Campus officials target student antiwar activists’ right to dissent
“Our movement won’t back down”
By Eric Ruder and David Thurston | December 2, 2005 | Page 12
STUDENT ACTIVISTS across the U.S. are challenging the U.S. war in Iraq–and military recruiters on their campuses. Along the way, they’re finding that they also have to fight campus administrators who try to deny them the basic right to dissent.
In recent weeks, student activists at Hampton University in Virginia, Harold Washington College in Chicago and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have become targets for administrators after holding peaceful protests.
At the same time, activists targeted at other campuses won victories by exposing their administrations’ violations of their rights. Students at Kent State University, for example, succeeded in forcing the university dropped all charges against Dave Airhart, a Kent State student and combat veteran who was stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The university had planned a hearing for mid-November to consider whether Airhart should be suspended or expelled for climbing a wall set up by military recruiters and hanging a peace banner. But the day before the hearing, Airhart was notified that the university had backed down.
Key to the victory was the highly visible “Hands off Dave!” campaign waged by the Kent State Anti-War Committee (KSAWC). Activists flyered the campus, organized calls and e-mails from activists across the U.S., and enlisted the support of prominent antiwar activists, including Howard Zinn and Cindy Sheehan.
“When we heard the administration had dropped all charges, we were extremely excited,” said Nicole Robinson, a KSAWC member and Midwest representative on the Campus Antiwar Network’s (CAN) national coordinating committee. “Not just because Airhart could remain in school and continue his antiwar activism. And not only because we are part of the struggle, and in the end experienced victory. But we were also excited because we hope that other schools across the U.S. begin to take the student antiwar movement more seriously, and understand that if administrators begin repressing our voices, we will not sit silently and take it–that we will, as a united movement, not back down.”
Robinson said KSAWC members plan to use the momentum they have to build for CAN’s December 6 national day of action to target military recruiting stations.
The action is timed to coincide with the beginning of the U.S. Supreme Court’s hearing of FAIR v. Rumsfeld, which challenges the federal government policy of denying funds to universities that bar military recruiters from campus on the grounds that the military’s discrimination against gays and lesbians violates campus anti-discrimination policies.
December 6 is also the one-year anniversary of Navy Petty Officer Pablo Paredes’ refusal to board his ship and deploy to the Middle East–a decision that brought widespread attention to growing antiwar sentiment among U.S. troops. Paredes has signed on as a supporter of the CAN day of action–along with Cindy Sheehan, Howard Zinn, independent journalist Dahr Jamail, Iraq war resister Camilo Mejía and Progressive Democrats of America Director Tim Carpenter.
The December 6 actions will also highlight the most recent round of repression against students carried out by campus administrators.
Hampton University in Virginia is carrying out the most flagrant attack, threatening to expel at least seven students in the wake of a peaceful November 2 protest.
Administrators have even tried to keep students from telling their story to the media. “We met at a Burger King, which is off-campus, but is university-owned,” John Robinson, a leading organizer, told Socialist Worker. “Somebody got in touch with the local news station, who wanted to interview us.
“There was an official from one of the dorms who happened to be in the Burger King with three Army ROTC officials. He was eyeing us and called the dean of students, who sent the campus police. The police pulled their cruiser in front of the camera and then kicked the reporter and cameraman out of the shopping center.”
But the story still led the local news. With so much negative publicity, Hampton’s dean felt pressured to respond publicly. He wrote a letter saying that the school encourages peaceful protest, and that the issue is “compliance with university policy.”
Yet Hampton has made it impossible for activists to organize openly. “When you’re social-justice oriented, there is no right route,” said Robinson. “They have been staunchly opposed to recognizing our group–even when we were only affiliated to Amnesty International. We weren’t even allowed to go through the process. People refused to acknowledge that we even filled out the paperwork.”
Though Hampton activists initially felt demoralized by the crackdown on their November 2 protest, they’ve been energized by the outpouring of support from students angry at this infringement of basic rights.
“Although the police prevented us from making the point that we intended to make, the students ultimately were made conscious in a much deeper way that could not have been achieved through our speeches and poetry,” wrote the Hampton activists in a statement on CAN’s campusantiwar.net Web site. “The students saw what their school’s administration was really for by seeing what it was really against.”
Meanwhile, UW-Madison is copying Kent State’s approach of using exaggerated claims that protesters endangered “campus safety” to threaten members of the student antiwar group with probation, suspension or expulsion.
The allegations stem from a November 2 rally and march of 200 people that ended at the Military Science Department. The university asserts the protesters “jeopardized the safety of several individuals of the Military Science Department” and attempted to “gain entry to the building by pounding on doors and windows and attempts to destroy university property.”
But the charges are absurd, according to a statement by UW Stop the War. “The protesters chanted slogans, held signs and marched around the building,” the statement reads. “A few spoke through a bullhorn. Some people–none of them Stop the War members–knocked on the door. The only contact anyone had with members of the Military Science Department was spotting them through a window. With the exception of the UW police detaining a 14-year-old high school student for throwing a penny at a window, there was no physical confrontation of any kind.”
UW activists aren’t taking this administration attack lying down. “We’ve seen this type of thing before–at Kent State, Holyoke and George Mason University,” said Paul Pryse, a member of UW Stop the War. “The university is trying to use disciplinary measures to silence antiwar activists and organizations.
“In all three of these cases, public solidarity campaigns were key to fighting back and getting the university to back down. So we plan on going public to expose them for the hypocrisy of defending the free speech of military recruiters, while they try to deny the rights of students who also want their opinions heard.”
For more information about all these cases and what you can do to show your support for student protesters, go to campusantiwar.net.
December 2, 2005 Index