At Washington’s first anti-war protest of the Obama administration on December 12, 2009, activist and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader said the small crowd on hand—about 100 protesters, far fewer than the 1,500 the organizers expected—was most likely due to the mainstream left’s continued faith in Obama’s policies.
“Until that really cracks, you’re not going to get a big national movement,” Nader said.
On March 20, Nader returned to Lafayette Park with a larger crowd for a rally and march sponsored by the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism Coalition, demanding an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. The event drew about 2,500 protestors, according to a U.S. Park Police officer.
Among the diverse crowd of activists gathered in front of the White House, however, there was a noticeable lack of students, especially Georgetown students.
Despite the seemingly meager number of students at the protest, there have been attempts to reverse this trend. The day before the protest, students from neighboring universities attended a youth-oriented event called “Funk the War,” a part-dance party, part-protest event that called the government to spend less on war and more on education. The event was organized by D.C. Students for a Democratic Society, a self-described “action-oriented student and youth power network devoted to collective liberation within ourselves, our schools, and our communities.”
But Ryan Partelow, a freshman at American University who attended Sunday’s protest, said the anti-war movement lacks the organization needed to mobilize students. He said a strong, national anti-war student organization might help.
Without much in the way of national leadership, Georgetown’s student organizations tend to focus their attention elsewhere, as was the cause last weekend. The College Democrats decided to attend Sunday’s immigration rally on the National Mall along with Georgetown’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Georgetown Solidarity Committee, the Asian Americans Student Association, and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán. The rally for immigration reform drew an estimated 200,000 people, according to the Washington Post.
College Democrats President Bryan Woll (COL ‘12) said that his group is active on other issues such as immigration and health care reform, advocacy for increasing student aid, extending marriage equality and ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but that ending the war in Afghanistan has not been a major cause.
“What we do is really dictated by the national agenda,” Woll said.
Although Woll said he wasn’t certain whether the majority of his organization supported the war in Afghanistan, he said that there has been less student opposition to a war that has been perceived as defensive and more reasonable than the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
But Woll said that just because Georgetown students have not been involved in recent anti-Afghanistan war protests does not mean students are apathetic about the anti-war movement as a whole.
Julia Shindel (COL ’10), a member of Georgetown’s Solidarity Committee, said that while the club only organized a trip to the immigration reform rally, a few members of Solidarity attended both events.
Shindel said that despite the decrease in protest attendance, the student anti-war movement should not be considered dead.
“There are many people who are feeling the war over here,” Shindel said. “Like the Petraeus protest for example—people came out and fought against his propaganda platform. He made jokes over war. He compared it to a baseball game. There are students who don’t forget that there’s a war going on.”
Nader said students are not as engaged in the anti-war movement as they had been during the Vietnam War because there is no draft.
“When you’re part of the risk, you try to be part of the solution,” Nader said. “They’re not part of the risk. That’s what Nixon understood when he got rid of the draft. He deflated the opposition on campus almost immediately.”
Besides Nader, the rally featured speeches by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, peace activist Cindy Sheehan, ANSWER Coalition National Coordinator Brian Becker, and representatives from several anti-war organizations.
Sheehan, who was later arrested the same day for crossing a police line next to the White House, has recently launched a new campaign of civil disobedience by camping out on the Washington National Mall.
“We’re hoping that we’re going to make it so uncomfortable for them to keep the war going on,” Sheehan said. “And since it’s an election year, we can have some political success, I think.”
As Nader had predicted in December, Sheehan’s call to break with President Obama and the Democratic Party was a common theme of Saturday’s protest.
In a speech that drew loud applause, Reverend Graylan Hagler criticized the president for escalating the U.S. presence in Afghanistan while failing to address issues that directly affect his supporters at home like poverty and unemployment.
“President Obama, if you understand the constituency that brought you to the White House, then you’ll begin to bend to be more accountable to those folks who walked streets and knocked on doors to get you elected,” Hagler said. “We intend to hold you accountable.”
For now, Shindel and other campus activists are devoting their time to those kinds of issues that directly affect students. Unlike many students during the Vietnam War era, activists are not as singularly focused on ending the war. They are equally as dedicated, and often, more dedicated to other issues like immigration reform or equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
“Now there’s just so much shit going on in this country,” Shindel said. “And that’s just the reality of it.”