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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

I applaud your protest

Mainstream voices of popular culture, as demonstrated in Remy Albillar’s recent column (“”I protest your protest,”” Sept. 4, 2009), dismiss protests as ineffectual, led by small groups of the young and crazy who hate the world and are always blathering about something wrong with society.

Such critics, whether today or in 1960, always seem to think that criticizing activists is actually a new idea.

Historian Howard Zinn opens his 1964 book on the activities of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, “”The New Abolitionists”” with the line, “”For the first time in our history a major social movement, shaking the nation to its bones, is being led by youngsters.””

The youth of 1964 are now many of the critics who label today’s youth as “”spoiled”” and “”apathetic”” and “”silent””.

Political analyst Noam Chomsky recently spoke with me via telephone from his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the levels of student activism today, and in the 1960s. After all, from both our student peers and elder professors, we hear a lot about how students of today differ very greatly from those of the good-ol’ 1960s.

GS: What do you think of the levels of student activism today? I mean, we hear a lot about how, you know, “”the students are more apathetic today, it’s not like the ‘60s,”” etc. What have you observed in terms of student levels (of activism) today?

CHOMSKY: When people talk about “”the ‘60s,”” what they are thinking of is about two years. You know, 1968, 1969 — roughly. You know, a little bit before, a little bit later. And it’s true that student activism today is not like those two years. But, on the whole, I think it’s grown since the 1960s. So, take the feminist and the environmental movements … . I mean, they’re from the ‘70s. Take the International Solidarity Movement — that’s from the ‘80s. Take the Global Justice Movement, which just had another huge meeting in Brazil. That’s from this century. Plenty of students are involved in these things. In fact, the total level of student involvement in various things is probably as huge as it’s ever been, except for maybe the very peak in the 1960s when the war was a huge issue. Or the Civil Rights Movement in the South that trained many students — that was the early ‘60s. It’s not what I would like it to be, but it’s far more than it’s been.

GS: Where do you think (of) these rumors about  “”passivity””? I think (the rumors are) an effort to induce passivity. In fact, the — you know, the standard picture of the ‘60s that’s presented is that it was a terrible time. It was what’s called “”the time of troubles””. You know, students were going crazy, everything was falling apart, and so on. That’s not what was happening. What was happening — it was a time when the country was starting to become more civilized — thanks largely to the impetus of the activist students.

CHOMSKY: Well, you know, elite sectors and centers of power don’t like that lesson. They don’t want that lesson to be learned. They want students to be passive and apathetic. In fact, there was a pretty big backlash to the ‘60s. One of the reasons for the very sharp rise in tuition is to kind of capture students. You know, if you come out of college with a huge debt, you’re gonna have to work it off. I mean, you’re gonna have to become a corporate lawyer or go into business or something. And you won’t have time for engaged activism. The students of the ‘60s were — at that time, you know, the society, the culture was much more open. I mean, a student could take off a year or two and devote it to activism and think, ‘Okay, I’ll get back into my career later on.’ Now, that’s much harder today. And not by accident. These are disciplinary techniques.

Applying historical context and critical inquiry to some of the activism on our campus returns some interesting insight into the subject of protest and its effects.

Most relevant is our university’s recent termination this July of its fourth largest business contract with Russell Athletic, owned by Fruit of the Loom, Inc. According to a June 29 report by the Fair Labor Association, Russell failed on a number of basic code regulations regarding worker freedom of association, “”good faith negotiations”” and worker compensation, following the closing of its only unionized factory in Honduras.

Being someone directly involved in the backroom meetings and on-campus events that brought two witnesses of Russell’s crimes as guests before the university community, I can reflect that the cut came out of a certain dynamic between the student group Sweatshop-Free Coalition, the UA Faculty Senate Task Force for Monitoring Labor and Human Rights Issues, and the university’s affiliation with independent labor monitoring group, and the Workers Rights Consortium. Where did these entities come from? The Wildcat archives reveal a huge groundswell of anti-sweatshop movements on campus about 10 years ago. The predecessor group to SFC was Students Against Sweatshops, which led a campaign of direct action that included tactics from marches and rallies to sit-ins and a lockdown of the Administration Building wherein students chained themselves to all the main entrances of the building as a form of protest of the administration’s failure to address the students’ needs and wishes on this issue.

In the Wildcat issue (April 22, 1999) reporting the first sit-in of then-UA President Peter Likins’s office by 67 students, Likins is quoted as saying to the SAS activists, “”Peter Likins wouldn’t be focusing on sweatshop issues had you not brought it forcibly to my attention.””

It was from these negotiations that the official partnership with the WRC labor monitoring group and the Task Force for Monitoring Labor and Human Rights Issues were created. 

Certain freedoms we have today, notably taken for granted — namely being able to wage a successful campaign directed at criminal companies such as Russell — are the result of young people, students, taking it upon themselves to win over from those in power the freedoms that are usually very reluctantly given. Just as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s brought Americans enjoyment of free speech (contrary to popular misconceptions that free speech miraculously came from the Constitution), the SAS movements brought all of us today the enlarged capabilities of, in the first place, detecting criminal behavior when it becomes connected to our university, and secondly of travelling a more transparent avenue of expelling any link of corruption from our campus.

Many of our privileges and freedoms today are owed to our ancestors who made protest, dissent and resistance to various forms of injustice their active curriculum. It is our duty to do the same for generations to come, despite the same old words of deterrence.

— Gabriel Schivone is a junior majoring in art, literature and media studies. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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