1980s Protesters Push Anti-Apartheid Point Politely
“The Movement never really died,” 25- year-old protester John Fliter said Friday morning, leaning on his bedroll in the lobby of the California State University, Northridge, administration building. “It just went into hibernation.”
Wednesday and Thursday nights, Fliter and dozens of other students had camped out in the building that houses the office of CSUN President James W. Cleary to protest the university’s indirect financial support of the segregationist government of South Africa.
Almost inevitably, the Northridge demonstration and similar recent protests at UCLA and elsewhere prompted speculation over whether the student activism of the ‘60s was being reborn.
Not exactly, the protesters themselves acknowledged.
Meetings, Songs, Pizza
Hoping to force the administration to take an anti-apartheid stand, Fliter and his fellow protesters held midnight organizational meetings, sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and ordered out for pizza while waiting for a response from the president’s office.
But, although the tunes were those of the ‘60s, the words were those of the ‘80s--not “Hell, no, we won’t go,” but “Show CSUN at its best. Apartheid no, divestment yes.”
The tone, too, was different. Contrasted with the sometimes violent campus demonstrations of the ‘60s and ‘70s, when student papers ran stories on coping with tear gas and college presidents never knew who would be sitting behind their desks in the morning, the Cal State Northridge sleep-in was a polite, even pallid affair.
“In 1985 we tend to be a little more relaxed,” urban studies major Usher Barnum Jr., 21, said.
Northridge student body President Zeke Zeidler, who slept in but also met frequently and amicably with Cleary, agreed. “What we’ve shown is that we’re willing to abide by all the rules,” he said, a boast Berkeley’s Mario Savio and other campus leaders of the earlier generation never made.
Vic Claudio, a 24-year-old political science and philosophy major, resented the media’s suggestion that today’s campus protesters were seeking the self-righteous thrills experienced by louder, longer-haired students of more turbulent times.
“This is similar to the ‘60s in some ways,” he said, sitting beneath a wall sign that read: “Africa Must Be Free.”
“But we’re not doing this because we feel that we haven’t had any fun happen in our lives. We’re doing this because we believe in the issue,” Claudio said.
The students’ vigil officially ended shortly after noon Friday, when Cleary obliged them by scheduling a special meeting of the Cal State Northridge Foundation on May 8 to consider ending campus ties with banks and other institutions that do business with South Africa. The foundation is a state-chartered entity, composed of students, faculty members and administrators, that runs the campus bookstore and other functions.
“I feel gross,” Kayleen Haegg, a 20-year-old English major, said after two nights of sleeping in her clothes on the floor, which the occupying students divided into smoking and non-smoking sections. “I just washed my face in the bathroom over there. Some people took showers in the gym, but most of us are gross.”
If the sleep-in was no Kent State, however, for the students who participated it was the real thing, a principled stand at the risk of administrative wrath.
“I am willing to be arrested,” Fliter, a political science major scheduled to graduate next month, said shortly before he learned he would be going back to class instead.
Fliter, whose backpack bore buttons that read “Stop U.S. Intervention in El Salvador” and “Question Authority,” said that 40 students participated Wednesday night and that twice that many participated Thursday.
“Some people played cards or Trivial Pursuit or just tried to sleep,” he said. Like the others, he boycotted the nearby vending machines because they are operated by the CSUN Foundation.
Judy Share, a 22-year-old senior who wore her red “CIA Out of Nicaragua” T-shirt to the protest and brought her guitar, said the first night was a lot more fun than the second, which was an intensely political “working night” for the sleep-deprived activists. Share was one of the group’s links with the past. She brought along the words to “Blowin’ in the Wind” and dozens of other vintage protest songs.
During their first night, Share recalled, she and her colleagues occasionally interrupted their discussions of how to end apartheid to see how many protesters could be wrapped in a single bedroll.
“All of a sudden people who didn’t know each other at all were giving each other back massages,” she said.
Michelle Jones, a 19-year-old sophomore, agreed that camaraderie had been an unexpected bonus of the students’ decision to take a public stand against apartheid. “We have made a community,” she said. “At night this is our world.”
Share said that she had described the sleep-in to friends who led student protests at Northridge during the Vietnam era and they laughed at the modesty of the 1985 demonstration.
“The movement is still very small,” Share said. “For every one of us, there are still 30 or 40 or 50 who are tied up in professional me-ism. There’s still a majority of, you should excuse the expression, Yuppies on this campus. They still outnumber those with a social-conscience mentality.”
Although more than 2,500 Northridge students recently signed an anti-apartheid petition, few wanted to break campus regulations to dramatize their concern, Share said.
“This is not a very controversial issue,” she said. “It’s easy for a student to be against apartheid, and yet the first thing a lot of people said was, ‘I can’t get arrested because I’m afraid what it will do to my future.’ ”
Share, who said her father was beaten in a civil-rights demonstration 20 years ago, said she would have preferred to actually take over Cleary’s office and, if necessary, go to jail.
“I’m dismayed by the excessive willingness of some of the leaders of this movement to compromise and comply with campus regulations,” she said. “The administration should appreciate this protest, in an ironic way, because this movement has been so genteel in its formulation of demands--oh, we don’t call them ‘demands'--requests.”
Kaveh Kamooneh, 21, co-leader of Students Against Apartheid on campus, denied that the Northridge action was a copycat protest inspired by the recent demonstration at UCLA. Kamooneh said his group discovered CSUN’s ties with South African business interests last summer and has been protesting them ever since. He said, however: “We are responding to the call of unity by the UCLA students.”
The protesters prevailed in time to go home for the weekend. But, as they were deciding what to put in their last official press release, Zeidler proposed that they re-christen the building where they had made their stand: “Let’s change the name from Administration to Nelson Mandela Hall,” he said, citing a prominent South African political prisoner.
Too late, another protester cautioned: “It’s already been done at Santa Barbara.”