Protesting for Peace

The applause and cheering subsided just long enough for over 600 students to agree that they had accomplished in a day what should have taken a week.

Pat Leung

Then it began again: a slow, paced clapping that accrued momentum, urgency and resonance until the auditorium at UC Berkeley thundered with the hectic slap of synchronized applause.

One weekend ago, more than 600 students from over 45 universities and community colleges, representing a growing anti-war student movement, registered at the West Coast Conference for California Schools Against War, hosted by UC Berkeley.

Approximately 30 San Diego students attended, including 14 students from UCSD. San Diego State University, University of San Diego, San Diego City College and Grossmont College students also attended.

I’m no radical, and I lack the convictions of a political activist. But I was moved by the intellect, idealism and energy of the students that surrounded me last weekend. At times, I was inspired, and at times, I was repelled. Sometimes I found myself, startlingly, both.

We made the nine-hour drive in a rented van, arriving in Oakland, Calif. around 3 a.m. to settle in creaking, lurching bunk beds in a high-ceilinged mansion managed by political activists. Mature eucalyptus trees and a disheveled green garden surround the house, which is approached via a cement length of tall crooked steps distorted by roots and undergrowth.

On Saturday morning, Berkeley was gray and busy. After registering at the door, we waded through a close, warm hallway jammed with folding tables laden with multicolored political pamphlets, and students distributing newspapers. Before the conference began, the seats filled to capacity. Students stood in the aisles, crouched in corners and sat on the stage.

The speakers were quick to inflame the students with harsh condemnations of a war that is, they said, being waged for purely economical reasons at a staggering human price. The students agreed.

“”Osama bin Laden isn’t the most dangerous man in the world,”” said an Arab speaker to his eager audience. “”The most dangerous man in the world is the president of the United States.””

Before performing his poem, a poet declared, “”The world is dominated by imbecilic assholes.”” The poem was a cacophony of shouts, whispers, howls and rants. “”America has never, never been a democracy,”” he concluded. The students loved him. They stood to applaud him as he left the stage.

Did I stand? No. But would I say that I was not moved? No. I wondered at the strength of the group’s convictions as I found myself surrounded by up-thrust hands, which ceased to make applause, forming fists instead.

At lunch, we lined up to dish lettuce, brown rice and lentils from plastic buckets onto paper plates, to tuck apples and pomegranates into our pockets, to tear chunks from dense loaves of thick brown bread, protected by crumpled paper sacks.

Beneath the passion and energy lay assuring common sense: Local lawyers gave a presentation on what students should do if arrested. Students attending the conference faced a real risk of being investigated by the government, they say.

And in fact, a Nov. 12 New York Times article reported that over 200 U.S. colleges, including San Diego State University, were approached by federal investigators looking for information on students from the Middle East.

According to the article, students were interviewed by federal agents about “”their views on Osama bin Laden, the names of their favorite restaurants and their plans after graduation.””

This puts innocent people at risk, the lawyers said. They told one student to beware of what he allows to appear on his online bulletin board. They warned an international student fearing deportation to attend all of her classes. “”Be careful,”” they said.

They were careful: Throughout the conference, some students deliberately sat out of view from the cameras, which record faces, conversations and ideas.

I was struck by their bravery. Their convictions forced them past their fears — if the fears existed. The students did not look alarmed when the lawyers advised them of their legal rights; they listened carefully and took notes; they asked questions.

On Sunday, the auditorium was warm and fully lighted. The students had begun to plan. By 2 p.m., the enormous chalkboard at the front of the room was coated with filmy dust from constant erasing and rewriting. There were lists, ideas: a walkout, a fast, a protest, a march.

And there was an idea conceived and developed two weeks ago in San Diego: an event in December addressing the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. The proposal was voted on at the conference and passed.

The discussion splintered into bickering over procedural points as the afternoon wore on. Several students, enraged at what they called a lack of procedural democracy, left the room to shout in the hallway. Everyone was tired. We began to think about the long drive home.

The students broke into committees to discuss further organization. When to fast? Where to march? When to protest? They promised to stay in contact.

It was dark again, and we drove back to the mansion on our quiet street in Oakland. We stripped our beds, jammed our clothes into backpacks and suitcases, and squeezed into the van.

We promised ourselves a short dinner break and ate our hamburgers and milkshakes in the van, counting the miles to San Diego. It was past 3 a.m. when we returned to UCSD.

I’m no radical, but I was inspired by the intelligence and the fierce idealism of the students I met. I heard their arguments and watched their plans form all weekend.

It is said that 5 to 7 million Afghanis will die of starvation this winter because of the war. In December, as discussed at the conference, universities will hold events protesting this humanitarian crisis. In San Diego, they plan to host rallies, speakers, bands and action.

I have seen a small moment of political movement, and I am attracted. There is seduction in human movement, particularly for those isolated in the warm cocoon of their micro-reality.

I wondered at my own position as self-appointed thinker, self-appointed nonactor. What truths escaped my attempts at objectivity?

I recalled the applause, the fists, the chalkboard caked with dust and ideas. I was quietly moved.

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