The year was 1970. Around the nation, student activism was at its apex, and in Washington, D.C., GW was a hotbed of demonstration and discord.
In a Feb. 21 special edition, The GW Hatchet reported:
“Rocks, clubs and gas filled the air yesterday as the GW campus became a battleground between police and hundreds of demonstrators protesting the Chicago Seven decision. The whooping, flag-waving attack of five hundred local radicals on the Watergate housing complex was turned into a hasty chaotic retreat by lines of helmeted police.”
Today’s undergraduates were not alive when their parents marched and occupied buildings in protests that consumed the nation during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
And for many Americans, young and old, student protest is still synonymous with “flower power,” long-haired campus radicals and a handful of political issues that define a generation.
But demonstrations and student activism are not just anachronistic oddities. Student activism remains alive and well – in a different localized form.
At Plymouth State College in New Hampshire, more than 500 rioters threw beer bottles and rocks at police who were trying to bust a spring party, imitating the form, but not the spirit, of their predecessors.
At Michigan State University in May, police used tear gas to disperse more than 2,000 students protesting an administration decision to ban alcohol at football tailgate parties.
Questions are raised: Have the human rights crusades of the last generation been replaced with a universal fight for the right to party? Or are students today indifferent when it comes to activism?
Academics are divided on the issue.
“Activism today is often discounted because it doesn’t fit the prevailing clich? that nobody cares,” writes Paul Loeb, author of Generation at the Crossroads, a book on student activism on America’s campuses.
“But my own perception is that, in fact, quite a lot is going on,” Loeb writes.
Today, student apathy on the surface gives way to a deeper level of idealism, often based on identity politics.
Activism of the ’90s means students putting their heads together with other like-minded students to form diverse student organizations, not butting heads with authorities.
Campuses are awash with clubs for every nationality and religion. Single-issue movements such as Students for a Free Tibet, the Godless Society, and Coalition for a Smoke-Free Youth abound.
Gay and lesbian student coalitions and ethnically based movements are growing dramatically in the ’90s. On many campuses, groups of Asian, Latino, and African-American students have convinced college administrators to create ethnic studies departments, and a fight now looms over the fate of affirmative action and English-only teaching.
Community service projects, tutoring at local schools and working at homeless shelters and soup kitchens is the new brand of student activism. It’s a kinder, gentler movement with a local focus.
Activism also revolves around the “getting what I pay for” sentiments that tweak college students across the nation. Tuition hikes, classroom overcrowding and curriculum concerns top of the list of many college students who speak out.
At GW, students united two years ago to fight what they considered an exorbitant increase in tuition, forming a group called Students Against Yearly Increases in Tuition and boycotting J Street to make their point.
This shift to community-based student activism could be a result of the prevalent disinterest in politics across the nation among students who feel political issues aren’t relevant to their lives.
Polls have shown declines in political participation among Americans of all ages, especially those in the 18-24 age group.
The Los Angeles Times reported that in 1997, only 27 percent of the freshmen surveyed put a high value on political awareness.
Compare that to the results of the same poll conducted in 1966, in which 58 percent of those who responded agreed that keeping up to date with political affairs was an important goal.
With the skyrocketing price of a college education, many students are working more and spending more time thinking about their futures. An increasingly popular outlet for activism can be an internship on Capitol Hill or for a special interest lobbying group.
“In many ways it was easier to be a student activist back in the 1960s and early ’70s, the so-called golden age of student protest – you had these big issues like civil rights and the Vietnam War,” said Bill Capowski with the Center for Campus Organizing in the Aug. 28 Congressional Quarterly Researcher.
Sanford Pinsker, a humanities professor at Franklin and Marshall College, said, “the establishment was the enemy and you defined yourself in opposition to that.”