A Good Day Outside

Protesting war in an age of apathy

click to enlarge SUNSHINE PARTY: The peace rally at  Eckerd - College. - ECKERD COLLEGE
ECKERD COLLEGE
SUNSHINE PARTY: The peace rally at Eckerd College.

It was a beautiful day at Eckerd College, a voluptuous spring morning of sunshine and new flowers after six days of heavy overcast. They were all smiles on campus, the pretty girls in dreadlocks and wispy tops with their djembe drums and their pots and pans; the crew-cut guys pedaling their bikes with strong, 20-year-old legs. What a day to be outside. What a day to be alive.What a day to deliver a mighty haymaker to the jaw of U.S. imperialism.

"Whaddawe want?" student leaders shouted as a dozen or so demonstrators marched through the campus, banging their hand drums and cookware.

"Peace!"

"When do we want it?"

"Now!"

The "now" part was emphatically shouted but it carried a very big, implied "please." This was a 21st century student war protest, conducted before the actual war, with neither revolutionary intent nor dedicated opposition and, overridingly, with a desire to piss off no one.

The imposed patriotism of Sept. 11 is one factor. "That will change the way the dialog takes place," said Eckerd political science professor Tony Brunello, who marched with Tom Hayden in San Francisco in the early 1970s. "They have developed, unconsciously, a reticence about saying things that might be taken as offensive or critical of our troops in the field. It's interesting, and I'm wondering to what degree it holds the entire nation hostage."

The modern campus peace movement is further de-fanged, ironically enough, by the victories of its Vietnam-era predecessors. After the student riots of the '60s and early '70s, college administrators at Berkeley, Columbia, Ohio State and other riot-torn universities granted a huge number of student "demands" that usually included free speech guarantees and immunity for ideological troublemakers.

Maybe it was a plot. Maybe those wily college presidents knew that removing the Establishment thumb from the pressure valve would prevent future movements from achieving critical mass.

Freedom is repression. Patriotism is obedience. It's how we do things now.

So, the demonstration at Eckerd College was a polite pantomime of the raucous, sometimes violent events of the LBJ years. After the 11:40 a. m. march around the campus, a scheduled act of "civil disobedience" took place: Eckerd students resolutely thumbed their noses at expansionist militarism by closing their books, standing up and walking out of their classrooms. At lunchtime. Then about 175 of them gathered in Eckerd's central square for slogan-shouting and speechifying as college officials and professors beamed and applauded from the sidelines.

The whole day was preplanned and preapproved. It was a product of compromise.

"We sent out two letters to the faculty," explained Julie Zollman, 21, one of the leaders of EC (Eckerd College) Iraq Awareness. "One explaining the action and one explaining the reasons. A few faculty members were concerned because the students at other campuses were planning a full-day strike. So, we did ours at the end of (the day's classes)."

Despite their deal-making ways, Zollman and others at the intellectual core of the movement at Eckerd and elsewhere are admired by some veterans of the Vietnam protest heyday. Nancy Jane Tyson was a graduate student at Ohio State in the spring of 1970 and was in the crowd that tried to storm the ROTC building during rioting that broke out in April. She's now a professor and faculty advisor to the University of South Florida's Alliance of Concerned Students. Tyson, 54, says she knows commitment when she sees it, even if her own commitment crumbled when Ohio state troopers opened fire with tear gas and knee-knocker bullets."They are wonderful!" she says of the modern student organizers. "They are engaged, they are informed, they are committed, responsible, intelligent students. I haven't seen anything like this in years. And it's such a departure from the apathy that has prevailed in recent years."

Post-Vietnam apathy was a catastrophe for a social movement that had its roots in 1930s liberalism, the fights for free speech and against racism. Many New Left activists of the 1960s were the children of those early lefties, and the peace movement was a natural outgrowth of their parents' progressive, even radical, politics. It was fueled mostly by pure ideology but, in 1966, when the Johnson Administration abolished student draft deferments, college-age men suddenly facing the real prospect of killing and being killed got viscerally focused on opposing the war. The ranks of demonstrators swelled.

By 1968, blacks were in rebellion in many U.S. cities. The Kennedys and Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Student groups were rioting in Paris and Mexico City, some of them with popular support. There were violent demonstrations and sit-ins at Columbia University and other American campuses and riots in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention.

Meanwhile, it had been apparent since the Tet offensive that the war in Vietnam was not going well. Something seemed ready to snap and, to leaders of Students for a Democratic Society and its murderous stepchild, the Weather Underground, the antiwar movement began to look like leverage for an actual revolution.

But the war ended. The link was broken. The motivation was gone.

Students in the modern movement recognize that things have changed. Some are a little wistful. "The draft would make people pay attention to what's going on," says Cory Anderson, 22, an international relations major at Eckerd. "Not to say I'm for any draft, but, right now, we don't have much to worry about."Not having much to worry about is something to worry about if you're trying to get an anti-war movement off the ground.

The beautiful spring morning turned into a beautiful spring night. At USF's Sundome, where the Bulls were to play Tulane in the season's last game, two dozen demonstrators sat in the grass, chanting, beating their djembes, some of them humming into didgeridoos. The call-and-response was curiously accommodating: "No War! Go Bulls!" University offices were not occupied. No firebombs were thrown. The National Guard did not respond.

Nobody got hassled by the pigs.

Sean Kinane, chairman of the Alliance for Concerned Students, said expectations need to change. "Some people are under the mistaken impression that in order to be against this war, you have to be a product of the '60s, or a hippie throwback. Most students are opposed to this war because they're just everyday Bulls fans and want to go to a basketball game and they want to protest the war."

It was a good day to do it. Actually, the weather was beautiful and it was a good day to do anything outside.

Rick Stone is a writer in Tampa. He can be reached at [email protected].

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