Activism among college students is not dead

GSU SignalAug 24, 1999
Earl A. Daniels, Staff Writer

College students are being accused of being apathetic, but a closer examination shows that this view may be a myth. Critics point out that over half of 18 to 24-year-olds voted in the 1964 elections, but less than a third cast ballots in the 1996 elections. But such measures do not give the whole picture of what college students are doing today. The pundits that want to label the young as uninvolved are often those that participated in sit-ins and marches in their heyday of the €˜60s. These were students who thought that they could change the world. Today €˜s young people take a more skeptical approach, and many even doubt their ability to change themselves.

However. there are indications that not only is student activism alive, but it is well and thriving. The past year has seen student sit-ins around the country to protest logo-emblazoned college gear manufactured in sweatshops. Students say that they do care about the huge profits made through the exploitation of the factory workers. Athletic shoe manufacturers in particular have started to improve the conditions for their employees. Unchecked capitalism is not the only target of protest. Almost 5,000 protesters turned out for Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin €˜s November 1998 visit at Harvard to bring pressure for improving conditions in Tibet.

On the flip side, ten years after erecting a Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square, Beijing €˜s students were back in the streets to protest the U. S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kosovo. Of course, the Chinese government had reason to be more accommodating of these protests, even after the students started stoning the U. S. Embassy. Elsewhere, Mexican students have gone on strike and Iranian students took to the streets to protest their government’s policies.

Not all these protests are concerned with sweeping worldwide issues. While there is a seeming lack of broad liberal causes that flourished on campuses in the €˜60s. there are causes that significant numbers of students care deeply about. American students are more likely to get concerned about personal issues rather than geo-political issues The issues for post-WWII students were different than the issues that are being tackled by post-Reaganomics students. Affirmative action or sexual harassment is more likely to get students fired up than military action in Kosovo.

The Signal office was itself the scene of a brief sit-in protest from students who did not appreciate the humor in the editorial about Mumia Abu-Jamal in the April fool €˜s edition. Around 40 students came together to the office to make their views known.

One reason that activism has seemed dead is that those doing the eulogies are taking a narrow view of activism. As the issues change, so have the tactics. When law school students here at GSU were upset about the new diplomas, they didn €˜t stage a sit-in. While they did use some traditional tactics, they also deployed their cell phones and their e-mail. They were able to get their views into the local newspapers. In a more subtle approach, students at UCLA started a “wristband” protest to highlight the post-Proposition 209 decline in minority students in the University of California system.

Student issues are also being heard in the courts. The Supreme Court was the forum for settling differences over the control of student activity fees at public universities that were going to groups whose political message offended other students.

Back here at GSU, our Student Government Association and other groups seem ready to air the concerns of students. While the Atlanta Business Chronicle honors GSU President Carl Patton as one of “100 Most Influential Atlantans” because of “how he has wielded power recently,” at least some of the students here are going to hold him accountable for how students are treated. How many will turn out in the Library Plaza at noon on August 31 for the “Financial Aid/Copy Center Rally ” is yet to be seen, but the student body has started a rumble.

Not all activism is reactionary. While not all the needs are being met, there are more students doing volunteer work than ever before. The approach of being proactive appeals to many students. They can see the changes happening as a result of their efforts.

Nobody could seriously want the €˜60s back. The “grand old days” of students being arrested en mass were not so grand. Somehow, burning draft cards and bras just wouldn €˜t go over too well today. A lot was accomplished in the €˜60s. The first African-American student was admitted to GSU in 1962, and the improvements have continued since then. even if sometimes almost imperceptibly. We still have women being sexually harassed (and worse), and the goals of those in power do not always benefit those affected. People are being held accountable for their actions in more ways.

Hopefully students will see the difference between late financial aid checks and late term papers. Those that do turn out for the rally to protest next week need to take responsibility for their end of the bargain. Hopefully. students will start seeing how they fit into the overall picture. For example, the students on the commencement committee failed to attend the meetings where the changes were made to the diplomas.

The new life in student activism is a change for the positive. Students should be involved in important matters. It seems as though they will continue to be involved in increasing numbers.

That is, unless they are all too busy trying to earn enough money to afford a new pair of athletic shoes.

{Note added 2018: I cringe at that last sentence, and almost deleted it in this copy. It is a cynical look at a social dynamic and I regret how it comes across. As with all positions I have ever taken, hopefully I am evolving in my views and how I express them}