Those Meddling Kids: Students Rise Up for Just Causes

Our Annual Campus Activism Roundup

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Let’s kick off Mother Jones‘ 14th annual review of campus activism with a question: Why, four years into the Iraq War, are college students so mystifyingly quiet about it? Does it take a draft to generate mass protests? Jonathan Williams, the 22-year-old national coordinator for the Student Peace Action Network, insists there has been a surge of antiwar activism—but clearly it has stayed under the radar. “I have hope that students can and will rise up,” he says. “We are a renewable resource. There will always be students.”

Meanwhile, the past year has seen the usual flurry of extracurricular activity, with students across the country taking to the streets to decry tuition hikes, marching to cut carbon emissions, and besieging military recruitment offices to protest Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Some actions went for catharsis over content—like mooning Karl Rove’s car when he visited American University in April. But other students took on real causes and got results, such as a series of hunger strikes to help campus workers. More of the year’s most memorable moments:

Show and Tell A provision tucked away in the No Child Left Behind Act that gives military recruiters access to students’ personal information inspired Lawrence High School students Alexia Welch and Sarah Ybarra to pick up video cameras. Though military recruiters refused to be filmed, Welch explains, “since they’re at our school, and it’s a public thing, we were allowed to use that.” The Kansas kids’ documentary, No Child Left Unrecruited, caught the eye of Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), who proposed axing the provision.

Veep Show At Brigham Young University, students railed against the selection of Dick Cheney as this year’s commencement speaker. Those wishing to see an only slightly less divisive figure attended an alternate ceremony headlined by Ralph Nader.

Tased and Confused You’d think campus cops would have figured out by now that a kid with a cell-phone camera is never far away. Evidently not: Last November, video showing ucla cops repeatedly tasering an Iranian American student for failing to show his ID at the school library landed on YouTube. When a couple hundred protesters gathered outside the police station a few days later, jumpy cops shut off the lights and outfitted themselves in full riot gear.

Spin the Bible When Jenny Parker launched a living-wage campaign at Baylor University, she did some Frank Luntz-style framing, dubbing her effort “1 John 3″—a nod to a biblical passage urging compassion for the needy. So far, 600 students at the Texas Baptist school have signed onto the campaign.

Crossing the Line In February, New York University‘s Republican Club sponsored a game where “border agents” searched for an “illegal immigrant” on campus. Protests and national media attention ensued. Club president Sarah Chambers insisted the stunt’s goal was dialogue. “What gets people discussing the issue isn’t always what is politically correct.”

Taking Sides Adopting a tactic popularized on other campuses, in April San Jose State University students built a mock version of Israel’s “security wall,” complete with checkpoints and 50 fake Israeli soldiers and Palestinians. Pro-Israel students crashed the event, wearing shirts that read, “If I were a suicide bomber, you would be dead.”

High Court In 2002, Alaska senior Joseph Frederick unfurled a 14-foot banner proclaiming “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” outside Juneau-Douglas High School, for which he was promptly suspended. Frederick’s absurdist prank launched a five-year legal odyssey that ended in June, when the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment doesn’t protect pro-drug references in public schools.

Flashback It was a brilliant way to get attention from the nostalgic lefty press: reviving Students for a Democratic Society. Since being reconstituted last year, “New sds” has opened chapters at 148 colleges and 50 high schools. It’s got some new tricks, such as the sdswiki—because there’s nothing like a wiki to prevent the kind of infighting and petty bickering that doomed its predecessor.

Reading Comp While on a visit to the White House in June, high school seniors representing the prestigious Presidential Scholars Program presented George W. Bush with a letter asking the administration to reform its treatment of detainees. Bush read the letter, signed by 50 of the students, and kept a straight face as he assured them the U.S. does not use torture.

CALORIE CONSCIOUSNESS   The campus hunger strike is making a comeback. This year, activists at several schools forsook nourishment for as long as 27 days.





University of Vermont
12 students, 5 days

Higher wages for the university’s lowest-paid employees

Juice, herbal tea, sea salt

uvm‘s president agreed to review the situation.

Stanford University
8 students, 9 days

A living wage for all university employees

Water only

Students secured a minimum campus wage for all workers.

Harvard University
9 students, 9 days

Better pay and benefits for campus security guards

Gatorade, water

One student was hospitalized; the guards won a new contract a few weeks later.

Purdue University
12 students, 27 days

Ending use of sweatshops to make school apparel

Liquids only; some took multivitamins.

School refused to meet demands; the protest ended in time for holiday meals.

University of California
40 students at 3 campuses, 9 days

Cutting uc‘s ties to federal nuclear weapons labs

Some drank a cocktail of lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper.

uc refused to meet demands. One official told strikers to “go out and have lunch.”


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