Students rally, fire off e-mails, and hold vigils to help shape the future of a suddenly changed world
On Sept. 11, as TV networks began to run loops of disaster footage, Tom Graham sat with his friends on the couch, "snuffling and crying and watching the news."
But after a couple days of that, he'd had it. Though the University of New Mexico graduate student had never been a political organizer - never even taped a flier in a store window - Mr. Graham decided to hold a candlelight demonstration and open forum for the Albuquerque community. He ran all over the city, asking people for advice. "They just took me by the hand and led me through it," he says. "All kinds of people. It seems like they wanted to do something - to be a part of something."
First a local newspaper, then radio and TV stations, pitched in to advertise the event. In the end, "like 500 people showed up. It blew me away," Graham says. "I thought there'd be 50 people there, and mostly my friends."
Across the nation, young people who never gave activism a second thought have been catapulted into action by the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York. Overnight, they put together vigils, donated blood, and organized rallies. On campuses better known for niche interest groups with clearly defined boundaries, thousands of students have sought ways to confront a suddenly new world - together.
The surge of activity may have been a natural response to the shock of the news. Nonetheless, some say the broad outreach that's stirring among students could well outlast the initial drive to lend a hand or wave the flag.
"I think people didn't recognize the responsibility of being a citizen, of being a member of a community before," says Deepinder Mayell, a member of Boston College's Global Justice Project. "There's something to be said about individualism and living in an isolated bubble, particularly on college campuses. Something like this makes people more aware of their role in our government, and our government's role in the world."
The ways in which that bubble abruptly burst has altered some schools' long-standing images: Flags have fluttered across campus at the University of California, Berkeley, famous for antiwar protests during the Vietnam era.
Elsewhere, there is simply the sense that students had been jolted into a new set of priorities.
Welena Pozharsky, a junior at New York University, says political interest has spiked sharply on her campus, just north of the World Trade Center. "Every class now starts with a discussion about this," she says, adding that the students had "zero political interest" prior to the attack. Now, she says, CNN is on constantly. "We're talking about a lot of things we wouldn't have been talking about a week ago."
At Emerson College in Boston, junior Elisabeth Colabraro has been working furiously on a peace banner for students to sign. She detects a new urgency among the politically involved.
"It's a lot different now," she says. "We could have war tomorrow, so you can't take a minute break. It's like a 24/7 job."
Campuses, of course, have long been fertile ground for organizing. But the political fervor and mass protests of the late 1960s that set a high-water mark in the postwar era, have been more studied than emulated by college students in recent decades.
Still, over the past decade, many schools have seen a renewed commitment to grass-roots rallying around such issues as the environment and sweatshop labor. Just last year, "living wage" protests put Harvard University in the hot seat. And the number of students committed to protesting globalization at the meetings of world leaders has been growing steadily.
At George Washington University, activists were in high gear this fall for the now-postponed meeting of the IMF and the World Bank. Anticipating tens of thousands of demonstrators, GW had announced it would shut the campus, which sits across from the World Bank in Washington.
The decision sparked protests among some students. But when the National Guard and camouflaged Humvees took up residence on street corners after the attacks, disapproval rained down on those who persisted in criticizing the school's earlier decision. Meanwhile, the student association put its energy into enabling students to use debit cards to make donations.
"We had students saying, 'This isn't the time to be protesting something else, we need to be focused,'" says Russ Rizzo, editor of the GW Hatchet, an independent student newspaper.
That focus, Mr. Rizzo adds, stems from the feeling many students have that they're witnessing history in the making. "We're just waiting to see what happens.... We know we're on the brink of something huge," he says. "[T] his is definitely the largest event that's happened in our lifetime.... It seems like it's going to require more of a sacrifice."
Suddenly feeling part of something larger prompted shows of patriotism unseen on most campuses in recent years. Young people accustomed to making cynical comments about government joined hands and sang "God Bless America." Foreign students chimed in as well, voicing support for the United States even as some feared being the target of anti-Muslim sentiment.
"I'm from India, and this is the first time I've felt such an identification with this country," says Babita Thamkappan, a senior at Berkeley who has experienced terrorism before and favors retaliation. "The whole world is looking to the US to do something. If anyone can stop bin Laden and the global terrorism he creates, it's America."
Some students have made the choice to be part of whatever military action the US takes. Brian Davis, a junior at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, signed on for four years with the Army within hours of the attacks. "It's a lot more serious now," says Mr. Davis, a criminal-justice major who had been considering enlisting. "I could have chosen the reserves, but I wanted to actively serve the Army."
Other students defined supportive action quite differently. And to align their forces, they turned to the tool most available to college students: the computer.
Even as they were absorbing the news about the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, students at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., fired up their e-mail networks, getting in touch with classmates, friends at other schools, and national activist lists. Within a week they organized Peaceful Justice, a coalition of groups that participated in a "national day of action" at more than 150 campuses last Thursday to promote awareness of alternatives to military retaliation.
To Sarah Norr, a veteran of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle and a driving force behind Peaceful Justice, it was an opportunity to share the exhilaration of making your voice heard. "In Seattle, we saw that when we all got together, we could stand up to this incredibly powerful global organization and make it listen to us," she says. "That sense of power - it was like absolutely nothing in my life before."
Even so, Ms. Norr acknowledges that this current action is taking place in a radically different context. "The tone of the organization has to be really different," she says. "We want to be respectful of people who have lost loved ones. We can't run down the street yelling, 'Hey, hey! Ho, ho! War has got to go!' "
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, where about 200 students and faculty gathered "in solidarity" with other campuses on Thursday, poetry reading and extemporaneous speaking focused on a peaceful and just response.
To Brice Smith, a physics graduate student and longtime student organizer at MIT, it was heartwarming: "I've been amazed by the number of people here who, until Tuesday, had never thought of organizing, who just suddenly realized that something had to be done."
Mr. Smith thinks more students are getting involved because "they start hearing the reactions of the media and the administration, and it just blends together into this undifferentiated voice that's just 'War, war, war.' It's so shocking, they start looking for alternatives."
Indeed, some students are taking a hard line. "Our actions abroad have created an environment in which people are willing to take these steps," says Alex Cheney, a Boston College student. "I don't think anything justifies the attacks, but I would say that it is an equal response to our actions abroad."
Other students are still figuring out where they stand. Samantha Fernandez, a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has seen dozens of peace vigils on the liberal campus since Sept. 11. She had planned to protest at the World Bank meetings - but she wasn't sure she'd join the mass peace rally taking shape in its stead.
"I go to these vigils and hear everybody talking of peace, but then you're getting the exact opposite reaction from the media and government," she says, adding she is confused by a mix of patriotic feelings and a desire for forbearance.
But even as those lines begin to be drawn, students have stayed largely united in another cause: supporting Muslim peers.
Almost as soon as the attacks occurred, reports surfaced of assaults on Muslims and those thought to be Muslim. "The things we're seeing now are very scary," says Numan Waheed, a member of MIT's Muslim Student Association. He cites threatening comments and actions as evidence of a backlash.
Still, he says, after participating in a symposium held at the nearby Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in support of Muslims, students have contacted his group wanting to learn about Islam and to work on race relations. The Asian Christian Fellowship, recalling Japanese-Americans' treatment in World War II, has also reached out.
Many of the students at the Fletcher School gathering say they now have a new sense of purpose about their study of international affairs. "Americans are realizing we can't ignore the rest of the world anymore," says Peter Neisuler, who is studying Islamic civilizations.
The attacks also reminded students of the need for open discussion. "The public debate has been respectful," notes Assaf Moghadam, who grew up in Germany and is of Iranian and Jewish heritage. Still, "much of the student response has been to restrain military response. Those in security studies are keeping a lower profile."
If nothing else, students agree their college experience has been profoundly transformed. "It's a privilege to be in a university setting at a time like this," says Dennis Markatos, who just graduated from UNC. "Professors can talk about these issues, and you can [translate] concern into action that ... can possibly change the world for the better."
Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, a growing international network of student activists had begun to organize. Rallying support over e-mail and websites, they primarily focused on anti-globalization efforts. In 1999, the first Independent Media Center (IMC) was founded to support independent journalists and activists at the WTO demonstrations in Seattle. Since then, IMCs and their websites have sprung up in more than 60 cities around the world.
As a primary outlet for independent and student journalists and activists - and particularly because they make use of the Web and other new-media communications most accessible to students - IMCs are likely to play an influential role among the wave of new demonstrators emerging after the attacks on New York and Washington. Below are excerpts from the Seattle IMC's Web discussion board, beginning Sept. 11:
by ML 6:08 a.m. (Pacific time) Tues.
NPR is reporting that planes have crashed into both towers.
by A non e-mouse 6:24 a.m. Tues.
and demand that they stop re-playing the footage of the 2nd crash. DEMAND A STOP TO SENSATIONALIST MEDIA!!!!
by rollerdexter 7:29 a.m. Tues.
I can see from here the NYC skyline, and everything downtown is filled with smoke. I can only see one tower. One must have fallen!!!
by Spider Jerusalem 7:39 a.m. Tues.
"Sensationalist media"? If that were footage of Carlo being shot in Genoa, you'd be cheering for it getting so much air time. It's news. It's the 1st Amendment. If you don't like it, change the channel.
by mike 7:39 a.m. Tues.
From seeing on TV news here, both have now fallen.
by mrman 8:14 a.m. Tues.
shedloads of innocent people will be suffering, im only glad the towers collapsed downwards, and didnt fall over.
by guernica 9:39 a.m. Tues.
Yes, terrorism is a reality. U.S.A. and Israel do know it for they are terrorists themselves. But this is the solution: stop protecting official terrorists and you won't be the victim of organised terrorism.
by David, France 10:28 a.m. Tues.
I hate terrorism and violence, but a country which supports dictatorships worldwide can't do it endlessly.
by misternuvistor 6:40 p.m. Tues.
All the "violent" things that the US and Israel have done were small in magnitude compared with the disasters today, and necessary for keeping threat[s] at bay. I know you all don't want to hear this but YOU HAVE TO FIGHT FIRE WITH FIRE.
by wage slave 7:25 p.m. Tues.
you are so right! "Fire with Fire" is just why it happened. The fire that the US and its allies have been breathing all over the world has itself reaped fire from those who agree that fire must be fought with fire.
by eyeswideopen 5:56 p.m. Thurs.
Did anybody else miss the national public debate as to whether or not we should immediately engage ourselves in WWIII? As the Presi-dolt [has] been careful to make clear, we will respond by "ending" any state who engages in and/or supports terrorism.
Luckily, [we] haven't bothered to include our own republic in that list. . yet.
Reported by staff writers Mary Wiltenburg, Stacy A. Teicher, Amelia Newcomb, and Mark Clayton in Boston, and Marjorie Coeyman in New York, and by contributors Patrik Jonsson in Raleigh, N.C., and Matthew MacLean in Berkeley, Calif.
Written by Amelia Newcomb.