Meghan Daum: The State of Student Activism

THE EVENTS at Columbia University on Oct. 4, in which about a dozen students stormed a stage where the founder of an anti-illegal immigration group was speaking, didn’t exactly resemble those of April 1968. There were no arrests, no soundtrack by the Grateful Dead, no occupation of the president’s office. But considering that most young people are considered to be politically apathetic, you have to credit the Chicano Caucus and the International Socialist Organization for trying.

The speaker, Jim Gilchrist of the Minuteman Project, a citizen’s border patrol group, had been invited to campus by the Columbia University College Republicans. Reports in the New York Times said students holding banners reading “No One Is Illegal” jumped on the stage and were soon joined by dozens more protesters as well as supporters of Gilchrist. Protesters later said Gilchrist was knocked backward and his glasses were broken. The student newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, reported that “one student was kicked in the head and bleeding.”

Columbia issued a statement defending the right to peaceful protest but acknowledging that “it is never acceptable for anyone to physically take a stage and interrupt a speaker.” New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, already upset that Columbia canceled an appearance by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (ostensibly for security reasons) said that the school’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, should “get his hands around this.”

“This” isn’t exactly uncharted territory for Columbia (full disclosure: I got a graduate degree at Columbia in the 1990s). But in the anti-Vietnam War ‘60s, things were different. Judging from the media coverage of the Gilchrist incident, the majority of students today see the protesters not as lionhearted heroes but as obstreperous liabilities to the university’s commitment to free speech. In 1968, they might have been regarded as both. But now the tone seems sour, forcing the question of where and why the demonstrators may have gone wrong. Inexperience and lack of leadership? Is the political climate so confused and convoluted that we no longer have a firm grasp on the meaning of activism?


Seeking answers to these questions, I called Mark Rudd. A founder of Students for a Democratic Society, Rudd was among the leaders of the Columbia revolt in 1968 and was later a member of the radical Weather Underground. No stranger to the ways in which protest can go astray — he was in hiding from 1970 to 1977 in connection with a bomb-making project that blew up a building and killed three people — he has since owned up to his mistakes and writes and speaks frequently on activism. I thought he could shed some light on the recent fracas at Columbia.

“The 19-year-old me would have done it exactly the same way,” Rudd said from his home in Albuquerque, where he’s a math instructor at a community college. “But the 59-year-old that I am now would be on the side of free speech. I would let the Minuteman speak, and I would certainly let the Iranian president speak. But I would also tell the students to understand the difference between organizing and self-expression. Young people are as thoughtful as ever, but they don’t believe they can make a difference. They don’t know how to organize and build a movement.”

Of course, there are plenty of already organized political movements, such as the Internet-based efforts that made Howard Dean a contender for the presidency (until he yelled too loudly and came off looking a bit too 1968 for comfort). But Rudd’s point about the way self-expression can get in the way of substantive activism may point to the root of Columbia’s problem.

Though some will certainly take issue with me, I can’t help but feel that today’s student political action seems stuck on the margins. Part of this is about necessity. Unlike 30 years ago, college doesn’t guarantee entry into the middle class, and kids are rightly focused on making money. The anticipatory anxiety of competing in a tenuous job market isn’t exactly conducive to cutting class in order to shout into a megaphone and possibly get arrested.

But there’s also the fact that activism has been branded as style. Ask a 20-year-old what comes to mind when he hears the word “protest” and he’ll likely conjure an image of hippies and cops. It’s not the issues but the images that stick. I can’t say for certain that the students who silenced Gilchrist were preoccupied with the aura of unrest rather than the plight of illegal immigrants, but it’s possible that old-fashioned organizing took a back seat to spectacle. In the end, neither side got to speak at all.

Still, I’ll give them an A (OK, maybe a B+) for trying. So does Rudd.

“I’m not going to point a finger at these kids and say you’re a hoodlum fascist,” he said. “I’m just going to wait and see what they do.” In other words, it’s not Columbia’s president who has to get his hands around this. It’s young activists themselves.