Tens of Thousands of Students Gather in Washington to Oppose War Against Iraq
[The Chronicle of Higher Education, 8 November 2002]
A pre-emptive protest against a pre-emptive war
By RICHARD MORGAN
Washington – Tens of thousands of protesters -- more than half of them college students, according to organizers -- flooded the streets of Washington last month as part of an international day of demonstrations against the United States' threatened war with Iraq.
A grassy lawn next to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial became a politically leftist bazaar where demonstrators promoted a hodgepodge of causes. Rallies that focused on criticism of White House policy toward Iraq sandwiched a march that circled the White House. There were no incidents of violence, and relatively few counterprotesters.
A similar march in San Francisco brought some 50,000 people through the streets there. Smaller protests were held in Chicago and Denver, and in Berlin, Mexico City, and Tokyo. Although the events were the product of a large international social-justice coalition, one group, Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (Answer), shepherded most of the action here.
The protests featured slogans -- some updated and many unprintable in this publication -- from student protests against the Vietnam War. Students chanted, "War, what is it good for?" and urged President Bush and Vice President Cheney to "make love, not war."
Students listened to antiwar speeches by the Rev. Jesse Jackson; Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney, a Georgia Democrat; Susan Sarandon, the actress; and veterans from the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf Wars, among other speakers.
"What do we know? The veterans of those wars?" asked Wilson (Woody) Powell, a Korean War veteran and national administrator of Veterans for Peace. "Only death. Only the chill knowledge that we are as expendable as our bullets."
Reverend Jackson told the crowd that Martin Luther King Jr. would be "especially happy to see so many young people leading a new peace movement." Mr. Jackson continued: "People often say 'Young people are our future.' But I beg to differ. Young people are our present. As young America moves, so the whole world moves."
Mr. Jackson also denounced the concept of a pre-emptive war against Iraq, saying, "When we act out of fear rather than hope, we end up bitter, not better."
Tony Murphy, a spokesman for Answer, called the event an "overwhelming success," estimating the turnout in Washington to be between 150,000 and 200,000 people. Because the U.S. Park Service no longer keeps track of such numbers, an official count was unavailable.
Waving a banner that read "What the world needs now is love, sweet love," Marc D. Lechner, a sophomore from Green Mountain College, in Vermont, said, "It's déjà vu, not too different than the '60s. People in power are making decisions because people -- the American people -- are ignorant."
The event was "not fun," he added. "I have schoolwork to do. But I'm here to stop war. I'll be going to school for a while, so I can do schoolwork next weekend."
Weighing the Issues
Unlike most of the students present, Matthew J. Freiman, a sophomore from the University of Connecticut, stayed alone through much of the event. For Mr. Freiman, a member of the National Guard, the trip was his first to Washington. "I thought I'd just take it in myself, without someone telling me what to think," he said.
"I'm really open to a lot of opinions," he said. "I'm really searching for what I believe in at this age." Conceding his military obligations, Mr. Freiman added, "If we went to war with Iraq, I would serve. I would defend my country, even though I don't believe in the war."
Adam B. Harris, a senior from North Central College, in Illinois, admitted, "I don't have any hard facts. But I want to get educated about what's going on." He added, "We [students] can't dish out a 15- or 20-minute speech, but we have a thirst for knowledge. A lot of it's listening."
Many students praised the diversity of the march. Nicholas M. Krehel, a third-year student at Sussex County Community College, in New Jersey, and vice president of the Progressive Student Union there, celebrated "the feeling that we're not alone in our radical -- what's portrayed as radical -- opinions. It's kind of a self-esteem thing to know that I'm not wasting my time. This is all I live for."
But, despite its catering to a wide array of causes popular with young people, the event frustrated some students.
A pacifist from Earlham College, Tyler J. Mintzer, said many of the activists were "preaching to the choir" in trying to persuade liberal college students to criticize the White House.
"Personally, I don't think anything we do here is really going to affect whether or not we go to war," said Mr. Mintzer, a freshman at the Quaker institution in Indiana. "I mean, really, what impact can we really have? We're just in the streets being angry and rowdy, but we're not making our case. ... General Bush-bashing isn't effective."
Stephanie A. Carrie, a freshman from New York University, agreed: "I don't support the whole anti-Bush talk. I mean, we're here trying to get him to help us. We're saying 'No more hate' and 'I hate Bush.' What the hell is that? I don't support that. We need to be cooperative. Otherwise we could become what we hate."
Future Is Unclear
David N. Desroches, a senior from the College of Charleston, in South Carolina, joked that his campus's delegation of eight students at the day's events comprised "the only eight people in South Carolina opposed to the war." He explained: "We have the Citadel. We have Strom Thurmond. Everything's been the same for years. Everyone wants it to stay like that. If you vocalize your opinion, you're going to be cast out."
Mr. Desroches lauded the support of his professors, but said administrators at the college "don't encourage and don't discourage.
"They play the neutral card," he said.
The fate of the movement remains unclear. After the event, about 300 students from more than 30 colleges convened at a student-sponsored town-hall meeting on the campus of George Washington University.
The chief goal of the meeting was to create an online discussion group (firstname.lastname@example.org) to coordinate antiwar action among campuses. Organizers began by asking the crowd, "Would anyone like to say anything about the events today?" Not a single hand went up.
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