“When you’re weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all;
I’m on your side.
When times get rough, and friends just cant be found,
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down.\”
[sixties]About 35 years ago, Gladys McKenney listened to these lyrics from Simon and Garfunkel’s hit “Bridge over Troubled Water” over and over. For McKenney, the words offered comfort and a method of coping with the killing of four student protestors at Kent State University. On May 4, thousands of activists gathered to continue the protest of the Vietnam War that began on May 1 at the university, located in Kent, Ohio. Members of the Ohio National Guard were dispatched to the scene and met the crowd head-on, killing four students and injuring nine others. McKenney, now 79 years old, can still recall the emotion of the country during the ‘60s and ‘70s, especially during times of violence. “It was a very, very sad time,” she said. “That song really sustained me; it helped me get through it.”
That time period certainly did not have its shortage of protests. Events like the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War brought out many activists looking to speak out toward change. However, for many people who were involved in the protests of the ‘60s and ‘70s, they don’t see that same sense of activism with today’s college students.
“With today’s protests, I don’t sense the same passion, the same sense of involvement, the same sense of empowerment,” said McKenney, a retired high school teacher from Rochester, Mich. “It’s much more apathetic; there is a resignation that this is the way it is going to be. I don’t see the organization that was involved with the protests of the ‘60s and ‘70s. I just don’t think students are owning their own power.”
Some students at MSU, however, would disagree. They would argue that while the U.S. has come a long way since the ‘60s and ‘70s, protests continue to be a common method of speaking out toward change. Members of MSU student groups, in particular, Students for Economic Justice (SEJ) and Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), consider themselves very active in the protest scene at the local, and even national, level.
SEJ, a protest-based group, has been a Registered Student Organization since 1999 and now has about 25 active members and 50-75 supporters who come to events. The group has been involved in the Killer Coke Campaign, the Indigenous People’s Day rally at the Rock, several Proposal 2 protests, pro-affirmative action rallies, reproductive rights rallies and Purdue University’s Hunger Strike, among others over the past year. “SEJ tries to lend support to various student protests and rallies on campus,” international relations senior and SEJ member Maggie Corser said.[gladys]
In terms of student protests about controversial issues, SEJ and YAF often take opposite stances in the public eye. In 2006, YAF was active in several causes, including illegal immigration and affirmative action protests, the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI) campaign, anti-homosexual marriage rallies and Support the Troops rallies, according to YAF chairman and international relations sophomore Kyle Bristow. “YAF is a non-partisan conservative group from the ‘60s,” Bristow said. “The group at its height had nearly 50,000 members (nationally).” MSU’s YAF was formed in the ‘60s, but like many others, it died down during the ‘80s and ‘90s. A new YAF was formed at MSU nearly six years ago and the group’s membership is now between 20 and 30 active members.
While both SEJ and YAF have compiled impressive protest resumes over the past year, their approach to protesting is different than that of student protestors from several decades ago. This may be the reason some see today’s student protesters as less active than those of the past. As McKenney suggested, “Perhaps students are taking to quieter methods of protest, so maybe what I see as cynicism really is not.”
Both Corser and Bristow agreed their protests are mostly meant to be informational and are less confrontational than protests of the past. “Most protests we don’t really say anything – we just hold up the signs quietly,” Bristow said.
These groups do more than just take to the streets in order to protest; they can be seen chalking the sidewalks around campus, handing out literature and fliers and bringing in guest speakers to discuss issues. SEJ, for instance, brought former Coca-Cola employee Luis Cardona to campus last spring. For members of these groups, guest speakers like Cardona serve as an important and empowering tool. “Luis\’ speech was incredibly motivating and reaffirmed our commitment to fighting Coke\’s unfair labor and environmental practices,” Corser said.
[march]Despite the intentions of activists to inform and influence the viewpoints of their peers, some MSU students don’t take notice of protesting, or refuse to be swayed in their opinions. \”I understand freedom of speech and applaud people for standing firm for what they believe in, but personally I think it\’s a waste of time and energy,” journalism junior Alexandra Artymovich said. “I don\’t think protesting will change anyone\’s mind.”
Even so, protesting and taking to the streets continue to be the groups’ most widely practiced form of activism. “Most systems don’t change without pressure, so protesting is a really positive and powerful tool to pressure the university to adopt ethical labor practices, or whatever the agenda may be,” Corser said. “Protests, when used with other strategies, are really effective. It’s one of many tools for student activists.”
McKenney has been especially impressed with new forms of protesting and the creativity that goes into it. “Perhaps blogging has taken over as a means of protest for a lot of people – that option wasn’t available for people in the ‘60s,” McKenney said. “I have also recently learned the power of humor in protesting. Humor can change people without hurting them and can point out ridiculousness of the situation. Another thing that has impressed me while protesting is street theater.”
Both SEJ and YAF have seen much criticism over the last year for their involvement in protests. “On campus we have enjoyed a lot of student support, but there are always people who would want to quiet voices of dissent,” Corser said. “People may be threatened by groups who are empowered and change the status quo, especially when it\’s students who stand up and vocally oppose something.”
\”People are always going to have different views on topics and people need to respect that,” Artymovich said. “For me, I sometimes feel like some protesters my be close-minded because they don\’t see both sides of an issue.\”
[yaf]Regardless of the method of protesting, SEJ, YAF and McKenney all take the stance that violence is never an option. “It’s much easier to be violent sometimes, but creativity can be a much more effective form of protesting,” McKenney said. “I admire people who are protesting responsibly for the right reasons and in the right way.”
“All viewpoints have a right to speak and say what they want, but violence should never be used,” Bristow agreed.
History has not always followed this well-intentioned notion, and violence has failed to be absent from the realm of student protesting. This was apparent with the Kent State protests. However, violence does not just stem from protestors getting out of hand; negative behavior can also be a result of the actions of the protestors’ ideological opposition. Many of those who do take part in protesting often fall victim to name-calling and threats of violence.
McKenney, for example, has been called many names, including a “fuzzy-haired liberal,” for her involvement in multiple protests, including civil rights marches, the Million Mom March, the Ft. Benning army base protests, abortion rallies, the National Organization for Women rallies and the Iraq War protests.
But name-calling has been the least of her worries. Besides the violence at the Kent State protests, McKenney has seen her share of threats of violence, especially during protests of the ‘60s and ‘70s. McKenney recalled a specific incident in which a bus full of about 60 women, including herself, stalled on the way home from a Women’s Civil Rights march in Springfield, Ill. The negative attitude toward protestors got to the point that, while McKenney was not ashamed of what she was doing, she was hesitant to be seen protesting.
“My initial reaction was mechanical failure, but it shows how naïve I was because the others were sure it was sabotage,” she said. “They told stories of sugar in the gas tank, slashed tires and death threats. That’s when I began to realize how pervasive this anti-woman feeling was.”
[power]A recent example of student protestor violence occurred when Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., visited campus on Nov. 30 to speak about illegal immigration during an event sponsored by YAF and MSU College Republicans. Protestors who opposed Tancredo’s conservative stance disrupted the event, pulling the fire alarm. According to Bristow, some YAF members were pushed around and some had their tires slashed.
“People always want to call us names, but at MSU I haven’t seen any violence except for the Tom Tancredo speaking event – that was really the first time that people were really violent,” Bristow said.
While past and current students may have different viewpoints about activism, and they certainly protest different things, McKenney cites a similar motivation for protesting. “At my age, not a lot of my friends are involved in protests, but when you have children and grandchildren and you want to leave a world that’s better for them, that’s pretty strong motivation,” she said.
Despite some ridicule and violence, MSU student activists have not been deterred from speaking out and they will continue to have their voices heard. For these students, the motivation is too strong. When asked why he chooses to protest and be involved in political activism, Bristow smiled and said, “That’s simple: I am doing this to save the world.”
“When you’re weary, feeling small,