Explosion of Youth Activism Around the Iraq War

As goes Greensboro, so goes the nation.

Don’t believe me? Greensboro, North Carolina, is a bellwether for the pulse of students across the country. This Southern city has seven colleges and universities in its metropolitan area. These schools range in size and political temperament from the small and liberal Guilford and Bennett Colleges to larger, more conservative institutions such as Elon University and University of North Carolina – Greensboro (UNCG). As a whole, Greensboro and Guilford County are also a good microcosm of the country. Mostly rural North Carolina voted for Bush, but more urban Guilford County and Greensboro narrowly voted for Kerry. Greensboro also attracts lots of out of state students–for example, two-thirds of Guilford College ’s students are out of state, letting us have our finger on the pulse of the nation.

And something’s happening here. I’m a sophomore at Guilford and there’s an energy here that I haven’t seen in nearly two years of organizing on this campus. Since late January, our campus has been consumed by organizing for a large demonstration against the Iraq War in nearby Fayetteville (home of Ft. Bragg ) on March 19. In our first two days of tabling, we signed up 80 students to attend the march. Students are engaged and determined to take action on Iraq .

This specific demonstration that we’re working toward is unusual as well. It will bring together military families, veterans, and their supporters for a rally calling for the United States to bring the troops home and end the war. That’s unusual because most in our activist community don’t identify with military families and veterans, for several reasons. First, Guilford is a Quaker school, and many in our activist community are pacifists. Cultural and class conflicts have often made our organizing more fragmented than it should be. Yet, a higher number than usual of our students (compared to other actions) are not only committed to going to the demonstration, but are actively organizing on our campus as well.

For example, we are reaching more and more students who are natives of the South. Some of the main leaders of our organizing committee for the March 19th action were born and raised in Greensboro. A specific person who signed up to get involved recently stands out in my mind—this guy, an adult education student at Guilford, is a native of North Carolina who is a semi-retired 11-year veteran of the United States Marine Corps and drives racecars for a living. You don’t get much more “red state” than that.

His and other veterans’ involvement in the movement reflect a main theme of the demonstration that is set for March 19th. The peace movement is generally seeing more people who are directly affected by the war, namely veterans and their families, speaking out.

Anecdotes from Guilford are, of course, not the best determinant of the level of student activism in Greensboro. After all, Guilford is a Quaker school with a strong history of progressive political action. Yet, something is happening across Greensboro as well. Students are organizing on all seven campuses for this demonstration. For the first time we are actively coordinating our work by forming the Greensboro Student Action Coalition (GSAC). The coalition’s first big event, a teach-in connecting student activism to the peace work of military veterans, drew over 50 student activists from across Greensboro to network and strategize around ending the war. This event also attracted widespread attention from local media, which doesn’t often happen at progressive events in Greensboro.

“It’s been really incredible,” notes Liz Nemitz, a senior at Guilford who has been involved in the coalition since its inception. “We’re doing work with kids at University North Carolina-Greensboro, Bennett, and Agriculture and Technical University in Greensboro that we never had worked with before, and it’s brought a whole new perspective to our organizing–we see ourselves as a college town rather than in individual bubbles.”

I’ve seen what Liz says is true–for the first time, I’ve found myself leaving Guilford ’s campus to go do outreach on other, more conservative campuses where organizers are needed. It’s brought me a whole new level of respect for activists on those campuses, activists who work hard under difficult circumstances.

Some of the work in Greensboro has come about as a result of local organizing by the Beloved Community Center , a group that works on economic and racial justice issues. Trends nationally, however, point to increasing concern and student activism around Iraq . For example, many thousands of young people turned out to protest President George W. Bush’s inauguration on January 20. Thousands more participated in a massive nationwide student strike that occurred in a diverse group of schools including Seattle Central Community College , Paideia High School in Atlanta , Georgia , and Boulder High in Colorado .

I may be only 20 years old, but I’ve been an organizer since 2002. Speaking from my experience in organizing for the January 20 demonstration, I found that folks who had not been active politically before were motivated to demonstrate. Polling also suggests that youth are fearful of a draft (when the question is asked, about 80% of young people are against reinstating conscription) and turning against the war in droves.

Student activism around Iraq is not new. Students played a key role in the peace movement prior to the invasion of Iraq , with the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition organizing a major student strike on March 5 of 2003. After the invasion, however, student activism seemed to drop off a bit. Organizations like the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition that had worked on the student strike got less press attention that they did before the war, even when compared to the attention that was given to other peace groups like United for Peace and Justice during the same period after the invasion. According to an article by Richard Moreno for Z Magazine, most of the schools that had large walkouts on January 20 of this year were not the same schools that had seen large protests on March 5, 2003 . Moreno goes on to correctly note that one fact this trend shows is that much of the work that happened before the war did not sustain itself, or resurface until this year.

So why now are more students getting involved in Iraq-related issues? There are several reasons why student activism is bubbling up now. Many of the reasons are pretty obvious: for example, it has become clear that the Bush administration lacks an exit strategy in Iraq , and young people fear a draft. However, I believe there is one major reason that youth have turned to acting against the war that has been overlooked by many commentators: the 2004 election.

For some political analysts and activists, there were no positive long- or short-term outcomes of the 2004 elections as they relate to the antiwar movement. Such analysts particularly decry the involvement of youth in the campaigns of Kucinich, Kerry, and Dean. Cat Geary, student outreach coordinator for March 19, argues, “Young activists began to silence themselves, instead expending their energy campaigning for Kerry, a pro-war candidate. This left the mainstream debate without an antiwar position.” What activists such as Geary fail to see is that youth activism around the election prepared a shift in youth culture that will greatly benefit the peace movement in 2005 and beyond.

America’s youth today are consummate volunteers, though less civically active in terms of voting when long-term trends are examined going back to the 1970s. This is especially true of college students. Surveys have shown that 60% of young people do over 3.5 hours of service a week, and that number is increasing due to outreach programs by colleges that provide support for college student volunteers. Many youth activists work in areas such as hunger, homelessness, fair housing, and justice for prisoners.

The 2004 election helped institutionalize the idea of political activism as a part of service. Nonprofits such as National Voice and the League of Young Voters worked directly with community groups to help register and turn out youth. Youth-focused media such as Comedy Central and MTV decided that this was the election for youth empowerment and turnout, and spent a lot of resources emphasizing civic responsibility through Public Service Announcements featuring youth celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher and Seth Green. Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan arm of MTV, worked to register voters as never before, registering over a million youth voters in 2004. Also, the influence of Jon Stewart’s increasingly political The Daily Show on youth culture cannot be overstated.

As a result of all of the work of these various nonprofits and media organizations about 45% of young people (age 18-24) voted in 2004. That was the demographic’s highest voting rate since 1992, according to exit polls and analysis by CIRCLE, a research center on youth and civic engagement housed at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

We also volunteered on more campaigns, everything from dogcatcher to president. Overwhelmingly, we supported progressive candidates–especially the candidacies of Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich, who opposed the Iraq War. Exit polling showed that young people cited foreign policy and Iraq as perhaps their foremost reason for getting involved. Yet, of course, progressive young people lost in 2004. Neither Dean nor Kucinich won the Democratic nomination, and Kerry went down to defeat.

Unlike many activists on the left, however, youth did not despair in the dark winter of December 2004. There was no talk of running to Canada, or giving up on politics altogether. Instead, we kept up the energy that had grown in 2004 and looked for other places to put it.

Many went back to their work in soup kitchens and homeless shelters, but with a new sense that advocacy and politics matter. John Wilson Irwin, a Greensboro student who hails from a low-income neighborhood in Memphis who now is an activist with the Greensboro Housing Coalition, notes: “I see connections between the fact that people in Greensboro don’t have adequate housing and the fact that we’re spending billions of dollars on a pointless war.”

As someone who has worked as both a peace activist and on numerous political campaigns, I have recognized several ways in which various activist movements can tap into student energy. The most important is this: give young people real responsibility in the movement and listen to their ideas. Political campaigns tend to take their bright, energetic young volunteers and stick them in a windowless room to stuff envelops. They’re used solely for grunt work–knocking on doors, manning phone banks, etc. Every now and then that can be fun, and it’s obviously necessary work, but if I’m going to make a hundred phone calls, I’d like at least to have a voice in what it is I’m saying.

Surveying some of the peace groups, it appears to me that the movement against the Iraq War is doing a good job in this respect. For example, United for Peace and Justice, the large U.S. peace movement coalition, does a good job of integrating youth voices into its work and leadership positions. One in eight members of the coalition’s 40-member steering committee represent youth-oriented groups such as the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition and Student United for a Responsible Global Environment.

In contrast, of the over 400 members of the Democratic National Committee (the official, elected leadership of the Democratic Party), only one in 20 are under 30. None of the DNC’s nine elected leaders serve as a formal youth liaison, despite the fact that this was one of the only age demographics to decisively break for Kerry.

The DNC does have a large youth-affiliate organization in College Democrats of America. I have worked with both the peace movement and on Democratic electoral campaigns. Based on that personal experience, I can say that I have found peace activists much more willing to respect my ideas and use my energy to its fullest potential, whereas when working on Democratic political campaigns I was only used for grunt work. The only exception in my experience was the Howard Dean campaign, which did a great job giving young people a real voice in the organization and the organizing.

The 2004 elections were, in many obvious ways, a defeat for the left. But pessimistic analysts who see it as a total defeat are ignoring cultural shifts and long-term trends that are poised to benefit the peace movement and the wider progressive political community. In particular, youth activism around the election prepared a shift in youth culture that will greatly benefit the peace movement in 2005 and beyond.

Adam Waxman is a sophomore at Guilford College studying International Political Economy and Quaker Theology. He interned for Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in the summer of 2004 and is an FPIF contributor (online at www.fpif.org). Last fall he was elected president of the Guilford College Young Democrats. Currently he is working with the North Carolina Peace and Justice Coalition and the March 19 th Mobilization Committee at Guilford. A collection of his published writings can be found at www.domne.blogspot.com.