Student activism is still alive, though different, than ’60s variety

Student activism comes in all shapes—from war protests to vision tests. Norma Rios, left, a senior community and regional development major, talked last Monday with Clarissa Dang, a senior psychology and biology major about her vision test results at a

As the recent case of UC divestment in Sudan proved, student activism is alive and well, including on the UC Davis campus.

But it is different than during the countercultural '60s and '70s. Then, the times were different — a military draft does wonders to spark protest among young people, for example.

With the Vietnam War flaring, UC Berkeley hosted massive free speech protests from 1964-65, San Francisco State students went on strike for five months starting in 1968 and four Kent State students were killed by the National Guard during a demonstration in 1970.

Although the violence that disrupted other universities did not appear at UC Davis, students on campus were far from silent during the time. In May of 1969, thousands of students marched to the campus administration building to submit a list of grievances. And later that same month, more than 6,000 students marched on the state Capitol in what was later dubbed the "March for Peace." Protests continued to be common through the beginning of the next decade.

What about now? For starters, the Internet has changed things.

"Activism is much more global now," said Ismail Kashkash, who began attending UC Davis in the mid 1990's and returned to finish his degree in 2004. "E-mail allows you to get a hold of a greater number of people."

Kashkash, who was active with the Muslim Student Union, Students for Environmental and Economic Justice and other organizations in the '90s, believes students of his generation have different attitudes than the generation of his father, who attended UC Davis in the '70s.

"I think people are not as concerned about expressing their ideas today," he said. "The idea of sacrificing for your principles was much more prevalent in the '60s and '70s than now."

Barry Wilson, an animal science and environmental toxicology professor who joined the faculty in 1962, was intimately involved in the rallies and protests of the era as part of a group of more than 30 students, faculty members and administrators who worked together to prevent the violence and ugliness that surfaced at other universities.

Wilson said students these days are not unified behind a cause like they were during the Vietnam War protests, although he suggests implementing a draft would bring protesters together in a hurry.

"There's a big difference between today and then," he said. "Now, there seem to be single-issue protests. There has yet to arise a unified organization like the Free Speech Movement of the '60s."

Wilson, who calls himself "an amateur sociologist, and maybe not a very good one," has a couple of ideas about why students today seem less willing to protest than in the past. For one, he believes that they are unwilling to recreate the militant — and dangerous — atmosphere of the late '60s and early '70s.

"Most people are not activists," Wilson said. "They're just looking out for their own self-interest and don't want to get hurt. They saw what their parents went through with the Vietnam protests and don't feel like going out and building a barricade."

Still, some signs point to a resurgence in political and social interest. A study by the New Politics Institute found that a high percentage of the current generation — the Millennials — consider themselves liberal or progressive, and take a strong interest in the Iraq war, education and the environment. And, according to millennial expert Bob Filipczak, 64 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the last presidential election.

Indeed, in 2005 UC Davis students worked with the Yolo County clerk-recorder to have a campus polling station open early for voting — the first time the county had used a location other than the clerk-recorder's office for early voting.

Beyond voting, people like Josh Savala continue the time-honored traditions of sit-ins, strikes and demonstrations.

A fourth-year sociology and history student, Savala became active on campus during his freshman year. He first got involved with local issues, campaigning against campus expansion. He later became involved in an anti-war campaign and has since thrown his full weight behind protesting sweatshop labor. (In light of such protests, UC on Monday agreed to end contracts with sweatshops that produce school logo apparel.)

As a member of United Students Against Sweatshops, Savala helped stage two sit-ins in the chancellor's office, brought sweatshop workers to campus to speak and met with the campus bookstore manager in an effort to stop the sale of UC Davis apparel made by sweatshop labor.

Savala said he belongs to a small but strong network of activists on campus. He noted it can sometimes be difficult to get students behind a cause, in part because there are simply so many causes out there. And though he admits that the UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz student bodies are more active as a whole, Savala said UC Davis students can be rallied as well.

"I wouldn't say they don't care," he said. "Even people who say they're apathetic still have strong feelings about issues. They just have to cross the boundary from feelings to actions. They have to feel personally connected, or feel a connection through solidarity."

Perhaps law student Adam Rosenthal, the UC student regent, proved better than anyone that campus activism lives on. He helped organize a movement last year urging UC to pull out of its investments in companies with links to the Sudanese government. In March, as more than 100 students looked on, the UC Board of Regents voted unanimously to divest in Sudan, a country plagued by genocide. In doing so, the UC became the first major public university system to vote to divest from companies with financial holdings in Sudan.

The same kind of student activism led UC in 2001 to choose a portfolio free of tobacco-related stocks. And in the 1980s, UC, spurred by student concerns, divested in South African investments due to that nation's traditional apartheid policy.

Angelina Malfitano, a political science and women and gender studies major, believes activism is still strong on campus, although she says it is in a different form than during the '60s. Malfitano, a student assistant to Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef, campaigns for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual rights. She said one-on-one meetings with administrators are more common than the vocal protests of the past.

"Activism on campus is quiet," she said. "Maybe now there are more people behind the scenes. That's not necessarily bad though."

Rather, Malfitano said, a calm dialogue can often achieve more than a rowdy demonstration. Toward this goal, she has helped in the past year coordinate several student forums with the chancellor to address a variety of student concerns and topics.

"We're not going to kick and scream," she said, "because we're not going to get what we want that way."

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