Sunday, February 21, 2010

Part II: The History of Student Activism at Seattle University

This is the second installment from The Participator article (Issue 1) on Student Activism at SU. Read Part I below.

Bring the War Home
Initially the students of SU were slow to challenge the war in Vietnam, but as genocide became harder to ignore the campus exploded, literally, with resistance. In November of 1965 students were polled on their feelings about the war in Vietnam. Their responses ranged from light-hearted patriotism to borderline fascism, but nevertheless in support of the war. For example, then SU sophomore Hugh Bangasser, commented “There is no alternative to being in Viet Nam. History shows that when the US leaves a struggling country, communism always takes over.” Additionally, asked about the anti-war demonstrations occurring throughout the nation, SU senior and ASSU Publicity Director Jim Codling comments “We are committed to follow the policy of our elected leaders who, unlike many demonstrators, know the entire picture.”

In accord with this sentiment, speakers such as Daniel Lyons, S.J. of Gonzaga University spoke to large audiences against the growing anti-war movement and the spreading of Marxist infiltrators on our nation’s campuses. Despite the appearance of a pro-war consensus at SU, there were several instances of dissent in the mid-1960s. This is shown in SU student Barbara Frajier’s piece “White Man’s Burden,” which suggests that the war in Vietnam is one aspect of the United States imperialist strategy, citing other examples in Guatemala, Iran and the Dominican Republic. As well, Frajier articulately critiques the fallacies of the pro-war religious right present at SU, recognizing that Jesuit values radically negate imperialism, war, and violence. Beginning in 1965 the Reserve Officer Training Corps. (ROTC) courses were no longer mandatory for freshman and sophomores to enroll in (and during the war-time volunteer students were becoming more and more scarce). Heavily influenced by the Students for Democratic Society (the most prominent national anti-war student organization), many groups at SU became active in the anti-war movement, including the Political Union, the Student Involvement League, and the New Student Coalition. As students began organizing, campus educational events and teach-ins became larger and more frequent. Speakers included conscientious objectors and anti-war leaders Eqbal Ahmad and Sister Elizabeth McAlister (both of whom were falsely accused of plotting to kidnap Henry Kissinger and blow up steam tunnels). At the time of the massacre of unarmed citizens in My Lai, Nixon’s covert advance into Cambodia, the murder of students at Kent and Jackson State and what appeared to be the failure of peaceful protest, bombs and arsons began to flare up our campus. The first arson hit the ROTC building in February of 1969, which Ken Thompson (Student Involvement League member) commented, “if real revolutionaries had done it the building would have burned to the ground.” The next was a bomb in the Liberal Arts Building (now the Administration Building) at the start of 1970 and then arsonists struck Xavier the same week Senator Barry Goldwater was scheduled to speak at SU. A final bomb hit the ROTC building in May of 1972. No individual was harmed or killed in these actions, with exception of one unidentified arsonist who was shot by a cop while running away.

Nevertheless, it was not merely bombs that shook the campus. During the 1969 commencement address, several students walked out in protest of the Archbishop’s open support of the war. During this time SU administrators commented that the ROTC program saw “massive amounts of criticism and an enrollment drop that would have killed any other program,” yet the program stayed open due to increased federal funding. Additionally, ROTC enrollment saw a sharp decline, from 150 in 1969 to 69 in 1971. The height of the anti-war movement at SU took place during one week in May of 1970. Starting at roughly 6:45am, 50 students blocked the ROTC equipment closet, then soon moved to the Liberal Arts Building where 150 students had blocked the entrance chanting “Strike!” SU President Kenneth Baker, S.J. and Father Morton were pressured to send personal telegrams to President Nixon expressing the concerns of students. However, the same week, Anita Yourglich (head of the Sociology Department) chose to hire a White professor over William Hodge, a Black professor.

After having spent the last two years campaigning to get more minority professors on campus this was a major blow to the Black Student Union and others organizing for affirmative action. With the goal of fighting injustice at home and abroad, a demonstration was immediately organized to demand the hiring of Hodge and the discontinuation of the ROTC program. In critical mass, students marched to the Liberal Arts Building while several occupied the office of President Father Baker. In the office students overturned a table, took books off shelves and broke a lamp; according to Baker there were no “blows exchanged”. Students then retreated to Seattle Central Community College to strengthen their ranks, and then returned to Pigott chanting, “Shut it down!” where they eventually scattered after having fought with disgruntled students and cops. Five students were suspended, including Emile Wilson (who had been arrested several days before for vandalizing The Chieftain, the old Student Union Building). Soon after this incident, President Baker organized a press conference and accused protesters of wanting to “break SU” and turn it into a “black university.” He then went on to tell the press to “size this up for what it is, anarchy and fascism, and turn your guns on them.” In addition to these comments, Baker issued a new policy for all demonstrations to be approved by the university prior to their inception (a policy that continues to be enforced today). After 25 years at SU, the ROTC program was phased out in the spring of 1977. The Spectator reports that the reaction of students was “varied…some students were jubilant, some were joyous, others were ecstatic.”

However, this removal was short lived and the program returned before the end of the 1970s. Prior to the discontinuation announcement, the ROTC program at SU had seen the lowest numbers of enrollment in its history. As a result, a major propaganda campaign pervaded the campus advocating the ROTC and new programs were offered (such as a summer training camp to compensate for two years of the program). No other department on campus had been able to go to such great lengths to fight for its survival (not to mention offer comparable financial-aid packages for students of working class backgrounds). And of course, this would not have been possible if it was not for ongoing federal aid, which the administration of President Father Sullivan graciously accepted, thus allowing a widely unpopular program to continue.

Yet resistance to the program continued, especially after a talk given by the peace activist Daniel Barrigan, S.J. (who is famous for acts of non-violent civil disobedience, including the burning of draft cards with home-made napalm and the pouring of his own blood on nuclear missile, all of which were conducted by nuns, priests and other church folk).

In the midst of the occupation of Iraq, SU students have continued to organize teach-ins, demonstrations, rallies and speakers (most notably Noam Chomsky in 2005). Many students involved in groups such as Socialist Alternative and Youth Against War and Racism successfully pushed the passage of a city wide ordinance that restricts military recruiters in all of Seattle’s public schools to two visits per year per branch- one of the strongest policies of its kind nationwide.

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