(fwd from Jay Moore) Peace Movement under the Patriotic Radar

Les Schaffer schaffer at optonline.net
Wed Sep 26 08:09:21 MDT 2001


[ from "Jay Moore" <pieinsky at igc.apc.org>]


Echoes of Vietnam stir US campuses
Students refuse to be drowned out by clamour for reprisals

Matthew Engel in Oberlin, Ohio
Monday September 24, 2001
The Guardian (UK)

As the town clock struck six and the dusk-insects began biting, the Stars
and Stripes hung limply at half-mast for the last time before the official
mourning period ended yesterday.

It was a sight visible in small towns all over the United States on Saturday
night. But in Oberlin, Ohio, the accompanying sound was somewhat unexpected.
A speaker was telling about 500 people gathered in the main square: "Just
remember that a bomb on Afghanistan is a bomb on us" - and was wildly
applauded.

Shortly afterwards, the crowd marched three blocks to the town's memorial to
Martin Luther King, chanting the while: "1-2-3-4! We don't want your racist
war!" "2-4-6-8! Stop the war! Stop the hate!"

Then they chanted some more and heard more speeches before stopping for
vegetarian nibbles and dispersing. A few of the older protesters could be
heard gently humming peace songs from the 1960s. It was a gloriously
nostalgic moment. It may also be immensely significant.

Oberlin is emphatically not the voice of Ohio, the Midwest or the nation. It
is an agreeably funky and viscerally liberal college town in a Republican
state that epitomises Middle America. It has a history of activism that
pre-dates not only Vietnam but the American civil war. And the Oberlin
College bookshop must be the only one in the state where Pencil Puzzles
Vacation Special ("A Bountiful Harvest of Puzzle Fun!") sits alongside the
latest issue of Spartacist ("A Trotskyite Critique of Germany 1923").

But Oberlin is not alone. Within the past few days, below the radar screens
of the mainstream US media, a vast network of peace activists has become
established in colleges across the country. Its website
(www.peacefuljustice.cjb.net) lists contacts on more than 150 campuses.
There have been demonstrations at about a hundred of them.

Leaders are now making plans to march on Washington next weekend, the dates
originally set aside for the IMF and World Bank meetings - cancelled because
of the atrocities - and accompanying Genoa-style protests. It is possible
that this movement's internal contradictions will cause an early collapse.
But its growth has been dramatic. At the very least, it is the return of
opposition to President George Bush, a role abandoned by Congressional
Democrats.

Rebellious
The scene in Oberlin might have been a film director's re-enactment of the
anti-Vietnam protests, or a homage to retro-chic: there were rebellious
hairstyles, bellbottoms and even a few kaftans. Only the proliferation of
nose-studs and the general air of naive good order made it clear that these
students were mostly the children of the 60s children, and that the clothes
might have been pilfered from their mothers' attics.

But some had longer memories. In the square before the protest began, Chris
Baymiller was collecting signatures on a petition to be sent to the local
congressman. Now he is the assistant director of the Oberlin students'
union; three decades ago he was an undergraduate.

"It was not uncommon to have draft-card burnings on any given day," he
recalled. "There was one very famous incident when a group of marine
recruiters were trapped in their car and the police had to teargas the
entire area. It was a very intense time, a time like no other. But this is
the nearest I can remember to that atmosphere."

Oberlin is not far from Kent State University, infamous as the campus where
National Guardsmen panicked during a demonstration in 1970 and shot four
students dead. Despite its place in history, Kent State has never had
Oberlin's reputation for activism - but anti-war protests are planned there
this week too.

The major difference is that the message from the current action has to be
more complex than the "hell-no-we-won't-go" slogans from 30 years ago. These
students are not being drafted - yet. And there is still no serious support
anywhere for doing nothing in response to the attacks. The most astute
speakers at this rally attempted to get across a cautious and
non-rabble-rousing message: yes, but.

It was summed up by the undergraduate organiser, Jim Casteleiro: "On
September 11 I felt more pain than I ever imagined. Americans want
retribution for what happened. But remember this: Every life we take means
there will be retribution for that. There is going to be more war, more
violence."

Mr Baymiller explained to a waverer: "We support going after the terrorists,
bringing them to justice. And if they find Bin Laden in a cave and bomb the
cave, fine. We don't want to see a large part of the world being bombed back
to the Stone Age." The waverer signed his petition.

Mr Baymiller was sitting at a stall set up in the square at a routine
back-to-college recruitment market for Oberlin's various societies. The
Socialist Alternative (membership at Oberlin: eight) was there, as were the
Spartacists (membership here: zero - their representatives had driven from
Chicago, presumably bringing their magazines with them). But the
professional lefties were outnumbered by the folk music club, the karate
club and the chess club.

And even the apolitical students were not wholly unsympathetic to the
protests. Goldie Greenstein, studying economics and psychology, refused to
attend the rally: she was mainly interested in recruiting members to the
film club. So what did she feel when she heard Mr Bush's speech on Thursday?
"Fear. Terrorists will kill themselves if they wish to do so, and they will
bring people down with them."

Oberlin's students are more politicised than elsewhere. But there is
evidence that the mood here is merely a more concentrated version of the
unease developing on other campuses. The place is considered eccentric, but
it has generally been ahead of its time rather than wrong.

The town was founded by anti-slavery campaigners, and helped to precipitate
the civil war by refusing, in 1858, to hand over a runaway slave. Oberlin
College pioneered coeducation and non-racialism. It is also a town with a
reputation for tolerance. There was thus no hint of confrontation, except
from one elderly guest at a nearby wedding, who began booing theatrically.

The march to the Martin Luther King memorial drew only a couple of bemused
looks, not least from Tracy Michael, who works in a pet shop, and was
sitting opposite the monument on her front porch, decked out with the
American flag.

She was, in keeping with Oberlin tradition, perfectly indulgent. She just
didn't share the sentiments. "I want peace just as much as they all do, but
we're not going to get it. The terrorists put us in the war."


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