May 13, 2001

Allow Us to Demonstrate: Student Protest Comes of Age

By JODI WILGOREN, The New York Times

Since they finished finals at the end of April, Ben Royal and three fellow University of Michigan students have been driving around the Northeast in a green 1992 Toyota Corolla, trying to make a movement.

They went to Pennsylvania State University, where death threats to black students recently inspired a sleep-in at the student center. They stopped at Brown University, where protesters outraged by an advertisement concerning reparations for slavery confiscated copies of the student paper and formed human chains to block its distribution. And they made several visits to Harvard, where 26 smelly students emerged Wednesday after a three-week sit-in over how much the nation's richest university pays its janitors.

Mr. Royal and his comrades, cell phones at their ears, are recruiting for a June conference on their Ann Arbor campus. They hope for attendance of 200 -- twice, they note, the number that gathered for the founding conference of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960.

There is a fine line between a march and a movement, and with students, in the glare of springtime, that line can be hard to see -- particularly in a culture that has become inured to the endless variations on chants that begin, "Hey hey, ho ho." There is, cynics will say, always a hardy band of leftists decrying something or other on every college campus, like background noise on the soundtrack of a liberal education. But if the activism of the late 1960's signified a more profound challenge to the fabric of society, today's demonstrations -- focused, tolerated and relentlessly coordinated -- may be more efficient at achieving their goals.

Student protest has a long history in Europe and Asia, dating at least to the 19th century. American campuses were slower to simmer, with the first sparks coming over economic issues in the 1930's and 1940's. It was only as universities opened up to a more diverse student body, in the 1960's, that a true student movement took hold, focused first on civil rights and then on the Vietnam War. A second generation arose in the 1980's, when students erected mock shantytowns and pushed many universities to divest themselves of their holdings in apartheid-era South Africa.

In both cases, the involvement of the young intellectual elite served to grab public attention. But the linkages between the student efforts and more established adult groups -- businesses and antiwar veterans, Democratic politicians and civil rights leaders -- were crucial to creating actual change.

"Students very often are the most publicized element, and very often they engage in the most dramatic actions because they are young and free and more ready to take risks because they are young and free," said Howard Zinn, the radical historian who visited the Harvard encampment several times. "If that movement doesn't go beyond students, then it doesn't go very far."

The latest rumblings, dating back about five years, focus on economic justice and globalization, with a dash of environmentalism. Students have rallied against the use of sweatshop labor to make their sweatshirts; now, at Harvard and across the country, they are aligning with union organizers to call for a " living wage" for the universities' lowest-paid employees. Mr. Royal and his friends, meanwhile, are trying to defend affirmative action.

Students were a major element of the recent civil disobedience disrupting world trade meetings in Seattle and Quebec, and unions have also stepped up their organizing among professors, graduate students, and even undergraduates across the country. In both the actions on campuses and the highly publicized protests of globalization that have targeted political and diplomatic conferences, students have forged an unusually strong alliance with labor.

This new partnership comes in part from the increasing interest among union leaders in direct action, and labor has reached out to young people with programs like Union Summer, an echo of the 1964 Freedom Summer, with college students organizing workers this time instead of registering voters. It also reflects the outward-looking ideology of today's students, who are rallying for the rights of low-wage workers even though, with their expensive degrees, they are unlikely to confront such problems personally.

Electronic communication has also revolutionized the revolution. Organizers now coordinate activities through e-mail and Web sites; the Harvard protesters spent much of their time on cell phones, blitzing the media and urging celebrities to come to the daily noontime rallies outside the window (they also frequently called their parents and assured them they were all right).

Whether the series of campus demonstrations in recent years will escalate into a sort of third wave of student movement, on the order of antiwar or divestment, remains a question. Harvard did not yield to the students' demands to pay all workers at least $10.25 an hour, instead just naming a new committee to reconsider the question. Still, the high-profile action at the nation's most prestigious university has already spurred copycats at the University of Connecticut, and could prove a bellwether.

At the same time, where once student protests shook the nation to its core, they have now become common enough to feel like a springtime rite of passage, prompting yawns or dismissive contempt. In the 1960's, students were questioning the foundation of American society, protesting the very authority of the institutions that governed their lives. Today, the questions seem far narrower, the protests somehow safer.

When Students for a Democratic Society occupied administration buildings in the 1960's, the abiding image was of long-haired hippies smoking cigars with their feet propped on the university president's desk. This year, many students brought books and laptops into Massachusetts Hall so they wouldn't fall too far behind in their schoolwork. In 1969, during a demonstration against R.O.T.C. recruiting at Harvard, the police stormed University Hall and threw the students out after 24 hours; officers brought today's protesters deodorant and dinner.

And many student protests are about far less cosmic, more self-interested concerns, like the recent University of North Carolina march over budget cuts, or last weekend's demonstration at Boston University complaining that construction on a soccer field was a noisy disruption during exams.

Donald Kagan, a classics professor at Yale University, said that administrators -- many of whom came of age in the 60's, some through sit-ins -- have gotten soft, and that by failing to discipline students for acts of civil disobedience, are "miseducating them morally."

"In the real world, your acts have consequences," Professor Kagan said. "At Yale and Harvard, they don't. If you don't risk anything, it costs you nothing. You're not a hero, you're a bully."

The cynics say that students protest in the spring because they prefer it to studying, that students protest because they have more time and less to lose, that rallies and demonstrations are like so many other extra-curricular activities.

But if they don't do it, who will?

"This is going to sound like what adults say when they're patronizing students, but when you're older, you're saddled with a lot of different responsibilities," said Ari Weisbard, a Harvard junior from Madison, Wis., who was among the sitters through Day 21. "You can't really throw everything aside for several weeks to devote to something important. It's not just that we're more idealistic because we haven't had as much world experience. It's that we have a real chance to act on our ideals."

Mr. Weisbard, whose father was among the protesters at Harvard in1969, acknowledged that skipping two and a half weeks of classes was unlikely to hurt his law school applications. The only homework he managed to get done inside was reading two chapters of a text titled "Political Equality," but he was able to get an extension on his philosophy paper until next week.

Then there's his social studies tutorial, a seminar called Community Organizing and Civic Democracy. He is hoping the professor will understand why he missed class, gathering primary research for his final paper.