Even though they shot her in the head, Michelle White ’06 appreciates what activists are doing. There were no bullets, granted. And the people in mock-military uniforms who stopped her at the Noah Porter Gate Monday were only members of Students for Justice in Palestine.
But, even with cardboard rifles, the protest sparked a small firestorm. While SJP members said they were trying to give students an idea of life in Palestine, Martin Shuster GRD ’04 criticized them for representing only one side of the issue. Shuster, who supports the Palestinian cause, called the protest “deplorable and misguided” in a letter to the Yale Daily News.
And while Shuster disapproved of the protest, a number of students oppose activism as a whole — whether it is a vocal minority or a silent majority, no one knows.
Despite Yale’s history of student involvement, has a large part of the student body become hostile to the activist community?
Though some include community service in their definition of activism, and the two often intersect, the protests-and-petitions kind of activism has garnered an unusual amount of attention this fall. Students have protested issues from Yale’s labor union negotiations to New Haven’s homelessness problem to the possible war with Iraq.
College campuses have historically been hotbeds of student involvement. Professor Michael Denning, an expert in modern American culture, said colleges’ mission to promote “free inquiry” and full-time students’ place apart from the workforce are, in many ways, suited to activism.
“[Students] don’t have to make a living. They can take time out of their day and they have remarkable freedom,” Denning said.
Academia has always been a home for debate, and activism by college students has never, by any stretch of the imagination, been universally popular. But as activism has taken off in recent months, so has resentment of the activist community.
Some resentment is largely political. Hanan Levin ’04 expressed anger at the SJP “blockade” of the Porter Gate.
“I just think those people have no idea what they’re talking about,” Levin said.
But some resentment is directed at the activist community in general rather than at specific causes.
One sophomore, who preferred not to give her name, criticized those who think that “to be against something is cool.” She theorized that though some Yalies protest the war in Iraq, most come from civilian backgrounds and do not understand all that war involves.
YSEC member Olivia Haesloop ’05 said she thinks it is hard for some people to get involved in issues they do not think directly affect them. Haesloop, who has been involved in other causes such as labor activism, said she thinks the fact that many people are involved with several activist groups can turn outsiders off and cause them to characterize activists as extremists.
“People don’t necessarily want to go out on some extreme,” she said. “It’s just really important that [people who care about a cause] don’t get scared off by labels.”
But some activists have a hard time because their views are far from the perceived center of Yale’s student body.
David O’Leary ’06, a member of the Conservative Party, said the fact that most of Yale’s student body is liberal makes it hard to be a conservative activist.
“You can be mocked for your views,” he said. “It usually causes more damage than it does good.”
O’Leary said he participated in a counter demonstration across the street from the pro-union civil disobedience this October. He said most reactions from bystanders were negative, and some people who did not agree with his group’s views stood with the group and held signs mocking its stance.
“People want you to stop talking when they don’t agree with your view,” O’Leary said.
But not all students, of course, have negative views about activists. Some criticize those who they believe to be uninformed but applaud activists’ efforts at large.
“[Activism] at least prevents people from forgetting that there’s a world outside,” Daniel Berman ’05 said.
And some students who are not members of groups still participate in occasional protests. Karlo Dizon ’06, went with a group of 220 from the Yale Coalition for Peace to Washington, D.C. on October 26, for a large anti-war rally. Dizon, like many who support Yale activists, said he appreciates that groups express their opinions freely. His only concern was that not enough people are involved.
Why not? One common answer was time. Many activists, like Erin Scharff ’04 — who is involved in labor activism — agreed that some students are simply too busy to become involved. Scharff said she thinks Yale either attracts or “builds” people who constantly want to be busy.
“We’re obsessed with time in a way that doesn’t make it easy for us to get involved in new things,” Scharff said.
Activists said students do not need to know all the details about a cause before becoming involved.
“One of our priorities is internal education,” YCP member Chesa Boudin ’03 said. “The whole thing is an educational process for all of us,” Boudin said.