The Students Are Stirring:
A Campus Antiwar Movement Begins to Make Its Mark
by Ron Jacobs
Folks often ask, rather cynically, where are the students protesting the war? Well, the answer is that they are there -- on their campuses and in the dorms -- organizing speakers, rallies, and teach-ins. The fact that folks off campus do not hear about these events does not mean that they aren't happening. What it does mean is that the media is choosing not to cover them. Here in Asheville, NC, the local SDS-linked group at University of North Carolina-Asheville (UNCA) organized a counter-recruitment protest in January 2006 and a walkout and march against the war last October and is now actively involved in getting students to go to the March 17th March on the Pentagon. At UNC's Chapel Hill campus, six students were arrested on February 17, 2007 after refusing to leave Congressman David Price's office in a protest demanding that he vote against further war funding. Meanwhile, on February 15th, students at campuses around the country held rallies and teach-ins against the war. While the movement has not reached the proportions organizers want to see, it is growing. The next student day of protest is scheduled for March 20th -- three days after the March on the Pentagon. I recently connected with UNCA SDS member Kati Ketz over email. Besides her activities here in Asheville, Kati is also a spokesperson for the SDS call for the March 20th Day of Action against the War. The exchange with Kati was an opportunity for me to learn what antiwar students have been up to and how they see the future. I share the transcript below.
Ron: First, what is the March 20th Day of Action? How did the idea originate?
Kati: March 20th is an SDS national day of student and youth action against the war in Iraq. The idea came out of an SDS-sponsored meeting of activists at the School of the Americas demonstration in Ft. Benning, GA. Over 100 students from 20 different campuses were at this meeting, and at the end we voted to make March 20th a national day of action, in order to take all of the local organizing we have been doing on our campuses and attempting to connect those struggles to make a larger impact on a national scale.
Ron: What do the organizers hope to accomplish? What would connote a successful day, here in Asheville and nationally?
Kati: We hope that this day of action will be a catalyst for students to rise up and get organized against the war in Iraq. Four years is four years too many, and it's time that students in this country get organized against this war. In Asheville, we hope that our actions will draw in more people who want to get more involved in organizing against the war. We also hope that our actions contribute to building a grassroots student anti-war movement. Nationally, we hope that this will help build ties with other campuses and connect different movements together in order to work towards ending this war.
Ron: I notice that the majority of the campuses that have signed on to the March 20th action are from the southern part of the United States. Why do you think this is? In my mind it's significant in that it goes against the idea so many US residents have about the south -- you know, reactionary and pro-war.
Kati: I think it is very significant that a lot of schools from the south are organizing against the war. It goes against the stigma that the south is normally faced with -- that all anti-war organizing happens in the north and that the southern US is largely ignorant of and not involved in any progressive movements. There is some exciting organizing going on in the south -- for example, UNC SDS took part in organizing a demonstration against John Ashcroft, who came to speak at their campus. Members of both Alabama and Asheville SDS groups also have participated in a lot of events (MLK day marches, a 4th of July march in New Orleans) concerning race and national oppression, since that is something that is especially relevant to us in the south.
It's amazing to see that, for March 20th, the schools signing on to the call are from all over the United States -- from North Carolina and Alabama in the south to Los Angeles and Santa Barbara in the West to New York City and Boston in the northeast to Minneapolis, Chicago, and Ohio in the Midwest, to name a few.
Ron: What is your impression of the new SDS? Is it growing in numbers and influence?
Kati: I think that we as students finally have an opportunity to build an independent student anti-war movement through SDS. I talk with students on a regular basis that are either considering or have just affiliated with SDS, and the number of SDS chapters grows weekly. SDS groups are having regional conferences and connecting with each other through forum, conferences, and actions. Now, we are connecting with one another as SDS through this national day of action. There is a felt need in the student movement for a national student anti-war organization, and SDS is it.
Ron: What are your hopes for its future?
Kati: My hope for the future of SDS is that we continue to grow both in influence and in numbers across the nation, and that we are able to get organized on a national level in order to have even more nationally coordinated actions against the war in Iraq. There is a new wave of student activism in this country, and I hope to see SDS play a leading role in this movement. The student movement against the war in Vietnam took awhile to take off, but once it did it took off in a big way. We hope to see the same develop with SDS against this war in Iraq.
Ron: What are some of the other campaigns SDS is involved in -- nationally and locally?
Kati: The main campaign that SDS is involved with is working against the war in Iraq, but SDS is a multi-issue progressive organization. In Asheville, we had a week of action around Palestine, where we built a 45-foot long, 8-foot tall mock apartheid wall on our campus and hosted teach-ins and showed a documentary about the situation in Palestine. There have been student strikes and marches for immigrants' rights in conjunction with the May 1st demonstrations. UCLA SDS worked with UCLA's Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana y Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) to organize a demonstration against a speaker from the Minutemen that ended up canceling his speech at the university as a result of the protest. University of Central Florida SDS recently issued a statement calling for release of former Black Panther political prisoners. SDS is a vehicle for taking actions around any and all progressive issues.
Ron: Back to the war. What do you personally think it's going to take to end this war?
Kati: The Iraqi resistance are the ones fighting against this war every day, and -- similar to what we saw with the national liberation front in Vietnam -- they are the ones who have the power to end it. The United States and their allies are losing the war in Iraq, and it is only a matter of time before they are forced to withdraw their troops. Here in the United States, we need to work on getting Bush and the Republicans out of the White House -- for example, there is going to be a large demonstration at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis in 2008. We in the anti-war movement also need to put pressure on the Democrats to actually adopt concrete measures against the war and to stop funding the war.
Ron: What do you think the role of students and other young people is in the movement to end it?
Kati: The role of youth and students in the movement to end the war is to build the anti-war movement. We need to take to the streets in a major way and resist the ongoing war and occupation of Iraq, and this is exactly what is happening. On February 15th, thousands of students in Santa Barbara occupied a highway for hours, bringing the war and the anti-war movement back into the front pages of the media. We need to continue with this momentum and continue to organize!
Ron: When you're organizing on campus and elsewhere, do you run into a lot of cynicism and apathy from other young people? What at do you say to those youth who dismiss the antiwar movement?
Kati: There is always going to be a certain amount of apathy and cynicism from young people on any major issue -- it's easy to feel that your voice in a movement does not matter and will do nothing to change things. What these students need to remember, however, is that the masses are the makers of history. It has historically been social movements -- not great leaders -- that have changed the course of history. It is our role in this present day as students and youth to make those movements and be a part of them. As far as apathy is concerned, what is more important right here and right now than the fact that the United States government is continuing an unjust and illegal war and occupation in Iraq that is causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people? I think more and more students are recognizing this -- at UNCA we are going door-to-door in the dorms trying to get people to pledge to walkout of their classes, and almost everybody we talk to is very receptive and wanting to do something to end the war, and just need an organization or action to plug that energy into.
Ron: Is SDS encouraging young people to attend the March on the Pentagon on March 17th? On a side note, what is your take on the ongoing squabble between the two national antiwar coalitions -- UFPJ and ANSWER?
Kati: SDS is mobilizing for the March on the Pentagon on the 17th -- there is an SDS organizing team and a planned SDS contingent for this march. There was also an SDS-led student contingent at the January 27th UFPJ demo in DC. As far as the fighting between UFPJ and ANSWER -- I cannot speak for all of SDS, but ANSWER tends to have more anti-imperialist politics like that of SDS. There was an open letter to UFPJ written recently that was critical of the call that they put out for a protest in NYC on March 18th -- the day after the ANSWER March on the Pentagon and during the planned encampment in DC. Some SDS activists signed on to that letter and I agree with it. I oppose any kind of efforts to divide the anti-war movement.
Ron: How can people interested in organizing or attending a March 20th action find out more?
Kati: People interested in organizing an event for March 20th, or even if schools are on spring break but still support the call to action, should contact firstname.lastname@example.org. There is also a blog about the March 20th actions -- march20antiwar.blogspot.com -- where people can see what schools are participating, reports about organizing methods from schools, and press roundups.
Ron: Anything else?
Kati: The call to action for March 20th grew out of an initiative from an SDS meeting with 20 campuses, started out as having four schools signed on to action, and now has over 50 schools participating. The momentum for this is tremendous, and shows that we are truly in a new period in the student anti-war movement. It's so inspiring to see actions being planned all across the country, with different student groups working and connecting with each other. The groups participating range from large well-known universities to small-town high schools with a couple of students taking up the initiative. I hope that we can continue with this energy past March 20th and really make history with the work that we are doing, everyday, to end the war.
Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, just republished by Verso. Jacobs' essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch's new collection on music, art and sex: Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at <email@example.com>.