Activists should look in their back yard

Tuesday’s anti-war teach-in at Pillsbury Hall marked the beginning of a new year for student activists, and although there’s a lot to suggest that this year’s protests will be numerous and large, campus radicals have some tough realities to face.

Last semester, the University bore witness to its largest student demonstrations since the Vietnam War. With the body count still rising in Iraq and economic malaise festering unhappily at home, student activists are planning to build on their successful mobilization of anti-war protesters last spring to incite even more discontent.

But do they really have all that much success to build on?

While it’s certainly true that the size of last year’s demonstrations – both in the Twin Cities and elsewhere – was unprecedented, whether their effort will last is questionable.

Not only did they not prevent the war (although, to be fair, that would have been a Herculean feat), but the movement, which looked utterly unstoppable in March, had fizzled out almost completely by May 1.

In contrast to the Vietnam-era anti-war movement, which started small and only got bigger, the Iraq anti-war protests sprang up quite suddenly and then promptly took a dive, or, as Anti-War Committee member Meredith Abby put it on Tuesday, “a slight dip.”

The reasons for this are undoubtedly complicated, but one problem is that a movement based only on abstract principles and (frankly) incomplete notions of geopolitics is likely to fall apart as quickly as it is created. It will take a movement with real grass roots and solid political experience to really accomplish anything significant.

And it is here that opportunity is knocking on the activists’ door.

If student organizers are smart, they’ll throw all their effort into supporting the University clerical workers when they go on strike in the coming weeks. The impending strike by University employees provides student activists with a unique opportunity to participate in an event they can actually affect.

After all, when hundreds of students gather on Northrop Mall to demonstrate against things such as war, famine, poverty and injustice, it’s a strong statement of principle and very admirable, but also totally banal. It’s akin to saying, “We’re opposed to everything that’s bad.”

It will be a far more palpable and immediate victory if the same crowds that showed up to protest against the recent wars and, earlier on, globalization, can turn out in support of their own staff members who are trying to secure livable wages and affordable health care.

Demonstrations of solidarity between student radicals and University workers were one of the earmarks of Vietnam-era activism – something today’s protesters should keep in mind.

Student activists have every right to be infuriated over the graft and dishonesty that goes on in our nation’s capital, but they shouldn’t overlook the graft and dishonesty going on right in their own back yards, especially when they can help do something about it.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees deserves our support. They’re getting a bum deal from the same university that screws its students out of more money every year and shows them little in return. Student groups like the Socialist Alternative have always made it clear that they support unions, but they should put the same energy toward supporting the strikers that they do protesting the war.

It’s clear when many protesters melded quickly back into the scenery after the war was declared over that the “movement” severely lacked endurance. Perhaps the way for activists to cure this is to start by thinking small. Get people working toward something concrete, and then the organization will be there when it’s time for the big-issue protests.

This year might very well see a resurgence of activist spirit, but only if the activists can keep their feet on the ground and stick it out for the people closest to them.

Nick Busse’s column appears alternate Mondays. Send comments to [email protected]