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The War on Iraq: A Student Response

Max Uhlenbeck
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003

“Classes cancelled due to student revolt,” read the banner attached to the otherwise pristine silver sculpture in the middle of Gould Plaza – the pride and joy of New York University’s Stern School of Business. Within minutes school security came out to tell the 15 people gathered around it that this was unacceptable behavior and proceeded to tear down the banner. The time was 12:30pm on November 20, less than 15 minutes before students were scheduled to walk out of classes against the imminent war on Iraq.

There was a sense of unease in the air both on the part of school administrators as well as the student organizers, who had been working on the non-permitted walkout and march for two weeks.

A few minutes later those feelings of unease and doubt were laid to rest as waves of students appeared, streaming out of their respective classrooms from all directions. The smaller, confiscated banner was quickly replaced by a huge sewn together American flag that nearly covered the entire statue. It read, “War is up to them, Peace is up to us… Rise Up.”

The university’s security was quickly forced onto the defensive and, unprepared to handle these types of numbers, had to stand by and watch as hundreds of students flooded the steps – forming lively drum circles around the statue and setting up huge banners around the perimeter. It was the first in a series of victories for the students that day, leading eventually to the literal take-over of Broadway, no small feat for anyone who knows New York City police containment strategies.

Echoes of Vietnam

NYU officials estimated that approximately 1,500 students participated in the walkout that day, the largest anti-war action at New York University in several decades. The success of the walk-out signaled the culmination of the most vigorous anti-war organizing on campus since a series of building occupations that actually shut down the campus for several days back in the early 1970s, in response to the US war in Indochina.

A series of well attended teach-ins, public forums, debates and movie screenings mixed in with more militant nonviolent civil disobedience actions paved the way for the tremendous outpouring of student support this time around, leading to more than one discussion about movement building and the possibilities for the future.

In the seemingly endless quest to recapture the imagination of students across the country, to engage them in political action, the kind that would have the capacity to stop this war, it may well be appropriate to compare today’s organizing efforts with those of movements past. Certainly there are many ways in which students today have made great strides in their organizing methods as opposed to the early ‘60s when it took several years of US bombing before there was even a low level of organized opposition to speak of—something often lost in ‘60s nostalgia.

Networking and strategizing on a national level, mostly through the Internet has today led to large turnouts like that of October 26 in Washington DC, an incredible feat considering that a war has not yet been declared. Depending on how the question has been phrased in several major polls, we can see a broad-based anti-war sentiment growing among the general population, a groundswell that took several years to build up in the 1960s and even then largely remained focused on the safety of US troops abroad. The importance of this proactive, largely anti-interventionist approach to organizing has not been without significant results.

For all of its unilateral dreams of invasion and regime change, the Bush administration has been forced to adopt a more multilateral approach to Iraq. Although most weathered activists had no illusions that the Democrats in Congress or the United Nations would block Bush’s drive to war, both served to at least slow the process down, thus allowing for a more formidable opposition to develop.

Seattle’s energy

With these initial smaller but important victories the peace movement, and the student movement within it, must now find new ways to raise the political costs of war domestically for the Bush administration. The organization and coordination is in place, as is a level of popular support. The missing element – something noticeably absent from the October 26 march in DC – is that of an actual threat.

This generation of college students, many politicized during the Battle of Seattle and the anti-globalization movement, have been missing the more confrontational elements that have made such an impact on issues of Third World exploitation and debt relief. Linking the anti-globalization generation with the emerging anti-war movement will be vital not only to secure a wider range of support and participation, but also to develop a more confrontational approach using diversity of tactics and direct action.

Historically, the student movement has played a significant role in forming that threat, perhaps for obvious reasons. In the two months leading up to the Nov. 20 walkout, students at NYU participated in numerous higher-risk direct actions, ranging from infiltrating the UN General Assembly hall to occupying Senator Hillary Clinton’s office and rushing the stage on during a popular live MTV program.

The results have been significant. The UN action was covered with a story accompanied by a large picture in the New York Times, dwarfing their coverage of last October’s major anti-war march in Washington DC, which drew close to 100,000 people. As part of a negotiated settlement, Hilary Clinton was forced to meet with the students who occupied her office and for over an hour had to answer to her questionable decision to support Bush’s war resolution.

Rolling Stone magazine picked up the MTV action and published pictures of the students who were involved. The action also led to subsequent discussions on MTV’s website, which has an audience of millions of young people across the country. Major TV networks, including CNN nationally and the BBC internationally, also covered the UN action. The European press, quick to pick up on signs of dissent from within the United States, ran several pieces focusing on the NYU students’ actions.

Far from elements of direct action turning new people off the emerging student movement, these actions have become points of attraction, as press coverage has in turn sustained the energy on campus itself. The NYU Peace Coalition has seen its attendance for logistical meetings grow from barely ten people to nearly fifty, at times making it hard to fit into the small meeting spaces that the University provides.

Threat to power

If NYU is any indication, the building of a sustainable anti-war movement on college campuses across the country – something of almost mythic proportions so many years after Vietnam – may have finally found its footing as we head into the new year. The walkouts on November 20, a nationally coordinated day of student action called by the Not In Our Name project, represented the desire among a broad range of young people for a more serious response to the threat of war – indeed some high school students risked suspension and even expulsion to make their voices heard on that day.

In the end, students, like most people, want to be a part of something that moves them. Student protest movements during the Vietnam era provided that for young people. That direct threat to power – something that was felt by the young demonstrators – forced the US government to call off the war before it became too costly.

In the aftermath of September 11 and with the Bush administration once again not so subtly hinting at the possible deployment of nuclear weapons, this generation understands that not getting involved might well be the biggest risk they will ever take. The question is, will the movement learn its lessons from past successes and failures, will it be able to integrate domestic struggles to the larger picture, can it capture the energy and threat of the anti-globalization movement: Can it finally be something that moves us?