---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 13 Nov 2001 12:04:44 -0800
From: radtimes <email@example.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
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
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
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
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
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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