Seeds of Protest Growing on College Campuses

October 12, 2002

BOSTON, Oct. 10
Mike McLinn never showed the faintest interest in political protest, but he has plunged headfirst into the effort to prevent an American attack against Iraq.

On Tuesday night, Mr. McLinn, a senior at Northeastern University, went to a planning meeting for a citywide demonstration on Nov. 3. Wednesday night, he went to the Boston Mobilization office, where two dozen students from Boston University and Boston College talked about the "No War, No Way" Walk for Peace on Oct. 20. Mr. McLinn, a computer studies major, has also been meeting with other campus groups to explore joint actions.

"The only thing I ever did on campus was run the outdoors club, which is about having fun," Mr. McLinn said. "But this is about saving lives. We're talking about attacking Iraq, attacking first, which is something this country's never done before. We're turning into an imperialist power. So for the first time, I made the decision to act on my angst."

As the threat of military action against Iraq looms, students across the country are talking about the possibility of war. The first stirrings of an antiwar movement are emerging, even as a few conservative students who support the president are starting to organize.

"We've made a board with all these pins on it, showing where there have been demonstrations or teach-ins, or where there are things planned, and we have more than 135 campuses in 35 states," said Martha Honey of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, who has been helping organize student protests against military action. "It's growing exponentially, each day."

The movement against an attack on Iraq is still brand new, and most of the student actions have been small, attracting 100 people on one campus, 300 on another. It remains to be seen whether a powerful antiwar movement will emerge in the absence of a draft or, for that matter, a war.

Then, too, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, many Americans, of every age, support tough action to prevent terrorism. According to a New York Times/CBS News Poll released this week, most Americans under 30 share the rest of the nation's views of the president's policies they are generally supportive. But younger Americans are the most opposed to a pre-emptive strike, and most likely to think that a war between the United States and Iraq would spread to other countries in the Middle East.

As recently as two months ago, on many campuses, only a handful of Muslim students and foreign policy professors were thinking about Iraq. But since late September, more than 10,000 faculty members at universities across the country have signed an online letter opposing an invasion, posted on the Web site Students from anti-globalization groups and humanitarian groups are now forming antiwar coalitions with peace groups, Muslim student associations and others.

"My group, Stop the War!, is working with Amnesty International, the Greens, the Student Labor Action Coalition, the Muslim students, all kinds of groups," said Josh Healey, a University of Wisconsin freshman who helped organize a teach-in Tuesday and a rally Wednesday. "When I was handing out leaflets, all kinds of people were saying, like: `Thanks a lot. We don't want to go to war about Iraq, but we didn't know what to do.' "

The speed of the antiwar mobilization has struck some longtime college presidents. "Students are engaging very, very quickly with Iraq," said Nancy Dye, the president of Oberlin College. "This morning I was struck by a very large sign on top of an academic building, saying, `Say No to War in Iraq.' A new student organization has gotten itself together, and I don't even know if they have a name yet. There wasn't anything like this during the first gulf war, when I was president at Vassar."

But such activity is not seen everywhere: "So far, people seem to be worrying more about the economy and the sniper," said Stephen Trachtenberg, the president of George Washington University. "You talk to undergrads and they don't have any memory of Vietnam. Activism is something their parents tell them about."

At many campuses, support for military action against Iraq has been muted or nonexistent. But that, too, may be changing. Late last month, Joe Fairbanks founded the Stanford College Republicans to give conservative students at his mostly liberal campus a place to voice support for the Bush policies. The group, with 200 members, is now planning a teach-in.

"We knew that military action was likely soon, and wanted to give students who supported it some way to show that to the rest of the students. Military action has become the only way to solve this problem," said Mr. Fairbanks, a sophomore at Stanford University.

At the University of Texas too, conservatives are planning political actions. "The Campus Coalition for Peace and Justice has had a couple of antiwar rallies here, and university campuses always have more antiwar feeling than America in general," said Austin Kinghorn, public affairs director of the Young Conservatives of Texas. "But I think a lot of students here are still unsure. We're going to set up a debate with the coalition people, and I think that will get a huge turnout."

Last year, the noisiest issue on campus was Israeli-Palestinian relations. That tension remains: At the University of Michigan this weekend, hundreds of students from more than 70 universities are gathering to discuss a campaign for divestment from companies that do business in Israel, a campaign intended to paint Israel in the racist colors of apartheid South Africa.

On most campuses, the threat of war with Iraq has now become the dominant political issue with teach-ins and protests so common that prominent academics cannot meet the demand for their presence.

"I organized the Monday night forum at UMass-Amherst," said Michael Klare, a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and defense correspondent for The Nation. "I did M.I.T. last week. And then over the next two weeks, I'll be speaking at Springfield College, Western New England College and Simon's Rock. I've had to turn down CUNY and Hunter in New York, and Stanford and UC Santa Cruz."

On Monday, rallies were held at dozens of campuses nationwide, including Boston University, where students hung hundreds of paper dolls in Marsh Plaza, each one, they said, to represent 500 Iraqis killed since the Persian Gulf war as a result of either economic sanctions or bombing.

On Wednesday, a telephone line was set up at Georgetown University in Washington, and activists were stopping students between classes, and asking them to call their representatives in Congress to urge them to vote against allowing the president to go to war.

"I think there's a very strong antiwar feeling on campus," said Shadi Hamid, a Georgetown sophomore. "It wasn't so much an issue when we came back to school in August, but in the last two weeks there's been this new sense of urgency, and the issue has moved beyond the Muslim students."

Building an antiwar movement when students are not threatened by the draft is not easy. It may be particularly difficult in a generation that has little experience with political protest.

"Campus activism at Penn is a bit frustrating because it seems like most people agree with us," said Dan Fishback, a University of Pennsylvania senior. "I'll talk about the various reasons we shouldn't go to war, and they'll be, like, `Yeah, I'm totally with you.' But they're not, because they're not involved. They're so used to feeling helpless that it doesn't occur to them to be outraged."

Copyright The New York Times Company


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