Protests That Make the Grade

Each year, Mother Jones surveys the state of campus activism across the country. The result is the Top 10 ranking, a view of how the nation’s students are reacting to issues of concern, and of what issues seem to be striking a chord on college campuses.

Image: Hank Hoffman/Illustrations by Christoph Hitz

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2001-2002 had all the makings of a banner year for campus activism. The incoming freshmen were the most liberal in a generation, according to an annual survey by the Higher Education Research Institute, and nearly half had participated in a public protest during the previous year — an all time high. But students had barely settled into their dorm rooms when the attacks of September 11 shook the nation, putting a damper on dissent. The result was a year in which black-and-white issues like sweatshop labor increasingly gave way to thornier debates — including how to respond to terrorism and the intractable conflict in the Middle East.

1. Wesleyan University: Only one week after 9/11, Wesleyan students — organizing over the Internet — coordinated a National Day of Action to send the message that they did not want to see terrorist violence met with war. On September 20, thousands of students in 30 states at 105 universities (including Harvard, Duke, Oberlin, and Pomona) joined 750 Wesleyan students — a full quarter of the student body — in protests to demand what they called “peaceful justice.” When Wesleyan peace activists later marched on Senator Joseph Lieberman’s office in Hartford, Connecticut, police subdued them with batons and pepper spray and arrested seven.

2. University of Michigan: UM activists did more than rally to support affirmative action in school admissions, they took their case to federal court. Twenty-five minority students joined a landmark suit before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals involving a white law school applicant who claimed she had been rejected on the basis of her race. Named as “intervenors,” the students presented their own defense, called expert witnesses, and submitted a pro-affirmative action petition signed by 50,000 people. In May, the appeals court upheld the university’s efforts to diversify. “As the intervenors essentially argue,” the court declared, schools must be permitted “to remedy past discrimination or present racial bias in the educational system.”

3. Florida State University: Anti-sweatshop protesters at FSU pitched a tent city last March to demand that the school join the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent watchdog group endorsed by the FSU business school that enforces labor standards among manufacturers of university apparel. FSU earns $2 million a year in licensing revenue on its clothing, but joining the group would risk alienating Nike, a WRC opponent that pays $3 million a year for the right to outfit Seminole athletes. The university arrested 12 activists for setting up their tents outside a designated “free speech zone.” After posting bail, the students moved their encampment to a sanctioned location, and it quickly swelled to 50 tents. The protest ended in July, after 114 days, when the administration agreed to meet with leaders from the WRC.

#4. UC Berkeley: To denounce Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, a group called Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) established a checkpoint on campus and organized an April rally, drawing more than 1,000 protesters. SJP also staged a classroom sit-in to demand that the university divest $6.4 billion from businesses with ties to Israel. The protest disrupted midterm exams, led to the arrest of 41 students, and sparked counter-protests by Jewish groups, who accused SJP of anti-Semitism. When the administration suspended SJP’s right to operate on campus as punishment for disrupting classes, the American Civil Liberties Union admonished, “The university’s reaction to the sit-in has a chilling effectÉat a time when freedom of expression is so critical to our democracy.” The university reinstated SJP after 200 members ßouted their suspension by rallying at Sproul Plaza, the former stomping grounds of the Free Speech Movement.

5. Harvard University: Building on last year’s success in establishing living wages for campus food workers, students rallied anew to increase salaries for other service employees. In November, 500 students joined hundreds of janitors at a campus march. In January, the university agreed in principle to raise the hourly wages of its 1,000 lowest-earning workers to at least $10.83. But when contract negotiations continued to drag on in February, students staged a rally at Harvard Square and four were arrested. The next day, the university agreed to raise the minimum wage for janitors to $11.35 this year — and to $13.50 by 2005.

6. University of Northern Colorado: When nearby Eaton High School refused to ditch its Indian mascot and its team name, The Fightin’ Reds, Native American students at UNC decided they shouldn’t get mad – they should get even. They founded a new intramural basketball team called The Fighting Whites, replete with a Ward Cleaver-esque white guy as a mascot. Along with nearly a dozen other student groups at UNC, the team has lobbied the state Board of Education to ban Indian mascots. They have also sold thousands of Fightin’ White team T-shirts, with all proceeds going to a Native American scholarship fund.

7. University of Massachusetts: Fed up with working 20-hour weeks for a $50 stipend and free dorm rooms, student resident advisers at UMass voted in March to unionize — forming the country’s first undergraduate employee union. Despite recognition by the state labor board and an April sit-in that saw 22 students arrested, the university has refused to negotiate with the 360-member union. In May, the faculty senate urged the university to grant students “the union recognition that is rightfully and legally theirs.” The students’ plight also became an issue in the state’s gubernatorial race, with all but one of seven candidates backing the union.

8. Morgan State University: A thousand students at this historically black college — one-sixth of the student body — descended on the Maryland capitol in April, demanding the state restore $3.1 million in funding for a new library. The students marched single file around the statehouse and staged a sit-in at a House office. The funding request was denied, but the protesters are not giving up. “We are not asking for a club — we are asking for a library,” said one student. “We cannot prepare for the world without one, and we will not stop until we get one.”

9. Rhodes College: Students at this Memphis school fought back after a black student’s car was vandalized with a racist slur and several other black students received hate mail in February. An antiracism rally sponsored by the Black Students Association drew almost all of the college’s 1,550 students — 95 percent of whom are white — and 130 professors, who carried signs with slogans like “Truth: There are only three black professors.” Students petitioned for a new dean of multicultural affairs and increased staff diversity.

10. Hampshire College: In December, with the death toll of Afghan civilians mounting, Hampshire students and faculty passed a resolution condemning the “War on Terrorism.” The resolution — believed to be the only campus-based action of its kind in the United States — was approved by a margin of 693-121. “Our community has spoken,” said Michael Sherrard, an organizer with Students for a Peaceful Response. “We refuse to fall into silent support for an unjust war that kills innocents overseas and threatens our safety and civil liberties at home.”


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