Campus activism returns

By Joe Katz

Think campus activism can’t accomplish anything? Jane Fernandes would beg to differ.

After almost seven months of student uproar, the Gallaudet University board of trustees finally ran up the white flag Sunday and revoked the contract of its incoming president. The nation’s only liberal arts university for the deaf will be forced to begin the search process anew, this time hopefully placing a high priority on finding a leader who is “deaf enough” to be acceptable to the college community.

Coming on the heels of the violent clashes between undergraduate protestors and members of the Minuteman Project at Columbia earlier this month and the increasing national prominence of the Darfur divestment movement, the coup d’etat in the District of Columbia should be a call to arms to student bodies everywhere. Believe it or not, now more than ever we can make a difference if we’re willing to put in the effort.

We’ve all heard the moans and groans of those who came of age during the 1960s, and the pessimistic image they tag us with persists even amongst ourselves. We believe that our desensitized and coddled generation is far too self-absorbed to take the sort of principled stand they did. We vote less, we speak less, we care less. After all, we’re all too focused on getting smashed, getting laid, and getting a job with a six-figure salary to dedicate ourselves to a cause. It’s because of the Internet, it’s because of our overprivileged status, it’s because of “consumer culture.” It’s also not true. Young people always reflect the society they have grown up in, and our formative years have been greatly affected by the looming shadow of George Bush. Love him or hate him, we can all agree that he produces an intense response. With each new year of the war on terror and each new outrage against our civil liberties and national values, we have become angrier.

This fury has in fact been translated into some action against the Iraq war, the Patriot Act, and a number of other areas. In recent months, the press has begun to refer to Darfur activists as the largest and most broad-based activist movement since the anti-Apartheid push of the 1980s. There’s at least a noisy minority that’s bucking our blasé reputation.

So what’s wrong with the rest of us? It’s clear to anyone who hangs out in the dorms long enough that we really do give a damn. Why do so many of us shrug our shoulders and let others carry the burden of putting our ideals into practice?

More than anything, it’s not that we’re desensitized—it’s that we’re disenfranchised. Experience has taught the children of the 1980s that votes aren’t counted, that if you can’t beat ’em at the ballot box you can always beat ’em in the impeachment hearings, and that nothing we say matters if a big corporation doesn’t say it first. Forty years ago, students truly believed they could change the way things worked. Our political involvement has been sharply limited by the fact that we don’t believe we have that capability. We think our rage can’t result in a better planet.

Fortunately for us and for the world at large, we can fight City Hall. One of the key factors in the rapid growth of STAND, the “Coke Off Campus” movement, and other instant on-campus phenomena is that the technology we have now has revolutionized the way political agitators do business. The Internet may have harmed activism by causing the children of the 1980s to expect instant gratification, but it has also made coordination and information dissemination much easier. Students at the U of C who are interested in a particular issue can now find similar groups at other schools with a simple Google search and use the wonders of e-mail and Facebook to organize cross-campus action quickly and on a massive scale. Blogs, web bulletins, and the 24-hour news cycle create many more venues for people to spread their views. When a student at the New School’s 2006 commencement ceremony condemned John McCain moments before he was about to succeed her at the podium, the text of her remarks were posted online within hours. The Minuteman incident at Columbia was essentially reported live by a blogger who was in the audience at the speech. Anti-war and pro-civil rights activists couldn’t have dreamed of the kind of exposure they received.

These tools, however cold and sterile they may seem to those used to student strikes and building takeovers, actually do much more to put pressure on those in decision-making positions. The ability to swiftly draw widespread focus to an embarrassing incident forces politicians and administrators to respond quickly and decisively to avoid negative publicity. A groundswell that four decades ago took months or years to form can now be created in hours. We’re seeing it as we speak, as more and more universities choose to divest from companies with holdings in Sudan—a major disincentive to financially supporting the Sudanese government. We have an obligation to take advantage of this potential.

Students at Gallaudet saw the powers that be install a president who fundamentally did not fit with their vision of how their school should be run, spoke up, and earned a hard-fought victory. Like all of us, they cared, perhaps far more than those leading the university imagined. The only difference is that they joined the battle. With more and more college students following their lead, we may be seeing the rebirth of the student activist as force for change. All it takes is to stop thinking and start acting.