This spring, after a prolonged silence, the Pentagon Plaza sprung back to life. With a nod to the event of 40 years earlier, it was again filled with demonstrators calling for peace. At Drew, a new chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the organization associated with ’60s anti-war icon Mark Rudd, was recently established. The group staged its own rally on campus to mark the fourth anniversary of the war in Iraq.
The parallels beg comparison between the responses of the two generations, but Jeremy Varon, associate professor of history, who organized a conference titled “1968” last fall—an event that brought student activism “then and now” to the forefront on campus—contends this may not be fair.
“The ’60s set an incredibly high and likely unachievable standard for youth activists to uphold,” he says. “As more time passes, it appears the extraordinary youth and student uprising at that time was the result of a unique—and maybe irreproducible —set of factors. Look at the demographics alone: the baby boom generation is numerically massive, and, as young people, they wanted to assert their voices as an expression of their importance in society.
“Additionally, in the United States especially, millions of young people were impressed and inspired by the Civil Rights movement of the South,” Varon says.
“It gave all Americans a new vocabulary for social protest and the conviction that real change was possible. Today’s young people, like many Americans, feel like they have little power to influence national policies.”
The ability to distance themselves from Iraq also separates today’s college students from their peers of the 1960s.
“In Vietnam, while there were deferments, every young man of a certain age had to think about the war,” said Rudd, the conference’s keynote speaker. “Today we have an economic draft, not a selective service draft. There are only 140,000 troops in Iraq, and most families are not touched.”
Peter Stuart, a Drew senior majoring in political science and history, agreed that, unlike Iraq, Vietnam posed a real threat to the youth population. “We are not afraid that we are going to get drafted,” he says. “I know a lot of people that are in Iraq and have been in Iraq, but I personally don’t feel threatened. We have the luxury of being removed from the situation.”
Americans are further separated from the situation by the lack of graphic media coverage, says Drew alum Ruth Zaleski C’70, who strongly opposed the Vietnam War and actively participated in anti-war activities both on and off campus. “Electronically, we are detached from the murder, the horror of what is going on,” she says. “You saw kids being blown up in Vietnam. It was in front of us all the time—in magazines, in newspapers and on TV.”
Jean Stewart, today a writer in Northern California, agrees that less graphic—or less truthful, as she prefers—media coverage is a factor, but she sees numbness at play as well.
“Young people in 2007 are living in a culture far more deeply saturated with violence than we were in the ’60s,” she says. “You find it in movies, TV shows, video games, hip-hop lyrics, children’s toys—so many places—so violence becomes more normative.”
At the same time, Peter Stuart contends that, while current anti-war student activism is limited on campuses like Drew’s, Iraq is not being ignored. Last spring, he was instrumental in coordinating an Iraq War forum featuring veterans from both Desert Storm and the current conflict.
“There was a good mix of opinions on the panel, which is what we wanted,” he says. The program was attended by 250 students.
Another well-attended program on Iraq featured an Army major giving a slide show presentation of photographs he took while living in Fallujah, where he was responsible for training a small group of Iraqi soldiers. “He told us he was very moved by his experience there, and that it was one of the most rewarding in his life,” Stuart says. “That’s an opinion you don’t hear a lot.”
During the course of the night, there were several more clubbings. Toward 2 a.m., the organizer picked up his bullhorn and called across the ranks of black helmets to the Pentagon officials standing on the stairs.
He had just called a vote to determine how many of us were willing to accept peaceful arrest. The count was practically unanimous. For almost an hour, the leader repeated his request to the brass-buttoned gray uniforms on the stairs. Peaceful arrest in accordance with our constitutional rights. Silence was their answer. —Jean Stewart
Despite the small scale of anti-war protests on campus, students today are far from silent on issues they feel are important. According to Stuart, who serves as president for the international Students Changing the World organization, activism is a loaded word. He sees it as students actively engaging in attempts to further discussions about issues in order to create understanding. That understanding can be turned into something that breeds change.
“We may do more on the understanding/discussion side than on the attempt to create change side,” he says. “We may not be speaking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to hundreds of thousands of people, but this new generation has tremendous opportunity to do things differently.”
One of the most significant changes in student activism today is that it addresses an ever-growing range of issues. At Drew alone, some 14 distinct groups are focused on the world’s most pressing concerns.
“It is easy to see Drew as a somewhat sleepy, suburban campus in which the students lack political passion,” Varon says. “In my six years here, that description is becoming less and less true. In the last three or four years especially, there has been a palpable increase in student body interest in the great moral and political issues of our day—be it war, torture, sexual violence, institutional racism or the environment.”
Melanie Shapiro, a sophomore majoring in women’s studies at Drew, recently cofounded ACT OUT!, a universal human rights and justice group that helps activist groups on campus come together and mobilize. During the fall 2005 semester, ACT OUT! organized more than 10 programs and protest events.
“There really is a very big activist presence on our campus,” she says. “I believe that the reason we do not have a strong anti-war movement is that the focus on what is important has shifted to more global and human rights-based initiatives. We are not so centered on ourselves anymore. We are looking worldwide.”
Minutes passed. Someone in the group started humming “We Shall Overcome.” Then everyone was singing it, soft and low. “America the Beautiful.” “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
A voice over a bullhorn occasionally urged us all to lock both arms and legs to make it harder to be pulled apart. “Lock in and love.” Several outbreaks of violence had already occurred. At one point, when fear began to increase, there were a few angry shouts. Waves of tension started sweeping through the crowd, the singing replaced by low voices. The man in front of me cried out, “Relax, don’t get uptight. Lock in and love them, they’re our brothers.”
Locking in as a unified movement has become increasingly difficult with the broadening realm of activism. Fragmentation represents one of the greatest challenges to today’s efforts.
“It really is a difficult issue to address,” says Peter Stuart.
“We have to find a way to unite under one banner. That’s the difference between our generation and the ’60s. They were focused on becoming something bigger. We may be more focused on enacting individual change. There are opportunities in both of those options.”
But strength lies in numbers, not in isolated actions, Zaleski points out. “That’s why the adage is there,” she says. “You really have to create a movement to make things move. These kids doing things in isolation are not going to change the planet. I hope they do rise up and take a stand. Until they get together and get it together, it’s not going to make much of a statement.”
Things are starting to come together, according to Varon. “Youth are becoming energized because activists are starting to find each other and build meaningful networks, partly through the web, but partly through face-to-face organizing efforts,” he says.
The effort to reconstitute the important ’60s student and youth organization SDS, of which Rudd served as the last national secretary in 1969, goes to prove Varon’s statement. SDS currently is being revived to provide a national multi-issue student organization to coordinate progressive and left-wing protest activity. Forty students gathered at the first meeting of the local Drew chapter last fall, and the group has been vocal on a number of issues, including the Iraq War, this spring.
“I think it is really hopeful that young people are looking back to an organization that existed 40 years ago to understand how to go about organizing,” says Rudd. “Organizing is the growth of the movement—building a large and successful organization. Activism as self-expression may be part of building a movement, but that alone doesn’t work.”
While many of the “old methods” of organizing—knocking on dorm room doors, setting up literature tables, conducting forums and sitting down to talk to someone not already convinced about the importance of an issue—are an important part of modern student activism, Melanie Shapiro notes that today’s approach is somewhat gentler than that of Rudd’s generation.
“If you educate people, they listen,” she says. “If you’re out there setting things on fire, people say ‘these kids are irresponsible and unorganized.’ Activism is about bringing people together on the condition of human existence. It’s about reaching out and showing people that everyone is fighting to live. If we can change one person’s mind, and if that person walks away and talks to another person, it snowballs.”
A small, bespectacled man slowly picked his way through the crowd toward the lines of M.P.’s When he reached the front, he stood before one soldier and said, in as loud a voice as he could muster for the ears of every person at the Pentagon, “I ask the right to be peacefully arrested and am willing to be tried in any court in the land.” Then he was still, his face inches from that of the M.P. The silence was complete.
“I think that what I learned from spending that night on the Pentagon steps was a lesson in the power of collectivity,” says Jean Stewart today. “It’s important to remember that we did, after all, ultimately bring an end to that war, and we did it through a series of big and little acts, acts of bravery and selflessness as well as deeds that we kind of stumbled into, like my sister’s and my decision to join the people who were doing civil disobedience on the Pentagon steps. We didn’t actually go to Washington intending to do that; we made the decision at the very last moment, compelled to put our bodies where our beliefs were by the acts of others.”
Sandra Crisafulli is a freelance writer based in Great Meadows, N.J.