By Damon Krane
Monday, October 20, 2002
The Post (Athens, Ohio)
We activists spend a lot of time talking about talking. We encourage others to join us in “protesting” and “speaking out” – in expressing dissident opinions. Indeed, a popular activist slogan admonishes people of conscience to “speak truth to power.”
But what if “power” already knows the truth, and “power” just doesn’t care? Perhaps this is why – outside of activist circles, at least – the phrase “being all talk” generally carries a negative connotation.
Last week I mentioned Madeleine Albright’s May 12, 1996 appearance on 60 Minutes, when the woman soon to be dubbed “Madam Secretary” said that 500,000 dead Iraqi children was an acceptable price to pay to achieve the interests of US elites. In doing so, Albright spoke for every US policy maker involved in carrying out the decade-long campaign of destruction against Iraq via crippling economic sanctions and weekly bombings. Bear in mind that three successive United Nations officials charged with administering the sanctions resigned in protest over them — including Denis Halliday, who ended a 34-year career with the UN because, as he put it, “I don’t want to administer a programme that satisfies the definition of genocide.” Yet when 60 Minutes Leslie Stahl said to Albright, “We have heard that half a million children have died,” and asked “is the price worth it?” Alrbight replied, “We think the price is worth it.” Thus “power,” in the form of Albright and the presidential administration she served (a Democratic administration, one should note) were as aware of the truth as were human rights activists, Denis Halliday and his successors at the UN. Power simply had a different set of priorities.
Now, after seven more years of murderous sanctions and continued US bombing of Iraq, George W. Bush appears determined to escalate the pace of the country’s destruction by launching a full-scale air and ground assault. Certainly, speaking truth to power is no more of a winning startegy now than it was in 1996.
So if speaking out won’t be enough to prevent this war, what will? Bush is halfway through his term, his invasion plans have received the go-ahead from Congress, and no popular referendum on the matter is scheduled. That means at this point, we, the American people, are effectively disenfranchised on the issue.
But thankfully, that’s no cause for despair!
There’s nothing new about being disenfranchised. After all, we spend most of our waking hours as the disenfranchised members of anti-democratic institutions divided between rulers and the ruled. Putting aside debates about the basic nature of our political system, surely I just described your place of employment and/or the school you attend. Yet this disenfranchisement hasn’t stopped workers and students from winning many important victories in the face of powerful opposition. If we hope to build a successful anti-war movement, then these are the examples we should look to.
First, take the labor movement. Denied any formal control of workplace governance within a capitalist economy, have working people been content to speak truth to their powerful employers? Have workers simply said to their powerful employers, “Since all of your wealth depends on our labor, we think that paying us higher wages, reducing our hours of work, improving occupational safety conditions and providing us with access to affordable health care are all worth the loss of your profit which these things would entail” and then magically reaped the benefits of the eight-hour day and prohibition of child labor? Workers have seldom, if ever, influenced corporate governance in this manner. Instead, they’ve pried these potential profits from their bosses’ greedy fingers by threatening to impose even greater profit losses via slow-downs, strikes, sit-ins, factory occupations and other work stoppages – all things that go beyond simply speaking out.
Like American workers, American students at all but a few progressive private colleges are disenfranchised, as they lack any formal power over university governance. The administration that manages this campus is neither composed of students nor elected by them. The student body does elect some of its fellow students to student senate, an assembly that passes resolutions concerning university policy. However, student senate has no formal power to implement any of its resolutions. The ultimate university governing body, the Board of Trustees, is made up of people appointed by the governor, except for two “student trustees.” Aside from being hand-picked by administrators, one other feature distinguishes student trustees from the rest of the board: their lack of voting power.
Last year, many of us disenfranchised OU students found our priorities at odds with those of administrators. After two sexual assaults and one beating of a gay student were reported on campus within a single week last winter quarter, hundreds of us took part in a campaign for university policy reforms aimed at combating a climate of hostility toward women and LGBT students. Students soon discovered that the OU administration had directly contributed to this hostile climate in large part by failing for many consecutive years to comply with the Clery Act, a federal law stipulating administrators’ duties for informing students and university employees of crime statistics, reporting procedures, prevention programs and survivor support services. Among other demands, the student campaign aimed to get administrators to comply with the Clery Act.
Administrators responded, first, by threatening to arrest students for trespassing on their own campus if students gathered at the Civil War monument on College Green to hold a rally on the subject, and then by denying the Clery Act’s requirements applied to them (adding that the requirements would be a real hassle to follow, anyway). Denying responsibility for complying with the Clery Act, and apparently also for doing his job to keep campus safe, Assistant Director of OUPD Mark Matthews told a forum of concerned students, “On your way to OU, you didn’t pass any signs along the highway that said, ‘Welcome to Athens, bad things don’t happen here” (The Athehs News: February 11, 2002; The Post: April 2, 2002). Even more sympathetic administrators said we were being unreasonable be wanting changes to take place before we graduated. “If we get something in four or five years,” one remarked, “I figure that’s pretty good.”
However, things changed rather quickly when we stopped trying to convince administrators with moral or legal arguments and stepped back to analyze their behavior so that we could discern its underlying motives. I mentioned the threats of arrest. Administrators had employed those to force campaign organizers to move our demonstration to a less visible location on campus. Moreover, President Glidden refused to comment publicly on the matter (and, indeed, has not done so to this day). Coupled with OU’s reluctance to publish crime statistics, this led us to believe that whereas our highest priority was the safety and dignity of students, administrators’ highest priority was the schools’ public image, and by extension, their own.
Giving into student demands meant acknowledging that there were problems at OU, not the least of which was how administrators were managing the university. We started winning when we made it clear that we weren’t just all talk. That is, when we showed our determination to make administrators’ failure to grant our demands result in much more bad press for them than would result from administrators’ addressing the issues.
OU then complied with the Clery Act. Crime alert flyers now go up around campus immediately following reported crimes, and OU annually sends and email and postcard to all students and employees, notifying us of campus crime statistics, reporting procedures, prevention programs and survivor support services. (Indeed, the written notices state what students had long maintained and what administrators had for just as long denied: that federal law requires OU to provide this information. Yet in reality, it was up to students to enforce that law.) Furthermore, former Student Senate Katherine Smith has stated that our campaign played an instrumental role in getting OU to agree to include a campus women’s center in the new student center, which will bring together disparate existing support services for female students, making all of those services much more accessible.
As long as people are divided among rulers and the ruled, elite decision makers and the disenfranchised, the two groups will rarely, if ever, have the same set of priorities. “Power” will know the truth and simply not care. Thus victories for the disenfranchised depend on more than speaking out. Victories depend on finding out what it is that elites value and then raising the costs of a preferred elite action to prohibitive levels. This is the guiding logic of every strike and boycott, of OU students’ campaign for a safer campus, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s success in the Civil Rights Movement and many more examples than I can list here. It is how many argue that the Vietnam War was finally brought to a close. It should be the guiding logic of this anti-war movement as well.
Being all talk is no way to stop a war.