Students Wrestle With War

by Lisa Featherstone

The Nation magazine, December 17, 2001


It's uncomfortable, wet and disgusting," laughs Yomaira Tamayo cheerfully, "but I'm sleeping." Tamayo, a freshman, is one of thirty-five University of Pennsylvania students sleeping in tents on College Green, the main thoroughfare of the campus, to call attention to the role of US bombing in Afghanistan's humanitarian crisis. Asked how many fellow students agree with her group's position on the war, Tamayo admits, "Not a lot. This is a pretty conservative campus."

Her school is conservative, but hardly unique in its hawkishness. A study conducted in mid-October by Harvard University's Institute of Politics found that nearly four in five college students support the US bombing in Afghanistan. A recent New York Times article even featured war supporters at the University of Michigan's Eugene Debs House, the radical co-operative that housed this Nation writer for most of her own undergraduate years.

Given the unfriendly climate on campus, activists have had to be very thoughtful about how best to frame criticism of the US action in Afghanistan. "We have to accept that we are the minority," says Kelly Howland, a student at Massachusetts College of Art, who helped organize the recent antiwar conference at Boston University, "and really figure out how to appeal to the public." In a war that renders traditional left anti-interventionist arguments nonsensical to most Americans, including many on the left, it is difficult for activists even to agree with each other on the conflict's causes or on the reasons for opposition. In recent days, that problem has been compounded by the progress of the war itself. The airwaves have been flooded with optimistic images: women taking off their burqas, men shaving their beards, a cinema opening in Kabul. It is becoming increasingly tricky to know what people of conscience should advocate. "The first step is realizing you have a problem," jokes Christopher Cantor of the Berkeley Stop the War Coalition. "And I think the peace movement is doing that. The situation on the ground has completely changed, and we have just started to deal with it." To make matters more confusing, says Dana Brown of Cornell Students for a Peaceful Justice, "it is harder to get good information lately."

Still, among students, this war has inspired a far-flung and passionate opposition movement. The weekend of November 10, hundreds of student activists gathered at regional peace conferences at Boston University, Georgia State University, George Washington University, Chicago's De Paul University and the University of California, Berkeley, to plan campaigns and establish coalitions. (A similar conference of students in the Northwest is planned for early December.) Not all of these gatherings were successes; students found themselves divided, especially on questions of process, with anarchists and radical democrats favoring consensus and other forms of direct democracy, while others, especially members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), preferred majority rule. But on-campus organizing has been impressive. Students at the Universities of Indiana and Wisconsin, and Maui Community College, have established "peace camps" similar to the one at Penn, evoking the famous Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp, which lasted more than a decade after it was established in 1981 by British women protesting a NATO cruise-missile station. Others have held teach-ins, vigils and fasts.

This new peace activism, which has already touched at least 400 campuses, builds on networks and habits of dissent established by the student anticorporate movement, which has focused largely on economic justice, whether for the garment workers sewing college sweatshirts overseas or the dining hall workers students see every day. Many of the organizations-most notably Students Transforming and Resisting Corporations (STARC: prominent in those campaigns are equally visible in antiwar organizing.

But whereas recent high-profile student campaigns (those against sweatshops, for example) have tended to attract students from elite private schools and large state schools, the peace movement has extended to less predictable quarters, including rural Southern schools (North Carolina's Appalachian State University and the University of Southern Mississippi); historically black colleges like Morehouse; community colleges from Boston to Hawaii; urban public universities like CUNY and the University of Illinois, Chicago; and high schools and middle schools. A newly formed National Youth and Student Peace Coalition will startle anyone who imagines that all peace activists are white folk-music fans; it includes the youth division of the Black Radical Congress and the Muslim Student Association.

Many campus campaigns, like Tamayo's at Penn, had been emphasizing the hunger crisis, finding that, as in anti-sweatshop organizing, appeals to students' humanitarian sympathies are powerful. In Afghanistan, according to Oxfam, there are 7.5 million hungry people, 1.5 million of whom are children under 5. While it is true that the Taliban have obstructed relief organizations for years, many international aid agencies, including the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, agreed in October that the US bombings had made the situation even worse. Oxfam called for a pause in the bombing, "at least in some zones," so relief convoys could deliver food and other supplies to those in need. Activists found that by joining such calls, they could appeal to people who had never been to a political meeting. "This is something everyone can get behind," says Amy Warner of Clark University, "even people who want to kill everyone involved in September 11."

I he trouble with the peace movement is that we're always speaking to the choir," says U Mass activist Lisa DePiano, who, with other Catholic students, is organizing a twenty-four-hour fast beginning November 30 at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, intended to call attention to hunger in Afghanistan. "We always see the same people at teach-ins. The fast is a great way to get a wide range of people involved who are concerned about hunger. We are attracting not only typical anarchist lefties but conservative Catholics." The U Mass fast will be accompanied by an all-day discussion on world hunger. In addition to raising awareness on campus, DePiano hopes that visible action by Catholic students like herself will encourage church leaders to take a stand against the war.

Activists have also organized fasts at the Universities of Texas, Hawaii and at least twenty other schools; many participated in a national fast on November 7-9 initiated by students at Occidental College. Cornell Students for Peaceful Justice has organized a month-long rolling fast, in which more than fifty students will take turns going without food.

Just weeks ago, this humanitarian focus seemed the best possible direction for the peace movement. Now that's not so clear. At this writing, there were reports that more food aid was entering Afghanistan. News stories pointed to some ambiguities, asking whether the US presence was still contributing to the hunger crisis and even suggesting that in some places US troops, or at least the fall of the Taliban, was alleviating the problem. "The humanitarian angle has been our main focus," says UC Berkeley's Chris Cantor. "But now the United States is helping, and the situation is dramatically improving. That criticism is not as valid anymore." Cantor's group will "wait and let this play out," he says, admitting that "if the United States pulled out right now, Afghanistan would be in real trouble." Meanwhile, he says, peace organizations may increasingly turn their attention to the "war" at home-racist scapegoating and the frightening assaults on civil liberties.

But the peace groups best able to adapt to the changing global situation are those that don't suffer from that unfortunate activist malady of "having to have all the answers," as Lara Jirmanus, a recent Harvard graduate working with the Boston Student AntiWar Coalition, puts it. To Cornell's Dana Brown, who is also a national organizer for STARC, which is running a national education campaign emphasizing the connections between violence and economic deprivation, the complexity of this war demands constant conversation. "You obviously can't just stand in the middle of campus waving a STOP THE WAR sign," she says. Cornell organizers have had several extra meetings in the past few days, to talk about how best to respond to the changing situation. They are not calling off their fast, but they are asking new questions. Approaching "triumph" in Afghanistan, will the United States now attack Iraq? And more immediately, will the Bush Administration face its responsibilities to devastated Afghanistan? "There still is a humanitarian crisis. What is the United States going to do about it?" Brown asks. More broadly, she and other peace activists are asking, "What should the US role be in Afghanistan? Why is the United States refusing to be part of a UN peacekeeping force? None of us are pro-Taliban, but we know how they came to power. We see the footage of the Northern Alliance dragging people out of their homes and executing them. If we're not extra careful, we could end up supporting another repressive regime."

Given both the frightening consensus in mainstream public discourse and the absence of satisfactory answers from the left, real conversation is no small contribution. Tamayo says her fellow Penn students, for all their bellicosity, have been eager to discuss the war. "At 3:30 this morning," she says, 'people were still walking by, just wanting to talk. We're being told that we shouldn't question the government right now, but [the peace camp] provides a space where people can debate. We've had a lot of people coming up to us-people who don't agree with us-and thanking us, saying, 'If nothing else, you guys have created a lot of dialogue on campus."


Liza Featherstone, a journalist in New York City, has been covering the peace movement for The Nation. Research support was provided by the Haywood Burns Fund of the Nation Institute.

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