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The Persian Gulf War--the Student Front : At USC, Protest Shows its Many New Faces, as Party-School Image Fades

<i> Jennifer Cusack is a graduate student in journalism at USC</i>

“No Blood for Oil,” “Why Die?"-- I saw the signs on campus buildings and benches before I could hear the voices of protesters around the corner. Not just signs, but also graffiti. “No Oil War” was scrawled in blue paint on one bench.

The voices grew louder as I approached the center of campus. I walked through the outer edges of the large group gathered around the stage. Next to me, two girls laughed when the guy they were with told them about a party coming up at his fraternity Saturday night. Protest, USC-style, I thought. One big social event.

But as I moved closer to the stage, where the crowd was thicker, I saw how far the group stretched, how many students and faculty and staff were there. Tommy Trojan, the icon usually worshipped on crisp football Saturdays, was draped with more protest signs.

Even more, I noticed how striking the differences among these people were. This wasn’t just one campus group--not just the animal rights’ defenders, or a new brand of bohemians, or all-purpose activists. T-shirts with peace signs could be seen next to button-down collars; men with long, straggly hair stood along side military-style crew cuts; whites, blacks, Asians and Latinos intermingled.

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This USC was new to me.

At Brown University, where I studied as an undergraduate, such a gathering wouldn’t have been unusual. Demonstrations at the “liberal” New England college were cause-of-the-month affairs. Protests, teach-ins, rallies--all seemed just another extracurricular activity for college students.

Before I’d arrived, I’d heard that USC stood for “University of Spoiled Children.” I carried other preconceptions: that the school was located in the big, bad city but that its undergraduates were provincial; that its students were laid-back but still Republican, and that in the early days of war, I could expect to find a student body of blond-haired, blue-eyed, red-blooded Americans ready to be all that they could be.

But on this day before the war began, I heard one of the protest leaders on stage shout, “We’re not gonna let some fat, balding old men on Capitol Hill make our choices for us. It’s time we took some control over our own lives!”

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And I saw a sign that read, “If you want to fight for oil, you volunteer!”

There have been other rallies at USC since the fighting began. About 800 students attended a “walkout” the day after Baghdad was first bombed. The air was more electric than at the pre-deadline rally: Signs saying “Support Desert Storm” cropped up on the sidelines. The speeches were louder and their targets closer--other students.

If USC’s reputation as an apolitical campus is outworn, if “conservative” and “liberal” no longer serve as adequate labels in the gulf debate, what explains the school’s “quiet” image?

Perhaps, as Dean Jerry Siegal says, the campus has never been particularly quiet. Siegal remembers the invasion of Cambodia in 1970: “It was a moment of crisis and the nation and the campus drew together. . . . It was a very vital and involved moment in our history.”

He calls USC’s image as an insulated, uninvolved campus a “misperception” and “ancient history.” “Culturally, ethnically, economically, USC is a very diverse place. I would expect that as the nation goes, so goes this campus.”

Campus peace activists offer different perspectives. Barbara Zheutlin, director of the Peace Center at the United University Church, “was thrilled with the turnout at the (pre-Jan. 15) protest, but who knows how long it will last here?”

Clancy Sigal, a writer who teaches journalism, added, “Unquestionably the gulf war is energizing the peace movement . . . but this is a new war and it needs a lot of fresh, creative thinking. There is a huge reservoir of untapped idealism on this campus.”

But USC, of course, is not the only campus experiencing a resurgence of anti-war energy.

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Throughout the late 1980s, the media gathered the evidence and delivered the verdict on my generation’s politics: We were apathetic, money-driven cynics hooked on MTV. Now might be the time for a retrial.

Despite George Bush’s promises that “this will not be another Vietnam,” Vietnam may help explain some of the shift in my generation’s attitudes toward war. We may not remember it, but we have seen it, in our way.

We have watched it on the big screen. “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “Born on the Fourth of July” and many, many more--these movies helped create an emotional backdrop for war. We have watched friends lose friends again and again, even if we know they’re only actors. We have seen bodies torn apart, villages destroyed, women and children raped and killed.

All our lives we’ve read Hollywood’s translation of the Vietnam War--one highly charged with emotion, pain and loss, as is America’s collective memory of that period.

Some might scoff at an emotional, rather than a political, reaction to war. But on Jan. 15, we were given a moment, a “deadline,” to consciously ponder a war --and that energized us emotionally.

When the speakers at that first rally concluded their remarks, we cheered and chanted, “No blood for oil! No blood for oil!” while we waved our peace signs in the air. Why were we there? Why did we chant? Did we really expect Bush--or Congress, or Saddam Hussein--to hear, and to change their minds? When we gathered again after the planes and missiles were launched, did we think that we could recall them?

Standing in the crowd at the USC protests, I didn’t see a united group of political-demonstration junkies or ‘60s throwbacks, and I didn’t hear much revolutionary political theory. But I did see people who were angry and afraid--who wanted to be angry and afraid together.


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