Waking up at 6:30 a.m. on a January morning in 30 degree weather is not Florida native Carlos Vazquez’s idea of a good time.
But as he and fellow members of GW’s Young America’s Foundation hammered 1,300 white crosses into the ground in University Yard to symbolize aborted pregnancies for their “Cemetery of Innocents” event, Vazquez ignored the cold in the name of YAF’s anti-abortion cause.
This kind of conservative activism on campus is growing nationwide, according to a New York Times report – and much of it sprouted its roots on college campuses like GW’s during the later part of the George W. Bush administration.
GW’s chapter of YAF in particular has been known for its outspoken brand of advocacy, which has included opposing the Michelle Obama Community Service Challenge and its Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week. In 2007, the event gained exposure after liberal students mocked YAF’s plans by creating anti-Muslim posters. YAF has also brought to campus controversial figures like David Horowitz and Ann Coulter.
While some on campus might describe YAF’s activism as inflammatory, YAF President Travis Korson said his organization – which has an e-mail list of roughly 500 students, he said – holds events and protests intended to introduce the campus to opposing viewpoints he feels should be acknowledged.
The Jan. 29 “Cemetery of Innocents” event, Korson said, drew mixed reactions from GW students walking by during the day. Students with similar pro-life views thanked the YAF members, but others voiced discomfort, disagreement and irritation at the display.
“There were definitely a lot of people who came up and were irritated by our viewpoint,” Korson said. “But being in YAF, you need to have a thick skin. We do hold viewpoints that a strong core group of students on campus disagree with. The most important thing is that we have our viewpoints, and we’re not going to be pushy or obnoxious, but we’re unapologetic.”
Sophomore and YAF member Giovanni Tomasi said he is not uncomfortable being part of an organization that receives heat from many on campus, saying that it is something right-leaning students should be prepared to endure.
“You can’t be a member of YAF if you don’t like walking into a room where people look at you in scorn,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, but it’s frustrating at times. Our message falls on deaf ears, but it makes it more fun, also.”
Tomasi, YAF’s treasurer, got involved in YAF during his Colonial Inauguration, as he felt the group had more of an activist stance.
“I was drawn in by the fact that YAF is an organization that’s more devoted to the conservative ideology, as opposed to the College Republicans or a similar group, which is more about politicking and campaigning and all that,” Tomasi said. “I like the fact that we’re more promoting the message of conservatism as opposed to whichever candidate might run for something.”
Though he is also a dues-paying member of the CRs, Tomasi said he is more involved in YAF due to its overall commitment to the conservative cause.
“I feel like the [CRs] e-board is more there to coordinate water balloon fights with the CDs than to actually do things on campus to make a statement,” he said. “I heard about Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week and that brings quite a statement. YAF isn’t afraid to take a stance on something.”
CR Chairman Brandon Hines disagreed with the contention that the CRs are not as actively engaged, but emphasized that the difference between the groups is related more to differences in conservatism and adhering to the Republican party line.
“We have activist events all year long, and speakers. I think if anybody’s looking to actively get engaged and make a change, the Republican Party has a seat at the table,” Hines said. “YAF does great work, and we like to work with them on a case-by-case basis, but the College Republicans really try to give our members opportunities to engage in activist events, to engage with speakers, campaign opportunities and internships.”
Vazquez, the freshman representative of YAF, noted that in his case, there is nothing but peaceful harmony with the CRs.
“My roommate is the freshman rep of College Republicans,” he said. “So, we definitely have the most conservative room in Thurston.”
Students interviewed said that while they may disagree with the content of YAF’s conservative programming, every student and group is entitled to their opinions.
“It sounds a little intense,” said sophomore Rachel Stein, discussing YAF’s annual Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week. “I don’t know if I would go to any of those events. But it definitely gets attention.”
Freshman Sean Peerenboom said he sees no problems with YAF’s methods of spreading their beliefs, though he noted that certain terminology could be construed as offensive.
“I don’t have any problems with them protesting but I don’t necessarily agree with their ideology,” Peerenboom said. “With terms like ‘Islamo-Fascism,’ it could potentially get controversial, though.”
Sophomore Isabella Bulkeley, who said she walked through U-Yard during the “Cemetery of Innocents” event, did take umbrage with YAF’s methodology, arguing that if they really wanted to get their point across, they could do so in less incendiary ways.
“I saw the crosses, and at first I thought it was for veterans,” said Bulkeley, “Then I saw the signs talking about abortions, and I got a little irritated and just walked away. I think they were trying to be confrontational and surprising. Everyone knows that [abortion] is a problem, but they’re not talking about the real problem, which is how do we lower the amount of abortions, and they’re just going for shock value with their statistics.”
Bulkeley said that if YAF aired their views in a less controversial way, other left-leaning students might be more willing to listen.
“I think it detracts from what they’re saying, because I don’t think that’s an educated way to go about it. They should have a more eloquent response to what they think the problem is, how it should be solved, and then I would be more willing to listen,” she said. “They should go about it in a more organized, academic way, but if they’re trying to scare me and make me feel guilty, then yeah, I think that’s offensive.”
Jason Mattera, a national spokesman for YAF, said that, ultimately, GW’s conservatives should be applauded for continuing to air their viewpoints, despite being heavily outnumbered.
“GW brings an endless parade of liberal speakers, but the school fails to host noted conservatives,” Mattera said in an e-mail. “Left-wing curricula and faculty are aplenty, but conservatives? Well, they have about as much representation on campus as do unicorns. In fact, I think there are more unicorns at GW than there are conservative professors.”