You don’t have to be
extreme to be an activist
In the birthplace of the teach-in, the fires of militancy may have burned low, but activists still strive 50 years on
By Christine M. Tracy
Roger Manela felt bulletproof when he reported to the draft board on Fourth Street in Detroit. The University of Michigan political science major had a student deferment and a second line of defense, a letter from a friendly psychologist stating he was emotionally unfit to kill people in Vietnam.
Manela’s third line of defense was a pair of steel handcuffs and a stack of Students for a Democratic Society fliers. Soon after the draftees stripped to their underwear and gave blood samples, Manela went into action. He pushed over the nurse’s cart and stepped on as many blood vials as possible. Before Army personnel could drag him away, he handcuffed himself to a post and began handing out SDS leaflets. “Join us,” Manela urged the other young men standing in their underwear. “This is an imperialist war! Think about what you believe in. If you are against killing perfect strangers at the behest of a government that you know you have no control over, join us.”
The Army removed Manela’s leaflets. It was harder to remove Manela. After searching for a key, the Army recruiters brought in bicycle lock cutters, which didn’t work on the hard steel of the professional cuffs. Using an acetylene torch, they finally burned through the handcuffs and released Manela, who was sent to the commander’s office. “You’re going to be in trouble,” the recruiters told him. “You’re not even going to go through basic training. You’re going to be put on a bus and, by tomorrow night, you’re going to be in the front lines of Vietnam.”
Manela was not inducted into the Army or sent to Vietnam. He was released and told to distribute his fliers somewhere other than the Army base.
Manela was one of the first members of the SDS, a radical student movement. The group held their first meeting on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, and elected Alan Haber, a native of the city, president. Many of their strategies, such as the direct action Manela took at the draft board, have become a model for future generations.
“We had the fervent belief that we could change America,” Manela said. “We believed in our country, but we believed our country was making some mistakes.”
Activating for change requires great personal sacrifice and a commitment to the larger collective that many young people are now unwilling to make. Saddled with debt and worried about getting a job, they often focus on improving their own lives instead of the larger good.
Change is harder
Fifty years have passed since hundreds of thousands of American ground troops first landed in Vietnam. Instead of tramping through jungles with rifles or burning draft cards, young Americans study the Vietnam War in textbooks. In Ann Arbor, U-M students are still protesting on the steps of the president’s house. They’re demanding the school fire the athletic director. They “want their Michigan back.”
Without the galvanizing force of military conscription for an unpopular war, it may appear the city’s rich history as a mecca for high-risk activism is past. While specific issues, such as racist policing, the use of GMOs or LGBT rights, motivate many Ann Arborites to pick up posters and take to the streets, it is harder in 2015 to build the kind of ’60s coalitions that fought for civil rights and sped the end of war.
“There was an intensity then, and a kind of focus that is not present at the moment,” said William Gamson, a Boston College sociology professor and former U-M faculty member who helped organize Ann Arbor’s 1965 antiwar teach-in. “The intensity came from the broader movements. The civil rights movement was fueling things. There was an intensity increased by a sense of betrayal that Lyndon Johnson had misled people, and so there was an anger feeding it,” said Gamson, who co-directs the Media Research and Action Project at Boston College.
The civil rights movement’s mobilization extended into the antiwar movement, Gamson said. “There was a shift and a blending and Martin Luther King contributed to that. Even as early as 1965, he was broadening things beyond just civil rights.” The public had a target: The U.S. government as the “creator of this intervention and a potential major actor in the civil rights movement,” said Gamson, who believes it’s harder to find a single target today, even though many problems are disturbingly similar.
“In the ’60s, there was a common reaction to local abuses,” says Tom Hayden, a founder of the SDS and principal author of its manifesto, the Port Huron Statement. “There was an outbreak of sit-ins at lunch counters that escalated from one town to multiple towns to a point where in about three months as many as 70,000 people had been arrested,” says Hayden. “It really didn’t have that much organization or money behind it. The traditional organizations got in line and helped along, but it was all young people who basically were acting as if they’d had enough, and were willing to stand up at some risk,” he says.
Hayden cautions against seeing one generation through the mindset of another. He believes young people today are engaged and fearless: “For example, they are definitely leading the fight against the extreme effects of climate change,” says Hayden. “There were 200 Ann Arbor students at the Climate March last October in New York City. And that’s typical of campuses in general. It’s their future that is being destroyed by the negligence of those who came before. So if it’s an issue that affects them very personally, you’ll see them in action.”
In similar ways, the widespread street protests and political action against police shootings of unarmed, young black men are getting more reaction from young people, Hayden said. “You’ve got a new generation of young people who are quite fearless in the face of violence, the hazard of violence and the danger of violence,” he said.
“The racial divide is still there. That’s quite unfortunate and also quite revealing. We have to remember that despite all the emphasis on nothing but the facts, people see through their own racial or social experience. They see reality differently. And that’s a different kind of racism,” Hayden said. “I wouldn’t even condemn it as racism; I would say it’s a racial lens. It’s an unconscious bias that’s built in. And now that it’s out, it’s worth talking about and finding constructive ways to engage.”
Hayden, Gamson, Manela and other former SDS founders and teach-in organizers gathered on the Ann Arbor campus in late March to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the first teach-in. Held in Ann Arbor on March 24, 1965, the first teach-in was a critical step in the formation of the antiwar movement. Thousands filled Angell Hall in 1965 to learn about the far-away country of Vietnam from professors and those who lived and worked there.
“As professors, we had to do something more than walk in circles. We had to do more politically,” said Frithjof Bergmann, a U-M philosophy professor who led a torchlight protest on the library steps at the first teach-in. “It became obvious that night that one could make a difference — in one night.”
“The first teach-in’s historic significance is difficult to overstate,” U-M Sociology Professor Howard Kimeldorf told Ann Arbor filmmaker and historian Alan Glenn. “It created a model for locally based, active learning that proliferated across the country and was later applied to issues other than the Vietnam War. Long before the Internet, it demonstrated that local citizens, drawing on their own expertise, could provide an alternative and independent source of information about pressing matters facing our nation. It fueled demand for accountability from government and a mostly uncritical, corporate-dominated media. It reminded us all that, in the Information Age, knowledge truly is power.”
The defining issue
To commemorate the first teach-in and build on its legacy, U-M students staged “Teach-In+50: End the War Against the Planet” on the Ann Arbor campus March 27 and 28. Activists agree that climate change and the surrounding issues of social justice are the defining issues of this generation.
Those activating for climate justice believe that rising levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases are a direct result of human activities such as burning fossil fuels, and that these increases are causing significant and increasingly severe climate changes including global warming, loss of sea ice, sea level rise, stronger storms and more droughts. Those segments of the American population debating climate change believe that human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are too small to substantially change the Earth’s climate and that the planet is capable of absorbing those increases, according to ProCon.org.
“I am studying ecology and evolutionary biology and see the research firsthand. I know what the data says on all these issues. It’s enormous,” said Theresa Ong, a doctoral student. “This is not a future-tense but a present-tense problem. The effects are already here. If the trajectory continues, there is no choice. It’s very obvious that politics are swaying the public’s opinion on these issues. It is inherently not a debatable problem. It is a question of who has the power.”
Most undergraduate students she teaches don’t know a lot about climate change, Ong said. Ong is a member of Science for the People, a student group that promotes science for social instead of corporate or military ends. “It is disheartening when you’re teaching students and you see how little they know about the situation. It’s not their fault. It’s what they’ve been given and what the media tells them. Once you actually present the facts to students, the response is really a lot of despair and apathy. They see that they haven’t been thinking about all the connections among the fossil fuel industry, climate change, poverty and hunger,” she said.
“All the things they’re concerned about in their other classes are connected to the planet and the environmental issues that we’re facing. Once you actually give students the information, the vast majority don’t debate it,” said Ong. “They wonder why they have been convinced or deluded into not seeing the connections; why is it that we aren’t learning these things?”
“They try to make it a debate when it’s not,” said Kevin Li, who is earning dual master’s degrees in landscape architecture and conservation ecology. “Instead of being about the environment, it becomes about jobs. Corporations and the oil industry have the power to make it debatable by holding jobs and resources at stake.
“I thought science was apolitical. It is not,” Li said. “By being complacent, I am implicitly supporting a political system. It is becoming more seamless for students to enter corporate life as the easiest choice.”
In fall 2014, Ong and Li helped restart the university’s branch of SftP, which traces its roots to the ’60s. Not long after SftP’s rebirth on the Ann Arbor campus, the student group challenged the university for inviting Neil Hawkins, Dow’s vice president of sustainability, to give a keynote address at a campus symposium. In November 2012, Dow gave the university $10 million to fund the Dow Sustainability Fellows Program, which supports about 300 student researchers, according to The Huffington Post.
Science for the People objected to the naming of the fellowship as well as larger issues about the funding sources of science research. “If Dow is, as it claims, simply concerned with solving some of the world’s pressing sustainability problems, why insist on burdening the recipients of the funding? In the past, fellows were called ‘Graham Sustainability Fellow’ after the Graham Institute. What is wrong with that title? Or is Dow simply concerned with purchasing some of the university’s legitimacy?” the group argued in a Nov. 30, 2014, op-ed in The Michigan Daily.
When Hawkins gave the keynote address at a university symposium featuring the fellows, SftP members went into action. Mock posters advertised the event and a mock program asked, “How does Dow justify its development of and political pressure to approve the new 2, 4-D resistant crops?” Two banners were unfurled; they read, “DOW = Sustainability?” Don Scavia, the coordinator of the Graham Institute, posed SftP’s question: “Given the history of Dow’s sustainability practices, how might the title of ‘Dow’s Sustainability Fellow’ influence a student’s reputation and job prospects in the field of sustainability?”
“We strongly support the fellows and do not blame them for receiving funding from Dow, but we do feel it is necessary to bring the issue of private funding in public institutions to light, especially ones so onerous as the ability to buy a sustainability fellowship and, at least in name, all of the students associated with it,” Ong said.
“It is really tough to make climate change the prevailing issue. The people who started the fierce campaign against it have a lot at stake,” said Andre Ray, one of 15 members of Divest/Invest, a coalition of U-M students, faculty, alumni and staff who want the university to rid its endowment of the stock of companies associated with fossil fuels. While many students and faculty at the university (and likewise in the larger Ann Arbor and surrounding communities) are actively engaged in an issue of critical importance, such as climate justice, many more are not.
Ray, a film major who made the promotional video for Teach-In+50, believes many people lack the ability to feel or sympathize with other human beings. “Students today don’t feel like they have the power to change things,” says Ray. He believes students are disinterested, in part, because they have a lot thrown at them and they become complacent because their standard of living is comfortable.
“The people who are suffering from climate change now are not the ones who caused it,” Ray said. For example, low-income countries will experience gradual sea-level rises, stronger cyclones, warmer days and nights, more unpredictable rains, and larger and longer heatwaves during the next century, according to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Another small victory
Somewhere in Nicholas Jansen’s DNA is a gene for persistence. He and other student activists took a variety of actions to make their classmates aware of the financial holdings of their potential employers, big banks. “Michigan students need to know where banks invest money — in big oil, in companies that use sweatshops, and in those that cut down rain forests — before they take a job,” says Jansen, who’s majoring in environmental sciences at U-M.
First they tried a die-in, a mock death to symbolize real lives lost, to disrupt the recruiting session. They entered the room, read a list of demands, and then lay quietly on the ground. Without interruption, the recruiting session started again, only for Nicholas and the young activists to come alive and repeat the sequence until they were required to leave. “It gets a lot of attention,” says Jansen.
The next time banking recruiters were on campus, Jansen and his team carried a sign and distributed pamphlets about the banks’ holdings. As a result of their actions, the location of meetings became more discrete and the security got tighter. But Jansen was up for the challenge.
He finally donned a dark suit, wore a tie and polished his shoes to get by security. Once inside, the young activists waited for the recruiters to finish their pitch and when they asked for questions, Jansen and his team walked to the front of the room and shouted: “We aren’t asking you to change your career, just to know where your paycheck is coming from,” before security guards escorted them out — another small victory.
One of the key differences between college students in the ’60s and the present is their ability to pay tuition. Costs have skyrocketed; adjusted for inflation, students are paying more than triple what students paid 30 years ago to attend a public, four-year institution and about 2.5 times more to attend a private nonprofit or a two-year public one, according to the Associated Press.
Alan Haber, the first president of the Students for a Democratic Society, was an undergraduate at U-M in 1965 when in-state tuition and fees totaled $280 and room and board in a residence hall cost $900, according to Rick Fitzgerald of the university’s public affairs office. “It’s much more now,” said Haber, who settled in Ann Arbor with his wife Odile Hugonot-Haber, retaining his passion for social justice and political activism.
Haber is right. One year of undergraduate study for an in-state student (tuition and fees, not board and books) now costs $13,486, according to Fitzgerald. Adjusted for inflation, Haber’s $280 equates to $2,091 in 2014 dollars. Young people also confront relentless mass advertising and an economy that basically tells them they will not be as well off as their parents, Hayden said. “This splits both ways,” he says. “It infuriates some and sends them into action and makes others turn more inward, the way the Beat Generation did in the ’50s in protest of the hopelessness of it all.”
Today’s college students are more skeptical about the government and are less likely to embark on public service careers. “In the ’60s, when you asked students the question, ‘How important is it to make a lot of money?’ about a third said it’s very important and the rest said it’s not so important. Nowadays, if you ask, two-thirds, maybe more, will say it’s very important. The sense of public obligation that one should have is much weaker today,” said Tom Mayer, who taught for 40 years before retiring from the University of Colorado. “The draft made the war a continuing reality and a continuing danger to people’s lives, which made it harder to ignore,” says Mayer, who was on the left wing of the original teach-in organizers and advocated for a one-day strike.
Mayer believes today’s young activists function in an episodic way: They can be mobilized briefly, but there’s no sustained activity. “The sense of obligation is substantially less today,” says Mayer. “You have an obligation to society other than just to lead your private life and enrich yourself.”
Some of the most dramatic and media-attention-getting student actions have been taken recently by By Any Means Necessary, a national coalition working to “defend affirmative action, integration and immigration rights and fight for equality by any means.”
“Minority enrollment’s been going down! Open it up or we’ll shut it down!” chanted BAMN protesters who stormed tables and disrupted the U-M Board of Regents meeting on April 16. Police arrested eight protesters before university President Mark Schlissel continued the meeting, according to The Detroit News.
A similar BAMN protest briefly shut down a November Regents meeting, which was reconvened in a nearby campus building.
At Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, protesters disrupted two consecutive Regents’ meetings in December and again in March, voicing concerns about the university’s involvement with the Educational Achievement Authority, a state program to manage under-performing schools.
Is shutting down or disrupting a meeting an effective reform strategy? Nicholas Jansen, president of Michigan’s Divest/Invest, believes there is a way to perform civil disobedience without creating harm to people and property. “We all have power to activate for some issue,” says Jansen. “It has to go beyond commenting and click and like on Facebook. That is the downfall of social media. People participate behind their screens. People don’t want to put their bodies out there anymore. If we pack a Regents’ room with students who care, it matters and shows it’s something people really care about,” says Jansen.
Divest/Invest attempts to work within the system to convince U-M’s administration to divest from coal and oil industries. The university has divested twice, Jansen said: from tobacco and from apartheid-era South Africa. Jansen is frustrated, however, at the lack of progress. “Once a month we get to talk for five minutes and they just nod their heads,” Jansen said. “They haven’t been willing to meet with us. We may need to get more radical. This issue affects everyone.”
In addition to climate change, a host of issues motivate activists, said Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org Civic Action, a progressive public-policy advocacy group. Galland, who lives in Ann Arbor with her family, believes many people are actively engaged with issues they care about, but it looks different from the ’60s. She points to the success Moveon.org had in passing the Affordable Health Care Act.
“Cynicism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Galland said. “It’s important for us to call it like we see it and raise our voices when we see injustice, but it’s also important to highlight where we’ve made things better through intentional organizing.
“There’s a whole vibrant movement of folks organizing around food justice — going to farmers’ markets, developing the whole framework for organic foods, demanding labeling of GMO products, developing a ‘slow food’ movement and more. Definitely I see that in Ann Arbor. And that’s political action,” Galland said. “It’s not necessarily a march, but it’s political action. And not just on food politics — the movements for LGBT equality, for economic justice (fast food workers won a wage hike from McDonald’s after years of organizing, and they’re not done), for equal rights for women, are all vibrant,” Galland said.
She lives in the Water Hill neighborhood of Ann Arbor where Paul Tinkerhess and other community members created a porch-concert festival and a nonprofit, volunteer-powered sidewalk snow-removal service, SnowBuddy. “MoveOn members are involved in those kinds of feisty, community-minded projects in cities and towns all over the country, so we feel right at home,” Galland said.
Rooted in the same era of social change as the antiwar movement, Ann Arbor’s annual Hash Bash is a popular point of activism. A large halo of smoke hovered over the Diag at the 44th Hash Bash this spring when stoner comedian Tommy Chong told the crowd, “We are winning the war on drugs.” Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero admitted his former anti-marijuana position was wrong, and he explained the social, economic and health reasons why the prohibition should end. “Free the people,” he intoned, and the thousands gathered that sunny Saturday in April responded: “Free the weed.”
A sacred place
If there is a unique Michigan gene that spawned Tom Hayden, Alan Haber, Harvey Wasserman (senior adviser to Greenpeace) and other celebrated activists, it exists in Nicholas Jansen. He enthusiastically led the rally that opened the March 27 “Teach-In+50: End the War Against the Planet.” Snow showers could not dampen his passion as he rallied the 200 or so students and ’60s activists who gathered. They chanted: “This is a teach-in for our climate! A teach-in for our planet! A teach-in for our future!
“This is a sacred place, a place where history happened. Here is loric landscape to be created by each generation,” said Hayden, and he called on the U-M students around him to “lead the way and the university will follow.” For Hayden, Haber, Mayer, Gamson, Manela, Wasserman and the others who returned to Ann Arbor in March, activism is a way of life. “There is no greater life than being an activist,” says Wasserman.
What can students today learn from lifelong activists? Prepare for a long struggle and avoid despair. Look for small victories and build a full life to sustain the effort. “People already have a sense of injustice: Small victories are often really critical,” said Boston College’s Gamson. “Small victories can really lift that sense that we can really make a change here, create mobilization and tie things together.”
“Not everyone can be a hero,” Roger Manela said. But he believes everyone can be an activist. “Do what you do ordinarily and shift it to adhere to your values,” said Manela, who counsels young people at Detroit’s West Side Academy. The academy bills itself as “a last bastion of hope” for students disenfranchised from traditional high schools.
Manela believes the real danger comes when morality and beliefs conflict with action and “your soul is at risk.”
The solution is integrating who you are and what you do with what you believe.
for their close-up