Protesting as a Hobby
Is protesting becoming the new American college pasttime?
October 3, 2002
In late September 2002, the Student Activist Union (SAU) of Vassar College organized an excursion to Washington, D.C. However, rather than visiting the Smithsonian or other tourist attractions all across town, these students came here with a decidedly different objective in mind: protesting the fall meetings of the World Bank and the IMF.
On the surface, the SAU would seem to be just another collegiate club. It receives funding from Vassar's Student Assembly, it organizes weekly meetings and it plans campus-wide events and activities.
However, what separates the SAU from its counterparts is the organization's commitment to controversial political causes that are shaping the world beyond the walls of their dorm rooms.
Through rallies, letter-writing campaigns, speak-outs and petitions, the Student Activist Union seeks to promote progressive social action — whether it is on Vassar College's campus, Washington D.C. or abroad.
According to some activists, college students are ideal candidates for these types of activities. Students have the time, the energy and the enthusiasm necessary for demonstrations.
Furthermore, college students are not weighed down by such responsibilities as families or careers. Also, they are very aware of current events due to the subjects they are studying at school.
Yet, it is difficult — if not impossible — to characterize the "average protester." Each person comes to demonstrations with their own agenda. Some attend in order to protest capitalism. Some fight for increased environmental protection — and some come just out of genuine curiosity.
Moreover, for these committed students, protests are more than just a chance to experience democracy in action or to express themselves. They are also fun.
In the words of Nikki Crook, a Vassar senior, "You feel an incredible sense of community." There's music, food and a great sense of camaraderie that is based on a mutual commitment to improving the world.
Since its inception, the SAU of Vassar College has been extremely active — both on and off campus. On campus, its members have protested the takeover of the school's independent bookstore by the national chain, Barnes and Noble. And they have supported an initiative by the part-time workers in the cafeteria to unionize.
They have also organized conferences on political prisoners and have brought famous speakers, like the famous American historian Howard Zinn, to campus to speak about the importance of activism.
In addition, the Student Activist Union has organized trips to New York and Washington, D.C. to attend larger protests and demonstrations.
In late September of 2002, for example, a sizable contingent of students attended the anti-IMF/World Bank protests. And the group is already gearing up to attend the "Not in Our Name" anti-war rally in New York's Central Park in early October.
Clubs like the Student Activist Union are becoming increasingly popular at small, liberal arts schools like Vassar, but they still have yet to catch on at larger schools across the country.
However, many of the students with whom I spoke foresaw an imminent increase in the popularity of demonstrations. The new cause? A response to the proposed invasion of Iraq.
According to them, this cause could bring about a boost in activist levels — similar to what happened after the Seattle protests in 1999.
Another striking feature of these college activist organizations is their autonomy. They occasionally collaborate with local organizations like, in Vassar's case, the Mid-Hudson Direct Action Network.
Also, they provide links on their own website to more established protest groups like Refuse and Resist. But the SAU — as many other organizations of its ilk — is largely independent.
Part of this stems from the fact that the support of college students can occasionally be ephemeral. After all, who can go off to fight globalization when they have a paper due tomorrow — in, say, Abnormal Psychology or Sociology?
Umberto Eco once famously quipped that there is nothing that resembles a medieval monastery as much as an American university.
Students stay in individual cells, spend their days immersed in reading, writing and studying — and are blissfully unaware of what is happening beyond the protective walls of their schools.
Perhaps what we are seeing in this new trend of student-organized protest groups is a move away from this model. That would foreshadow a move toward a new conception of U.S. college students as engaged and informed members of the global community.