Computers Join Campus Protests Over Apartheid

Times Staff Writer

Its billing on a giant marquee might read: "Student Protest Meets Modern Technology," or "The '80s Finally Get Together with the '60s."

At UC San Diego in La Jolla, and at schools and institutions worldwide, the home computer has added a new dimension to the protest over South Africa's policy of apartheid.

Since April 24, when 2,000 UCSD students marched on campus in protest of the April 16 arrest of 159 UC Berkeley students, campus protesters across the country have been linked by a vast computer network.

Information Exchange

The network operates under a secret code name, but is similar, students say, to CompuServe, or any commercial computer information service. It permits anyone holding an account (subscribing) to sign on (using a password), exchange messages and--most important of all--information.

"We use it mostly for tactical coordination," said Mark Phillips, 27, a UCSD bookstore employee and one of 20 organizers heading the protest here. Phillips' job is "outreach" to other campuses, hence his position: computer controller.

"It's a very creative use of modern technology," said Phillips, who isn't a student but a salesman at Groundwork Bookstore, specializing in underground literature from a stand near the UCSD Student Center. "One advantage it gives us is instant communication. We don't have to wait two days to find out what the opposition is doing. We also share lots of advice."

What kinds of advice? Well, when students at the University of Florida were getting their movement under way, they messaged "the net"--nickname for the network--and asked what could be done, if anything, to affect (some would say disrupt) graduation ceremonies. Phillips said students at UC Santa Cruz messaged back immediately. (Anyone using the system can, he said, see what one school says to another simultaneously. In other words, it's more like a giant conference call. It doesn't permit private, one-on-one exchanges.)

The advice from Santa Cruz to Florida: March in with a coffin, "The most fitting symbol of apartheid," Phillips said. Graduation exercises in Gainesville, Fla., did indeed feature students marching in with a coffin. Another school advised the Floridians to wear red ribbons on mortar boards. That, too, was done.

Far-Flung Participants

The University of Wisconsin at Madison--long a bastion of campus protest--is the unofficial headquarters of the "net." An unidentified, but generous, Wisconsin student is the holder of a network account currently being used, Phillips said, by students in almost every state.

"He is," Phillips said, "just a really nice guy"--a comment delivered with a smile. Lately the Wisconsinite has apparently made waves. Though the system operates at the rather low cost of $6 an hour, it has to be rough saddling one account--and one charge card--with the on-line expenses of schools as far-flung as Berkeley and Bowdoin.

"We plan to get our own account real soon," Phillips said. "And so do a lot of other schools. I'm afraid the guy will insist."

Some people, even at UCSD, seem to regard the net as fodder for Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury. Others see it more in terms of potential.

Phillips sees nothing wrong with use of the net as a vehicle of civil disobedience.

"The Pentagon has access to the same technology," he said, "and you can bet their intentions aren't noble. Not at all."

'Why Shouldn't We?'

In other words, maybe microchips are more powerful than Molotov cocktails.

"To my knowledge, it's the first time in history," he said, "that a protest movement such as ours has had access to the same information. I don't see that as bad. Law enforcement agencies have always had access to the same stuff. Why shouldn't we?"

It should be noted that the protest at UCSD--and many other schools--has been, if anything, law-abiding and civil. Some of the activists of days gone by have even criticized the protests, saying the student of the '80s is, for the most part, apathetic and ambitious.

Phillips, who graduated from Johnston College at the University of Redlands, bristles at such characterizations. He says the protester of the '80s is smarter than his '60s counterpart in "knowing how to use technology--to be effective, and win."

On the porch of a university building where 50 to 250 UCSD students have been sitting or sleeping every night since April 24, a television and videocassette recorder provide taped updates of news accounts from schools around the country--"Always a big morale booster, anytime we get on TV," Phillips said--and highlights of happenings from around the country.

Via the net, campus protesters have been considering renting satellite time to carry their views in a live TV broadcast that might offer, in Phillips' words, "the most devastating statement of all. Let's face it, TV has that kind of impact."

Sitting in does too, he said, especially if orchestrated at more than one campus, in more than one state. The net gave UCSD the tip that 50 students sitting in each night would be more manageable and just as effective, Phillips said, as 250. The tip came, via the message bank, from Santa Cruz.

Lesson From the '60s

"They suggested we rotate the number," Phillips said, "so people wouldn't get bored or tired out, and everybody could get their homework done. One of the problems of the '60s was burnout. People missed classes, never got a break, and just lost their effect."

So far the administration here has taken a quiet approach to the protests and to the net. Phillips said the tactic of Chancellor Richard C. Atkinson seemed to be "to bore us to death." Phillips said as far as he knew, "hardly anyone" connected with the school knows that university computers are sometimes used. (Most of the time, he said, a student's home computer is used.)

Phillips said UCSD heard of the net from students at Santa Cruz, who gave them the names and numbers of Wisconsin students who started it as a way of messaging other protesters. (The name of the network used, he said, is secret to protect "the flow" of information.)

Phillips, a lanky man with a wiry build and fast-talking, intense manner, said five of nine UC schools currently use the net (UCLA included). He said USC had joined, then faded away.

The students are demanding that the 12 of 28 UC Regents who own stock in U. S. companies that have ties to South Africa divest themselves of those holdings and that UC divest itself of the $2.4 billion of pension investments in companies that do business in South Africa.

'Underwriting Apartheid'

"They are," he said, "underwriting apartheid."

So far the biggest use of the net is organization, and the main event is the protest of regents' meetings in May and June.

Phillips said students so far have succeeded in changing the site of the June 18 meeting from Santa Cruz--a hotbed of the current movement--to San Francisco.

The students also succeeded, he said, in winning a concession from regents. Instead of putting off divestiture until the meeting in June, they've agreed to consider the topic in May, at meetings scheduled for today and Friday in Berkeley.

Figuring out how to get people to Berkeley, and what they ought to do once they're there, has lit up computer lines from Waco to Westwood. Phillips showed a printout from the net with a cheerleader-like urge from UCLA: "UCLA says go all the way to mobilize. . . . Send people to Berkeley on the 16th (today)." He said UCSD and UCLA, and other participating schools, are sending 50 representatives each to Berkeley for today's action.

He declined to say what the action might be, though that, too, is a topic of (computer) conversation. He said the "first big confrontation" will probably come June 18 in San Francisco, "unless the regents decide to divest themselves before then."

Phillips said the "most gratifying" exchange so far came a few nights ago in a hookup with the African National Congress.

"Columbia (University) asked them," he said, "if our struggle was making any difference in South Africa itself. And they messaged back, 'Yes, it is.' Just hearing that, we've got to keep going."

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