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Reacting to War: Students and Professors Organize Protests, Counterprotests, Teach-Ins, and Discussions

(The following article ran in the 3/28/03 Edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education; Page 6)


Banging on drums, chanting antiwar slogans, and blocking city intersections,students around the country who oppose the war in Iraq marked the beginning of the bombing with rallies, class walkouts, and faculty-led teach-ins.

On some campuses, the antiwar protesters clashed with students who supported the war. On most campuses, the day's classes were overshadowed by talk of war and terrorism.

On a cool, overcast day, hundreds of students at the University of Texas' main campus here took their frustration to the streets in a demonstration that ended in a march to the Capitol.

Her outstretched hands stained with red paint, Kelly Framel, a sophomore, was swept up in the crowd of students heading toward a busy intersection near the campus.

"If we don't do something to stop this war, the blood of innocent people who die will be on all of our hands!" she shouted.

As drivers honked in irritation or support, protesters sat in a circle in the middle of the intersection, their arms and hands linked with duct tape that was molded to resemble missiles. Hundreds of students crowded behind them, shouting slogans like, "No more blood for oil" and "One, two, three, four, we don't want your stupid war." The crowd -- which police estimated at about 400 but protesters said reached 1,000 -- later marched to the state Capitol.

A lone supporter of the war approached the group, shouting "traitors!" and engaging in a heated argument with several protesters. "You're complaining that this is an illegal war, but here you are, flaunting local laws by tying up a city street," said Brendan Steinhauser, a junior at Texas who is the executive director of the Young Conservatives of Texas. "It's total hypocrisy." He said his group was planning a "pro-America" rally for late March.

Warren Craig, a sophomore at UT-Austin who helped organize the rally, said acts of civil disobedience were a way to call attention to "the devastation that we're going to cause in Iraq and the millions of people who could be killed or injured."

While the protests at the University of Texas were, for the most part, peaceful, Jonathan L. Bougie, a graduate student in physics who opposes the war, said that a university police officer threw him against a concrete wall last week while he was writing antiwar slogans in chalk on campus sidewalks.

He said he cut his head and had to have several stitches. Campus police confirmed that Mr. Bougie was injured during a scuffle that took place as an officer was arresting him on a criminal-mischief charge, but the police report said he was hurt when he tried to escape and the officer pulled him to the ground.

Elsewhere around the country, police officers arrested 39 protesters taking part in a demonstration that started at Ohio University just hours before the first bomb and missile strikes against Iraq. The protesters, who blocked an Athens intersection, were charged with ignoring police orders to break up their demonstration after the 30 minutes they had been permitted to stay there. They were each charged with disorderly conduct. They had time, however, to unfurl a banner that read: "If you liked Sept. 11, you'll love the war in Iraq."

Many of the protests around the country were coordinated by the Campus Anti-War Network, a grass-roots coalition of groups at colleges and high schools that was created in January with representatives of about 80 campuses.

The protests ranged from silent vigils to noisy rallies, attracting anywhere from a few to a few thousand students. In addition to Texas, some of the campuses that had large rallies included the Universities of California at Berkeley, Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Minnesota-Twin Cities, and Harvard University.

Between 1,500 and 2,000 protesters attended a rally at Berkeley last week as the main offensive began in Iraq, and a few hundred then marched into the university's main administration building. About 120 protesters, including 100 Berkeley students, were arrested and charged with misdemeanor counts of trespassing after they refused to leave the building at 5 p.m.

Around 1,200 university and area high-school students converged at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities for a rally and an afternoon teach-in, followed by a march to the downtown federal building. The event was billed as a "walkout," and some of the high-school students did, in fact, leave class. But since the university was on spring break, the rally was more of a "walk in" for the college students.

With many other campuses on spring break or in the midst of final exams, attempts to coordinate demonstrations left many students frazzled.

"President Bush has scheduled the war at an inconvenient time ... and is unwilling to postpone the war in order to help us better organize," one student wrote ruefully in an e-mail message to his colleagues.

After weeks of protests and heated debates, antiwar students at Davidson College, in North Carolina, decided to mark the war's first day in a more subdued way, holding hands and observing 15 minutes of silence. Their plans to meet at a flagpole in front of the main administration building were thwarted when a pro-invasion group beat them there. The two groups stood, 10 yards apart, the supporters of President Bush taunting the antiwar protesters for being un-American. A few of the war protesters shouted back, while the rest tried to ignore the comments.

"We knew emotions would be highly charged, and that a period of reflection would be helpful for everyone," said Sean Brooks, a junior.

A half-dozen students who are enrolled in courses at George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution responded to President Bush's call to arms by starting a 48-hour fast.

"I got the idea from listening to President Bush's speech on Monday night, when he issued his 48-hour ultimatum," said Jeremy Rinker, a graduate student in the conflict-analysis program. "I felt powerless to do anything about the situation. This is a constant reminder of the fact that there are other people in the world who are starving and likely to be killed by our bombs."

The Muslim Students Association of the United States and Canada issued a statement calling the war "a grave mistake" and predicting that it would provoke more acts of terrorism and anti-American feelings. Based in Falls Church, Va., the group says that it represents "tens of thousands" of students.

Support for the War

While antiwar protesters from Brandeis University were heading toward a mass demonstration in Boston as the war began, some students stayed behind to show their support for the invasion.

Mira Meyerovich, a senior, is president of United We Stand, which she describes as a "pro-America group." She and a handful of other students handed out yellow ribbons and red-white-and-blue ribbons and urged students to sign a petition supporting the war against Iraq.

"We want to give students a way to visibly show their support for their country and express their patriotism," she said. The group formed about a month ago in response to plans by antiwar protesters to stage a classroom walkout.

"Students had two choices: either protest the war or look like they didn't care," she said. "We thought they needed another choice."

Some of the rallies sponsored by supporters of President Bush took on a more belligerent tone. At Auburn University's main campus, one person attending a support-the-troops rally waved a sign that read: "Nuke Iraq." Students attending the rally, which was sponsored by the College Republicans, cheered and shouted their support for the war.

Peter Smyczek, a senior who co-chairs the Republican student group, said the signs his group made were all positive expressions of support for the troops, and that the tone of the rally was "incredibly enthusiastic."

"This is a very conservative town, and everyone was glad to see this kind of demonstration" after several antiwar protests, he said. "Everyone was honking their horns and waving at us."

Serving and Teaching

The war's repercussions are being felt in numerous ways, perhaps most directly by those students and faculty members who are military reservists being called to duty. Robert E. Johnstone, chairman of the anesthesiology department at West Virginia University at Morgantown, had just learned that he was being sent to Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, which has one of the nation's largest military hospitals.

"Life is full of surprises," said Dr. Johnstone, who has been in the U.S. Army Reserves for more than a decade, but had never been called up.

Teaching hospitals are also gearing up for a possible grim consequence from the war: a biological or other terrorist attack in the United States. Preparations for responding to such an event began shortly after September 11, 2001, but have gained new urgency in recent weeks. That could mean more drills like the one that a coalition of Boston-area hospitals participated in recently, in which medical residents helped other emergency workers respond to the mock explosion of a smart bomb aboard a plane landing at Boston's Logan Airport.

Along with the standard curriculum, medical students and residents on many campuses are getting some sobering lessons in how to respond to mass casualties, diagnose infectious diseases, and treat cuts and blast injuries, as well as psychological trauma.

Meanwhile, for some students last week, classes were the farthest things from their minds.


Several campuses canceled regular classes to hold teach-ins about the war. Faculty members representing various disciplines offered their takes on the war, while students engaged them in heated debates about the issues.

At Emory University, Gordon D. Newby, a professor of Middle Eastern studies, teamed up with professors of religion and theology to teach an impromptu graduate seminar called "War and Peace."

While some professors were eager to launch into a discussion about the conflict, many were uncertain whether it would be appropriate, and if so, how they should go about it.

To help sort through their confusion, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor's Center for Research on Learning and Teaching developed faculty guidelines for discussing the war in Iraq.

The guidelines, which are modeled after similar tips the center developed after the September 11 attacks, are available on the center's Web site (http://www.crlt.umich.edu).

The guidelines suggest that professors:
* Allow students to discuss opposing viewpoints without fear of ridicule or attack.

* Be sensitive to the feelings of students with relatives in the armed forces or those who have ties to the Middle East.

* Not feel pressured to lead a class discussion, especially if it doesn't pertain to the course topic, or if their own strong feelings would make it hard to relate to students.
Tomis Kapitan, a professor of philosophy at Northern Illinois University, decided just before the war began last week to ask students in his introductory-philosophy class whether they would prefer to discuss the war or the assigned topic: the absence of critical thinking in the world described in George Orwell's 1984.

"Everyone chose the war," says Mr. Kapitan, a terrorism researcher who has lived and worked in the Middle East. "It fit right in with the topic of critical thinking. We discussed the causes of going to war and the consequences, both to our country and to the Iraqi people."

It also wasn't much of a stretch to incorporate discussion of the war in a course on 20th-century British literature at Saint Xavier University, a Roman Catholic institution in Chicago.

Many of the students in Aisha Karim's course were already active in antiwar activities on the campus as part of a requirement that they take part in a grass-roots movement. The goal of the service requirement is to help students understand the process of social change that is a common theme in the books they are reading, and how easy it is to become demoralized when they are not involved.

About 30 Columbia University professors who oppose the war scheduled a teach-in for March 26.

Meanwhile, Mansfield University faculty members and students organized "Week Against War," a series of events that will feature antiwar poems, a documentary about the Persian Gulf war and a teach-in on "the new nuclear threat."

"The purpose of the teach-in isn't to propagandize or proselytize, but rather to educate," says Kerry Walters, a professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College, where more than 50 faculty members planned to use this week's classes to discuss the war.

"We need to begin discussions that spill over into hallway conversations and student residences. There may be no conversation more important for a liberal-arts community to have at the present moment.

Copyright 2003--United We Stand, Brandeis University