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Whatcom Watch Online
A Report from Western Washington University and Whatcom Community College


September 2009

Campus Activism

A Report from Western Washington University and Whatcom Community College

by Evan Knappenberger

Evan Knappenberger is a student at Whatcom Community College, and an Operation Iraqi Freedom 05-07 war veteran diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Dubious Victory

Over the last two years, there have been several high-profile social movements taking place locally among the youth. Among these are several new progressive movements, as well as established and ongoing efforts.

Most notable, perhaps, has been the “Obama Vikings” campaign, which lasted more than 16 months and culminated in two tremendous and spontaneous victory marches on announcement of Obama’s victory. That November night as Obama prepared his acceptance speech, several thousand students gathered and marched for political change around the WWU campus and neighborhood areas. Another, later gathering downtown confounded local police as demonstrators marched through barricades, singing and dancing loudly for several hours.

Praised as the opening victory of “Generation O,” the publicized version given by mainstream media (and generally accepted by the community) holds that this cumulative victory (that is, the election of Obama as President) was a political fluke of leftist students, organizers and other minority groups. The conservative establishment seems to view the victory as something of a political field-goal.

The intentional marginalizing of community activists, repeated by local media including The Bellingham Herald, is uncritical and incomplete. These conservative rationalizations fail to take into account the true impact of a youth movement, of campus organizers, and the momentum for change among the young. It is this article’s intention to provide a more precise and fuller account the ongoing struggle of campus activism, in a context of political change much larger than the Obama victory.

Besides – and not quite separate from – the Obama campus mobilization, there have been other very notable group developments with roots in the ivory towers of Western Washington University and Whatcom Community College. Among these are a plethora of unofficial movements and submovements, mostly directed towards leftist progressivism, environmental sustainability and social justice.

Struggles and Progress: An AWOL Sanctuary

The Bellingham GI Sanctuary City movement was kicked off last year by a group of theater students, Fairhaven College members, veteransand community members. Inspired by visits from a young woman of 22 who deserted the army after being denied Conscientious Objector status, a Guerrilla Theater “Mock-upation” of WWU ensued. The action lasted nearly a week and ended in a dramatic mock riot with students being detained, blindfolded and questioned in historic Red Square.

A small grant from a non-profit agency provided video-recording equipment, and a student-produced documentary is inspiring like-minded groups of students around the country.

Within a few weeks, several of these campus leaders, led by 20-year-old Nicholas Spring, founded the Sanctuary City group with great success. They have been lobbying the Bellingham City Council for nearly one year in an attempt to pass an ordinance requiring law-enforcement protection of AWOL soldiers’ rights.

Several cities have passed similar ordinances in the last year around the country, and the Sanctuary City group has good reason to be proud of its work: more than 1,500 people have signed on their petition or the email listserve. Mr. Spring and company have put on several workshops, seminars and events at WWU to educate and inform the public, to great success.

On May 16 of this year, a march for sanctuary attracted several hundred participants, but was ignored by The Herald and other media. On June 8, the City Council sponsored a forum on the topic, which was blasted by conservative groups and The Herald. Hundreds of supporters and opposition mingled for hours in a situation infused with so much tension that the police had to keep the peace. The meeting attracted national media attention, and pitted an aging Republican Party against progressive college institutions.

Luann Van Werven, the Whatcom Republican chairwoman, appeared on FOX news bashing college students. On June 12, a county Republican, Randy Keuchenreuther, had a letter published in The Herald calling for “closing that liberal college on the hill and drafting all the students into the military.” Such opinions are typical of the right wing, and are good reason for young persons interested in higher education to be wary of the Republican Party.

The Sanctuary City movement, unlike it’s knee-jerk opponents, takes an abstraction of injustice – the War on Terror – and opposes it on a local and concrete level, building support against the war. The success of the campaign has been its ongoing presence, something of a rarity in the fast-paced contemporary academic world.

Not only has the movement drawn attention to an urgent issue, but it has carved its own niche from the greater community: a feat of endurance for young people used to instant gratification. The staying-power of such groups, coupled with the alienation of youth from the likes of the Republican Party, speaks volumes of the political future. More information on Bellingham GI Sanctuary City can be found on their Web site at http://sanctuary-city.org.

Students vs. Militarism

Another interesting dynamic has appeared between the powers-that-be and student leaders. It is a dynamic revolving around the militarization of campus space; it is a direct challenge to the heart of militarism in the community.

Because of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and the Solomon Amendment, colleges and school districts receiving state and federal monies are required to allow military recruiters access to students and student records. The presence of recruiters, though arguably legal, fails to meet other prerequisites for their imposition on our academic institutions.

The WWU administration, afraid of making waves during a budget crunch, refuses to acknowledge several contradictions at the heart of their own policies. According to the WWU Career Services Center Web site, employers seeking to recruit on campus must meet non-discrimination and ethics standards, neither of which the military consistently upholds. The military admittedly discriminates on basis of sexual orientation, gender, age, disability and nationality; they have been documented lying on campus to students.

Chelsea Weber-Smith, a Fairhaven College student, asked the recruiters about sexual assault statistics for women in the army. She was rudely informed by an army recruiter that female soldiers seek sex from male soldiers, and only claim it as rape when it becomes convenient for them to do so.

This is one notable example of military recruiters denying the stark reality that faces potential recruits. More often recruiters lie, or, in the case of Staff Sergeant Bryan Cunningham of Orange County, California, pimp out teenage girls as incentive to enlist. The WWU administration has refused to acknowledge the complex issues of allowing children at their career fair, or of allowing recruiters free-roaming access to their facilities.

As a result of these paradoxical loopholes of institutional policy, the WWU administration has failed to address the non-compliance of military recruiters to the university’s ethics and discrimination guidelines. An ad-hoc group of students led by math graduate student Matteo Tamburini and myself have brought the issue to the Associated Students Board of Directors, hoping for clarification.

The AS Board is currently considering asking for an ethics guideline for recruiters, and for providing “equal and restricted access” for military recruiters. What this would essentially entail is that all corporate or government recruiters would sign an agreement document forbidding them to lie, harass, or threaten students; it would also provide free space to any group interested in counter-recruiting in an equal manner.

Though WWU policy is ambiguously conservative, what’s worse is that Whatcom Community College has no written policy on ethical or discriminatory practices of outside groups recruiting on their grounds. They ask only that outside groups agree to behave respectfully towards their students. Technically cult groups and extremists like the Ku Klux Klan could easily set up at WCC under the same false pretexts that military uses — promising to pay for college (when fewer than one in five veterans ever receives any money for college education) — as long as they do not quibble with the students directly.

The failure of school administrators in Whatcom County to stand up for their students against the military recruitment industry has irked students who now feel that it is their responsibility to stand up for themselves, and the conflict is mushrooming. The Whatcom Peace & Justice Center hosts an anti-militarism program that has been successful in limiting recruiter access at all public county high schools.

The WPJC’s program has brought college-aged students and older veterans to table in these high schools in order to dissuade children from believing the notorious mistruths that the military peddles to minors. Many young people who participated in the Obama Vikings and Sanctuary City campaigns have also supported this effort.

Overall, the Whatcom Peace & Justice Center’s anti-militarism program has been the most successful effort in dealing with the issue of military recruiters, and is serving as a model for student activists anxious to limit militarism on campus. More information on this program can be found at http://www.whatcomPJC.org.

There have been a few noteworthy confrontational incidents between military forces and students at both WCC and WWU. Several times in the last three years recruiters have been physically harassed at WCC. In October 2008, a male student was detained by police after overturning the Marine Corps table in the Syre Student Center and cursing the Marine officer next to it.

Recruiters were finally dis-invited to the WCC Veterans’ Day celebration shortly thereafter by college administration, on the (completely rational) assumption that recruiters as such are motivated to recruit, not to be involved in community events. Anti-military cartoons and flyers are common appearances on campus as well.

These incidents at WCC are not isolated ones. In February of 2008, uniformed recruiters were forced to leave the college several times after being caught in the designated smoking areas. US Army recruiters had been occupying the “smoke sheds” for several hours each day, leaving business cards and materials. They have also made concerted efforts to hang posters in classrooms, displaying images of men with guns, as well as helicopters, bombs and wads of cash.

Their materials grace the WCC career center and the WCC veterans’ office as well. These materials regularly vanish within a few weeks of appearing.

At WWU, the confrontations seem to focus on the quarterly Career Fair. In May 2007, Karim Ahmath, an undergraduate student, was arrested and fined while handing out counter-recruiting materials in the Viking Union. Mr. Ahmath was banned from the facility over the incident.

A year later, a half-dozen students, including a member of the student senate, were dragged out of the career fair by campus police for “blocking foot-traffic” to and from the military recruiter tables. On February 12, 2009, another group was allowed to pass out materials inside the career fair, but only under supervision of four armed police officers and after hiring legal representatives to protect their first-amendment rights. A dramatic confrontation between the students’ lawyers and University police resulted in a definitive victory for the students.

Allowed to maintain a presence, students “confiscated” more than 50 pounds of military recruiter materials, worth more than $1,000. Among the collected items were several violent, “first-person shooter” video games where players kill Muslims and other minorities with automatic weapons. This is added to a growing collection of recruiter materials totaling thousands of dollars worth of posters, flying discs, footballs, water bottles, USB flash drives, DVDs and shirts.

StopRecruitersWWU, the ad-hoc group protesting military presence at Western, actively collects and fills out recruiter materials with fake information in an effort to waste military resources and lower recruiter morale. For more information, contact StopRecruitersWWU@riseup.net.

At the latest career fair on April 23 of this year, a similar group was dragged out of the event by armed police. The group is considering filing a lawsuit against WWU administration hoping to restore their rights to free speech. At center is the administration equivocation of whether or not the WWU Career Fair is a public event in a public space.

Throughout a two-year period ending in early 2009, a successful campaign to halt the printing of full-page army recruiter ads targeted the student newspaper at WWU, The Western Front. The US Army paid The Front more cash in 2007 than the entire yearly operating budget of the Peace Center in exchange for help in militarizing the community.

After a protracted campaign including letter-writing, phone lobbying, and petitioning, The Western Front only recently ended the practice of accepting military advertisements.

Overall, the effectiveness of militarization of the community remains reduced, if only through a culture of subversion kept alive by the student and activist communities.

Strategic Conceptions

Using asymmetrical, nonviolent tactics against an adversary with nearly unlimited budget these student groups have managed to creatively confront the military-industrial complex at a grassroots level. When viewed realistically, given the unequal footing in opposition to mainstream accounts of its presence and success, it becomes clear that student activism is alive and well in Whatcom County.

A new generation is waging “meme warfare” on unjust systems of violence, including the military. These students are oriented on solutions and have forgone the traditional dialectical model of oppositionist polemics. There are substantial and unreported campaigns being played out on campus bulletin boards, in administration meetings and career fairs, against the post-Sept.11 surge of militarism and military recruitment. But there are also campaigns being waged for progress in other areas.

The WCC Peace Builder Club, the WCC Gay-Straight Alliance, and several other progressive student organizations at Whatcom have faced resistance from conservative elements within the college.

The Gay-Straight Alliance faced opposition from the conservative Campus Christian Fellowship (CCF) when trying to associate as a college-sponsored group in late 2007. The CCF was apparently worried that any official sponsorship of gay rights at Whatcom Community College would essentially lead to a breakup of their monopoly of values-based political organizing on campus, and they were right. Luckily, the Gay-Straight Alliance persevered and was granted sponsorship later that year. Since its inception, it has been one of the most active groups at WCC.

Marja Cartwright, a former Whatcom student involved in the WCC Peace Builder Club, reports being harassed by pro-military members of the student government while working on a project to hang hundreds of origami cranes in the Heiner library. According to Cartwright, the club was denied promised funding and was ridiculed as radical by some administrators.

These allegations are symptomatic of the greater struggle of student organizers for recognition as an important part of the community against the backdrop of a more conservative minority of students and administrators. Despite the harassment, Cartwright and the Peace Builders were successful in hanging their cranes in a striking display of beauty and progress. The conservative forces at WCC were forced into accepting the display as an integral part of the daily routine of students and faculty.

Other important issues facing students in Whatcom County are organic food, tuition increases, domestic violence, environmental transportation and free speech, each with an independent set of problems and resources. These movements are interdependent, and many skills learned in one field are applied by students in other fields. By establishing a pedagogy of social and environmental justice, the community is enhanced exponentially. This is one reason why student activism is highly important.

The Future of Campus and Community Activism

Overall, there is a vibrant interplay between generations of ideological opposites that manifests itself in the student community. While situation-specific protests (such as those against budget cuts) seem to garner much attention from the media, it is the ongoing groundswell of student activism around issues of peace and justice that are really beginning to affect changes to the monolithic dynamics of conservatism faced off against the progressive future.

And while The Bellingham Herald and other media have marginalized student activists for many years, there is a fundamental shift beginning to take place in the political landscape. A new generation raised under the bitter fist of Bush’s Republican administration is concerned with a breadth of problems left to them by the failures of both war and capitalism, as well as the ever-impending environmental catastrophe of manmade climate change.

The marginalization of growing segments of the population identifying as progressive, environmentalist, or peaceful is creating an atmosphere of discontent among these groups that trend toward the left and are less shy about speaking their minds.

It is of paramount importance that our Whatcom community take an immediate interest in fostering the ideals of civic participation and macro-oriented problem solving among the youth.

The Whatcom Peace & Justice Center and the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force are two of the organizations that have shown an aptitude for this already, but without a more complete commitment by progressive activists to target this demographic, generations of community students will continue on in the vain and voiceless depression known as the American Way. As it stands, there is a direct need and interest among students to get involved in any (and every) activist issue that Bellingham is known for addressing.

The university and the college are the future of our community; it is the youth that will bear tomorrow’s yoke, and so it is the youth that need to be taught the wisdom of bearing. I encourage all readers to consider ways to creatively engage “Generation O” and to help inspire them to action. Unless the young learn soon that there is power in solidarity, in community, they will be left to fend for themselves when progress stalls next. §


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