Student Union. The
    catalyst for that has been a much more savvy group of students in terms of
    their understanding of the issues, how to work within the system to try to
    affect change and how to work outside of the system to also put pressure on
    those who can make change."

    In the incubator that is a college campus, where members of a
    generation are geographically collected for the last time, peer pressure and
    shared current events motivate activism far more than political leanings,
    according to Ben Park, an assistant professor of human development and
    family studies at Penn State. He recently completed a study of student
    activism in South Korea and is now surveying American campuses. Students who
    are active in social organizations are more likely to get involved in
    protests because of what Dr. Park calls the "age-cohort effect," an idea
    that refutes the profile of insurgent as misfit.

    Like most college students, core members of Students for Social
    Equality, the 30 or so who show up for weekly meetings, travel in a
    pack. They grapple with the same existential dread. Although a serious lot,
    they go to parties, listen to loud music, admire David Lynch and Bob Dylan,
    and worry about their relationships. Mostly, though, they drink coffee,
    smoke cigarettes and organize. They are sure that they can influence the
    world around them, and that they are right.

    "I was raised to think that way," says Katie Griffiths, a
    20-year-old history major. Ms. Griffiths, the daughter of a doctor and a
    civil rights lawyer in Houston, first organized a protest while she was
    still in high school. After administrators adopted a dress code, she
    persuaded 700 of the school's 750 students to write letters, co-signed by
    their parents, asking that it be rescinded. It was.

    "That was my first real opportunity to see that I could have an
    effect on things," she says, clicking a metal bar pierced through her
    tongue. After spending her freshman year at Haverford College, she decided
    that the campus felt too small and quiet, and she transferred to N.Y.U. "I
    can't separate my politics from my life," she says. "The two are
    completely intertwined."

    Corey Eastwood, another S.S.E. member, became active in high
    school after reading the radical historian Howard Zinn and watching his
    father, who works for Con Edison, commute three hours a day to his job. "I
    was never able to spend much time with him because he was always working,"
    says Mr. Eastwood, 20, a redhead with a silver ring piercing his nostrils
    like a tiny cowbell. "That got me interested in workers' rights."

    Last year, Mr. Eastwood took a semester off to work on Ralph
    Nader's presidential campaign. Now he is on the steering committee of the
    national Campus Greens, of which there are more than 100 chapters.

    Mr. Nuckel credits a former girlfriend, Sabrina Lee, with
    awakening the activist within him. She was a member of the Womyn's Center
    and S.S.E. The couple would talk and debate.

    "She had hope and I didn't, which is a common thing for people
    wanting to see change but not knowing how to get it," he says. "I'd always
    felt that your beliefs were one thing and your actions another."

    Motivated by the peaceful protesters among the rioters in
    Seattle at a demonstration against the World Trade Organization, he realized
    there was a place for him in that world. In April 2000, he joined 42 other
    N.Y.U. students in Washington to condemn World Bank policies that they think
    allow corporations to run amok without accountability.

    For him, the scene in Washington was "amazing." He didn't do
    much except watch, but what he saw overwhelmed him. "I've never seen that
    many thousands of people except at a rock concert," he says. "It was
    amazing how many people were out acting on their beliefs and coming
    together. It was beautiful."

    He joined S.S.E. last fall because it was the progressive
    organization on campus with the highest profile, and was actively involved
    in labor issues: monitoring N.Y.U.'s dealings with apparel companies
    suspected of using sweatshops, helping with graduate students' unionizing
    efforts, and organizing Manhattan deli workers, 95 percent of whom are

    "That was the best campaign we've done," he says. "They're
    immigrants, earning $2 or $3 an hour with no health benefits, working under
    abominable conditions. Most are from Puebla, Mexico, which is where one of
    the Nike factories we organized around is. It brought home what the point of
    the globalization stuff is, that the world is interconnected. The Nike
    factory workers have relatives who work at the delis here."

    Most of the protests have been fairly peaceful, although members
    of Students for Social Equality were detained and cited for trespassing at
    the School of the Americas, a training center at Fort Benning in Columbus,
    Ga. Graduates include Gen. Manuel Noriega of Panama and others connected to
    human rights abuses in their countries.

    Last November, Mr. Nuckel and about 20 others from N.Y.U. rented
    two vans and drove to the base, plunked down crosses bearing the names of
    "murdered victims of terrorist regimes" and sang songs. "It was a really
    beautiful protest, really spiritual," he says.

    But the military police didn't think so, and fingerprinted them.
    If they step onto the base again, they will be arrested.

    "Yeah," he says, "I'd go to jail or fast or go through some
    discomfort for what I believe in, absolutely. I already do."

    Mr. Nuckel spends 12 to 15 hours a week as a paid intern in
    Brooklyn with the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a reform group within
    the Teamsters, and attends nightly meetings for various causes. A B student,
    he takes two classes a day, four days a week. He is prone to headaches, and
    figures he sleeps about four hours a night.

    When school opened in September, S.S.E. was busy recruiting new
    members. Plans for the fall semester included heading back to the School of
    the Americas in November and unionizing security guards. But after the
    events of Sept. 11, their agenda took a radical new turn: protesting a war,
    before one even began.

    It is 10 days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. In the basement
    of 16 Waverly Place, New York University's undergraduate student center,
    students gather for the first meeting of a group tentatively called N.Y.U.
    Peace Coalition, one of dozens of similar organizations emerging on campuses
    across the country.

    Nearly 120 people, most of them undergraduates, show up:
    African-American students, Asian students, Arab students, a United Nations
    of college kids.

    True to their democratic ideals, no one is in charge, although
    S.S.E. has called the meeting. Mr. Nuckel sets up the room, arranging chairs
    and welcoming people, many of whom have only recently returned to dorm rooms
    near the collapsed World Trade Center towers.

    "How you doing, man?" he says repeatedly, shaking newcomers'

    While people straggle in, a young man tapes an oversized flip
    chart to a portable blackboard. On it is the agenda of the meeting: 5
    minutes will be devoted to an introduction, 15 minutes to group discussion,
    10 minutes to explain the process, 25 minutes to unity, 15 minutes to
    groups, and 5 minutes to announcements.

    Three student facilitators sit before the crowd. Everything will
    be done by consensus. The group will discuss every point and then vote. If
    one person dissents, the issue will be up for debate again. "We're all
    leaders, we are all empowered to lead this group," Mr. Eastwood begins.
    "Everyone's voice will be heard."

    To start, the students are asked to share why they are here.
    Justice, peace, civil liberties and racism are some of the reasons tossed

    "We all agree that something must be done, like a change in
    U.S. foreign policy, not bombing innocent people," says Mr. Eastwood.

    There is a lot of raging against the machine.

    "They're taking away liberty and defending it at the same
    time," says one student.

    "You can't be antiviolence in America and pro-violence in other
    countries!" says another.

    "Bush's view of justice is not the right view," says a third.
    "Bin Laden was trained by the C.I.A.!"

    A Japanese woman raises her hand. "I'm afraid of a second Pearl
    Harbor," she says softly. "Entire cities were destroyed, 300,000 people
    were killed. I really appreciate your participation here."

    The room explodes with applause.

    Throughout the evening, Mr. Nuckel, wearing a black and yellow
    T-shirt bearing the words "Union Democracy for a Strong Labor Movement,"
    nods his head and claps softly. He surveys the crowd and smiles. "It's a
    really beautiful room to be in right now," he says. "Everybody's
    brilliant. I love it. It gives me hope."

    The group then tries to name the coalition and say what it
    stands for. Are they pro-peace or antiwar? What are the ramifications of
    "pro" and "anti"? Should they focus solely on the World Trade Center, or
    use broader language?

    Finally they decide: They are for peace and against war and
    racist scapegoating; in favor of defending civil liberties and for social
    and economic justice on a global scale, and for education.

    Everyone agrees on all but one point.

    "We don't have to worry about justice, we'll let God take care
    of it," one woman says.

    Pandemonium breaks out. God? Who brought God into the room?

    "I associate justice with punishment," the woman says. "We
    need to quantify what justice is."

    "It's equity," says Ms. Griffiths.

    "It's peace," another student says.

    "Well, you can have peace without justice," another points

    "It's an important question, justice instead of retaliation,"
    Mr. Nuckel says. "But what does justice mean?"

    They decide to focus on that question in future meetings, and
    students sign up for working groups.

    Before they disperse, a boy in the back of the room stands up.
    "Tonight is the beginning of Yom Kippur, and I just want to say that I
    can't think of a better way to atone for my sins and the sins my country is
    about to commit than this."

    The group bursts into applause. Mr. Nuckel is elated.

    At noon on Sept. 29, about 200 people gather at Bryant Park:
    1960's throwbacks, socialists passing out literature, homeless people
    selling newspapers. There is a peace march on Washington, and those who
    couldn't go will march in Manhattan, from Bryant Park to Union Square.

    Mr. Nuckel is visibly annoyed at the low turnout, especially
    from N.Y.U., as well as the fragmented agenda. He rifles through his pocket
    and hands $2 to a homeless man selling The Street News for $1.

    "Everybody's got their leaflets and newspapers and not
    everyone's talking to each other and it shouldn't be," he says, folding the
    newspaper into his backpack. "The way it's been the last few weeks
    everyone's a community, that's how it should be. Union Square after Sept.
    11 was this magical place of unity. I was hoping it was going to stay like
    that forever."

    He spots a friend, Yoon Soo Byun, a senior N.Y.U. journalism
    major, and enfolds him in a bear hug. "What do you think?" he asks.

    His friend glances around. "I thought there would be an avenue
    cleared for us."

    Mr. Nuckel smirks. "Yeah, well, it ain't St. Patty's Day."

    Then he finds some more friends, and soon the entire group heads
    down the Avenue of the Americas waving placards"War is not the
    answer!"and chanting "Bombs will not bring peace!"

    Police officers silently walk alongside the group, moving them
    along. "We're supposed to be digging downtown and they got us here for
    these people?" says one officer angrily, using expletives. "They're
    dividing the force for this?"

    Sabrina Lee is exasperated by his words. "We're not doing this
    to take away from any effort!" she shouts. "We don't want more families to
    die. Retaliation can only make this worse."

    Mr. Nuckel's face is ashen; he looks as if he is about to cry.
    "I'm afraid of things getting twisted around," he says. "We all want
    this" tragedy "never to happen again." He does not consider himself
    unpatriotic or even antipolice. "The whole country cried for the police and
    firemen, and they were heroes," he says. "The aftermath was filled with
    such compassion."

    Another march, this one organized by a citywide antiwar group,
    is planned for the following week. As it turns out, it is also the day
    President Bush sends the first round of missiles into Afghanistan. Thousands
    of people, as many as 10,000 according to some estimates, show up. At
    least 30 protesters from N.Y.U. gather in a knot.

    "I can't believe they did this," Ms. Griffiths says. "The
    bombing of major cities is not what they said they were going to do. A lot
    of people died today for no reason. But the idea that people are concerned
    and want peace, that made me hopeful. There was an antiwar movement before
    there was even a war. That's pretty novel."

    She is asked what the government should do. "I'm only 20," she
    says. "It's not my job to figure it all out. I just know what's right and
    what's wrong."

    Mr. Nuckel is subdued, his voice hoarse from chanting. "My dad
    called me up and said, ^A'We had to do something,' and I said, 'That's what
    the Taliban said with the World Trade Center.' You fight for a democracy by
    killing people?"

    He shakes his head. This must be how the antiwar protesters of
    the 60's felt, like no one listened no matter how loud you shouted. He is
    dejected by the pro-administration demonstrations that are being staged on
    campuses to counteract the antiwar demonstrations, but he and his friends
    are energized by their mission.

    The unity reminds him of one of his favorite authors, Jose
    Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner. Mr. Nuckel has read his novel
    "Blindness" three times. "It would be a beautiful book to read now,
    actually," he says. "One day, everyone goes blind. They can't explain why,
    it just spreads like an epidemic. This small group of people who never knew
    each other just gets together. No matter how lost and confused everyone is,
    there's always love and solidarity."
    Abby Ellin writes a monthly column about young people for the
    Money & Business section of The Times

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