Where Have All the Protests Gone? US Students in Limbo

Published on
by
Agence France Presse

Where Have All the Protests Gone? US Students in Limbo

by
Michael Mathes

An anti-war protester holds a peace flag on the eight-year anniversary of military action in Afghanistan (AFP)

WASHINGTON - When student Hemnecher Amen joined a protest outside the White House recently, it was the latest visible opposition here to US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hardly anyone took notice.

"There's a lot of apathy and a growing disconnectedness to what's going on in world affairs," the frustrated Howard University junior told AFP as some 200 people, including a handful of students, gathered for the march.

"Students are more interested in trying to get a job and make money. That's essentially the bottom line."

With the US military several years into two faraway wars, American students like Amen are taking to the streets less often -- and to less effect -- than their Vietnam-era predecessors who were the vanguard of the anti-war movement in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Mounting economic and academic pressures on today's youth, intimidation by authorities, online distractions and conflicted views about the "good" war in Afghanistan, not to mention other causes such as health care and slashed school budgets clawing for attention, have conspired to snuff out anti-war activism on campus, experts and students say.

They acknowledge, too, that US President Barack Obama has paradoxically hampered the movement because many of the largely leftist protest groups haven't wanted to openly oppose him so early in his first term.

"There's this trust that he's going to fix it all," said Shara Esbenshade, 19, a sophomore at Stanford University and member of Stanford Says No To War.

She says there are no anti-war marches on her campus, only vigils, educational events and occasional protests against Condoleezza Rice, who has returned to Stanford after serving as George W. Bush's secretary of state.

"We'd really like to start doing more about Afghanistan," she added. "But students here rising up? I really don't see that happening."

At Kent State University, where in 1970 four unarmed students were shot dead by the Ohio National Guard, Andrew Ruminas, 20, a member of the Kent State Anti-War Committee, said "we're not even doing any demonstrations now."

Perhaps, according to 1960s protest icon and political activist Tom Hayden, that's because the single most important act to silence student dissent -- the privatization of conflict -- occurred a generation ago.

"Students were the bulwark of the anti-Vietnam war movement because students were being drafted, full stop," Hayden, a founding member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1962, told AFP.

"Ending forced conscription radically diminished the possibilities of future student anti-war protests."

Hayden, one of the "Chicago Seven" charged with inciting to riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, said students have "rechanneled" their activism, notably into Internet campaigns including the one last year that helped sweep Obama into the White House.

Many of today's students are marching with their fingers instead of their feet, signing online petitions, reading or writing blogs and planning anti-war agendas on the Web.

Stanley Aronowitz, a Vietnam anti-war organizer, insists online petitions do nothing but entrench users in the "anti-reality" of Internet activism.

"I don't believe petitions do anything," he said. "They are what middle-class people and intellectuals do to convince themselves they're getting somewhere."

Aronowitz, now a sociology professor at City University of New York, acknowledges that new social technologies on the Web -- Facebook, Twitter, YouTube -- have mass mobilization potential.

"But they also privatize people's lives to much more of a degree than when people had to go to meetings and act collectively."

As society has digitized, the American left has splintered, Aronowitz says, losing the confidence to mobilize people as it did in early 2003 when millions protested the looming Iraq invasion.

As a result, "many people have put their faith in electoral politics rather than direct action."

Jonathan Williams, who runs Student Peace Action Network, says it's not just a matter of apathy or a shift to campus issues like soaring student debt; there has been what he calls a "criminalization of dissent."

Williams said he was arrested along with other activists and journalists at a demonstration at last year's Republican National Convention and detained for four days.

In 2007, police used an electro-shock Taser on a student causing a disturbance during an address by Senator John Kerry. Videos of the event have been seen on YouTube more than seven million times.

"After seeing that, are you going to speak out?" Williams asked.

As US support for the Afghan mission retreats -- a CNN poll on Wednesday suggested 58 percent of Americans are now against the war -- Obama is mulling whether to approve a request to send up to 40,000 more troops.

Todd Gitlin, a former SDS president in the 1960s who now teaches at Columbia University, says a "critical mass" of youth against the war has not materialized to bring huge numbers out in protest.

Should Obama approve the Afghan troop request, Gitlin cautions, "that might be the trigger."

More in: