November 6, 2005
Extended version of a column published under the same title in the November 4, 2005 edition to The Post (Athens, Ohio)
Recently, local newspapers have published harsh criticism of the Athens Can’t Wait Coalition’s November 2 campus walkout and effort to disrupt military recruitment for the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan.
A single day saw publication of The Post’s November 1 editorial “Yes it can: Protest group all rhetoric, no plan;” Post associate editor Dan Rinderle’s commentary “World Can’t Wait’s message irrational;” and Andrew Stone’s letter to the Athens Messenger, “Don’t blame recruiters.” Then, on November 3, The Athens News published a commentary by its campus reporter Quinn Bowman entitled “Misguided student walkout won’t help stop the war on Iraq.”
A major theme of this criticism is that the 200 students and community members who took part in last Wednesday’s demonstration are nothing more than irrational, self-absorbed children trying to live out their ill-informed fantasies of the 1960s. Indeed, for Bowman, the November 2 protest was “a mindless demonstration”; “an artificial, self-important exercise that uses old tactics in a new situation”; and one which “reeks of misguided, unrealistic idealism.”
Excuse me while I yawn.
The first problem with this tired trope is that several of the “children” in question witnessed some of the major wars and social movements of the 20th century firsthand decades before the walkout’s most outspoken critics were even eggs and sperm. Indeed, retired OU engineering professor and member of Veterans for Peace Chuck Overby, who protested outside local military recruitment center last Wednesday, saw combat in World War II and the Korean War before most of these critics’ parents were born.
More important, the critics of this week’s walkout know nothing about how the major social movements of the 20th century won positive change. As such, these critics – all but Stone students of Ohio University’s renowned E.W. Scripps School of Journalism (consistently ranked one of the best U.S. journalism schools) – display not only a profound ignorance of history but of journalism, too.
Take The Post, OU’s student newspaper. On November 1, The Post devoted half its opinion page to an 11th hour assault on the Athens Can’t Wait Coalition’s November 2 demonstration. The attack was expertly timed to deprive coalition members the chance to respond before the demonstration occurred.
Under the title, “Yes it can” – The Post’s reply to the national call for demonstrations on November 2, titled “The World Can’t Wait” – the paper’s main editorial lectured us all to remember that democracy is a spectator sport, and it will be another three years before Americans are allowed to come down from the bleachers to cast their votes. While the editorial’s sub-header charged “Protest group all rhetoric, no plan,” this was just an empty insult. The Post avoided arguing against the potential efficacy of the ACWC’s clearly stated plan to attempt to end the war by driving down already low military enlistment numbers. Instead, the editorial stuck to advising the 75 percent of Americans opposed to the Bush administration’s policies to focus on “educating people to think more critically about their choices at the voting booth” rather than “bullying recruiters and calling for the removal of the Bush administration.”
As such, The Post provided a textbook illustration of what political scientists call “democratic elitism” or “elite democracy.” (See the works of Robert Dahl, Joseph A. Schumpeter, Jack L. Walker and Peter Bachrach.) This political ideology reduces ordinary peoples’ participation in the political process to periodically selecting which elites will rule them. Elite democracy stands in opposition to “popular democracy,” which sees democracy as citizens working to shape government policy in a myriad of ways beyond just voting, such as through civil society organizations, social movements, protest, direct-action and participatory public planning.
If elite democracy doesn’t seem very democratic to you, then like me and everyone else in the ACWC, you likely believe in popular democracy. Each side of what political scientists Bruce Miroff, Raymond Seidelman and Todd Swanstrom aptly dubbed The Democratic Debate in their 1998 book of the same name tends to believe its notion of democracy is the correct one. Thus the debate between elite and popular democrats is actually a debate over how democracy should be defined. This debate explains why, in a separate November 1 opinion piece denouncing the ACWC’s November 2 demonstration, The Post’s associate editor, Dan Rinderle – himself a member of the editorial board responsible for the newspaper’s main editorial – declared “The true spirit of democracy is dead, and the [World Can’t Wait] killed it.” To adherents of elite democracy like Rinderle, it is popular democracy that is anti-democratic.
It might have been refreshing if Rinderle at least exhibited an awareness of his own politics. Unfortunately, his commentary didn’t so much advocate elite democracy as it attempted to portray popular democratic anti-war activists as fools. This was where The Post honed in on the charge of naive idealism and the alleged fetishization of 1960s tactics.
In the piece titled “World Can’t Wait’s message irrational,” Rinderle argued, “[The Athens Can’t Wait Coalition’s] Nov. 2 event seems to be an attempt at reviving the spirit of the Vietnam anti-war movement, but like most recent political demonstrations, it is an exercise in futility.”
Why? Not because the ongoing counter-recruitment plan the November 2 demonstration sought to launch was either unjustified or illogical, but because, according to Rinderle, the demonstration employs “the most elementary form of political protest – a walkout.”
“Not only was that tactic not employed in the Vietnam War opposition, it also has never been applied in any movement that actually obtained social change,” he wrote.
And that’s where The Post’s commitment to promoting elite democracy overtook the newspaper’s ostensible commitment to practicing journalism.
The Post’s editors walk out on research and fact-checking
Rinderle’s ignorance of U.S. history and his inability to perform even the most basic journalistic research is as astounding as the apparent lack of any fact-checking mechanism at The Post. One need only do a basic Google search to discover that numerous walkouts, student strikes and even university shut-downs, while not themselves winning strategies for change, were nonetheless integral parts of each and every successful movement for social change that Rinderle mentions – those being “the Civil Rights, Free Speech and Anti-War Movements of the 1950s-70s,” as well as others he leaves out.
Take the Civil Rights Movement. Many historians peg the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement to the 1951 student walkout at Virginia’s Moton High School. That walkout resulted in one of the preliminary court cases the led directly to the Supreme Court’s landmark desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Is The Post saying that desegregation and a federal guarantee of voting rights for African Americans don’t qualify as social change?
And then there’s the Free Speech Movement, itself an outgrowth of the Civil Rights Movement.
The FSM was launched at the University of California at Berkeley in the fall of 1964 after Mario Savio, Max Weinberg and some other UC students had returned from a summer vacation spent volunteering with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Summer, a campaign to force the federal government to intervene against the Mississippi state government’s disenfranchisement of the state’s black citizens. Freedom Summer succeeded, but white supremacists murdered three of its activists in the process while hundreds of other volunteers were beaten and jailed. Thus when UC Berkley administrators reacted to the Civil Rights Movement by banning political activity on campus in the fall of 1964, Savio and Weinberg weren’t about to be intimidated by a handful of stuffed suits from the deans’ office.
The FSM held its first student strike – in effect, a prolonged walkout – in 1964. The FSM eventually succeeded – and not only in removing UC’s ban on campus political activity. The FSM also gave birth both to the broader student movement of the 1960s and 1970s that brought down en loco parentis and much of the broader American New Left that profoundly changed our culture in innumerable ways.
Along with the Black Power Movement and other popular activism, the New Left played a key role in bringing an end to the Vietnam War. As Daniel Ellsberg’s famously leaked Pentagon Papers revealed, President Nixon had denied General Westmoreland’s 1968 request for the 200,000 more troops Westmoreland deemed necessary to achieve U.S. objectives in Southeast Asia because Nixon believed those troops were needed to quell civil unrest here in the U.S.
According to Rinderle, the Vietnam War era anti-war movement never once employed a walkout. But once more, nothing could be further from the truth. After the Ohio National Guard killed four students at Kent State University (a mere four hours’ drive from The Post’s offices) during demonstrations against the Nixon Administration’s extension of the Vietnam War into Cambodia in 1970, students all across the country walked out of their classes. A nation-wide student strike shut down 900 U.S. colleges and universities – among them Ohio University, the school that Rinderle now attends.
And what about that little thing called the labor movement? Rinderle didn’t bother to mention it specifically, but given that it’s brought us everything from the weekend and the eight-hour day, to occupational health and safety laws and the prohibition of child labor, surely the labor movement qualifies as a “movement that actually obtained social change” and, hence – according to Rinderle – one that never used walkouts.
Above, I described a student strike as a “prolonged walkout” because the only thing that separates one from the other is duration. However, the journalistic convention regarding labor activism makes no such distinction. The term “walkout” is literally used as a synonym for “strike.” As such, the term “walkout” differentiates a worker-initiated refusal to work from an employer-imposed “lockout” of workers demanding better pay, benefits or working conditions. Clearly then, walkouts have been an integral part of the labor movement, too — not just since the 1960s or even the 1860s. The first known labor walkout occurred in 1152 B.C.E!
So how is it that The Post manages to miss, quite literally, most of the history of the 20th century and much of the history of the past millenium, too? In all fairness to Rinderle and his associates, they probably don’t deserve all the blame. It’s doubtful that any handful of individuals could achieve such monumental stupidity on their own. As Bertrand Russell remarked, “[People] are born ignorant, not stupid; they are made stupid by education.”
(Mis)Education and the not-so-great men of history
The elitist ideology political scientists call “elite democracy” has a corollary among historians. It is called “The Great Man Theory of History.” Whereas elite democracy argues that elites should be the primary forces in making history, The Great Man Theory of History argues that elites have been the primary forces in making history.
Perhaps the clearest manifestation of The Great Man Theory of History is the nasty habit our K-12 history textbooks have of glorifying presidents, generals, industrialists and upper level managers, while simultaneously downplaying or altogether ignoring the very grassroots movements of ordinary people responsible for expanding our civil liberties, democracy and human rights. As such you’d be hard pressed to find trashier reading material in the grocery store checkout line.
And since I mentioned the labor movement above, I’ll note that it certainly doesn’t help that, while OU offers dozens of courses each quarter geared toward the success of business owners and managers, the university has, within the past three years, offered just one course on labor rights and history – still taught within the department of Human Resource Management, mind you! See my September 23, 2002 column for the Post, “Hard work finding labor studies at OU”.
The reasonable conclusion to draw from such works of near-fiction is that elites are responsible for everything, while grassroots movements of ordinary people have accomplished nothing. That seems to be Rinderle’s conclusion. In addition to his a prior assumption that walkouts have never contributed to positive social change, just look at the sheer condescension of Rinderle’s dismissal of a student walkout at his own high school.
“…[the walkout] has never been applied in any movement that actually obtained social change. Unless you count my high school peers that walked out to protest the cancellation of the school newspaper – I’m sure it was them and not the lawsuit that the editor-in-chief’s lawyer father threatened the principal with.”
Rinderle doesn’t bother to present any evidence for this assessment, but he should have. His elitist conclusion is far from self-evident.
I don’t know the details of the controversy regarding Rinderle’s school newspaper. But I do know the details of a similar local controversy – and Rinderle would know them too, if he bothered to read his own newspaper’s archives.
During the 1999/2000 school year, the administration of nearby Nelsonville-York High School attempted to ban the independent student newspaper Lockdown. I not only followed the extensive local media coverage of the controversy, I personally advised the Lockdown’s publishers before and after they released their paper and was privy to communications between the students’ attorney, Ohio ACLU director Raymond Vasvari, and the school district’s rather shady local attorney, Michael Nolan.
NYHS had threatened to suspend Lockdown’s publishers if they released a second issue. In a letter to the school, the ACLU’s Vasvari pointed out five independent ways in which NYHS administrators had already violated his clients’ Constitutional rights and all of the relevant case law showing why the school was sure to lose any court battle. The school’s response? Bring it on.
A court case would have likely held up the matter until after some of Lockdown’s publishers had graduated. Furthermore, students reported that, despite Vasvari’s strongly worded letter, the Ohio ACLU’s top lawyer advised that the post-Columbine era was not the ideal time to put a students’ rights case before a court.
Thankfully, the students managed to bypass such official channels. They organized themselves; attracted media attention; won the support of the student body, parents and the broader community; and, finally, went ahead with distribution of their second issue in defiance of school administrators. By then administrators were too isolated to follow through on threats to suspend the students involved. Consequently, the students prevailed, the school’s principal resigned, and Lockdown continued to be published through the end of the following school year.
So it turns out that lawyers, while often important, don’t accomplish everything.
And then there was that successful walkout at OU three years earlier…
But if the elitist history textbooks I mentioned are largely to blame for The Post’s historical stupidity, then who is to blame for the equally appalling journalistic failings of current students of the prestigious E.W. Scripps School of Journalism?
I ask because, just as The Post’s editors didn’t need to go back decades to find an example of high school students successfully organizing to protect a student newspaper, Rinderle and company didn’t need to go back decades to find an example of a successful walkout – they only needed to look back three years into the archives of their own newspaper!
On February 4, 2002, some 300 Ohio University students walked out of their classes to hold a demonstration on College Green. The walkout was in protest of the university administration’s response to campus violence against female and LGBT students in the wake of two rapes and one anti-gay hate crime reported on OU’s campus within an 8-day period in January.
The walkout led to a campaign that succeeded in forcing OU into compliance with the Clery Act, the federal campus crime reporting law the university had been violating for at least four years. According to former student senate president Katherine Smith, the walkout campaign’s demand that OU establish a campus women’s center was also instrumental in getting university administrators to agree to Smith’s proposal to establish a women’s center within OU’s larger new student center, which opened in 2007. Finally, the walkout campaign contributed to the ongoing, and eventually successful, effort to get OU to grant domestic partnership benefits to employees.
The Post covered the 2002 walkout on its front page, as did the Athens News, Athens Messenger and Athens Insider. The walkout was also covered by the Columbus Dispatch, WOUB, Athensi.com and two regional commercial television stations. In the days leading up to the walkout, The Post and Athens News published a letter signed by nearly 100 students and faculty members that provided a detailed critique of university policies and a list of demanded changes, and the Athens News and Columbus Dispatch provided pre-event coverage of the walkout. The demonstration was followed by a student campaign for specific university reforms that continued to be covered and discussed in The Post and other local media throughout the rest of the school year. In other words, the 2002 walkout is the kind of thing that would have been hard to miss – had anybody at The Post bothered to look.
Had The Post’s editors gone as far as checking their own newspaper’s archives, they would have learned that The Post’s 2002 editorial board condemned that year’s walkout against sexist and heterosexist violence almost as vehemently as a later editorial board condemned this week’s anti-war walkout. And just as The Post’s November 1, 2005 editorial assault on that year’s November 2 walkout was timed to deprive demonstration organizers the chance to respond to criticism before their event occurred, students considering walking out of class the morning of February 4, 2002 opened that day’s Post to read the following editorial “Progress Report,” under the sub-header of “Homework.”
“Some Ohio University groups are planning to walk out of their classes today and rally on College Green to protest what they see as a lack of action regarding the reported hate crime and sexual assaults on campus. The groups are encouraging all students to leave their classes at 11:30 a.m. Holding a rally is a good way to get a message out, but walking out of class is disrespectful to professors who are trying to teach and students who are trying to learn. We’re all here for an education, and walking out of class does not help. If groups want to hold a rally, they should hold it at a time when people will not have to leave class to attend.”
But thankfully, in addition to the 2002 walkout’s other accomplishments, the demonstration managed to teach an earlier generation of “Posties” something about grassroots activism.
In a February 6, 2002 editorial entitled “Walkout spurs productive talk,” The Post reversed its position on the walkout 180 degrees.
“Although the walkout might have disrupted some classes, the organizers are trying to educate the campus community in their own way,” explained The Post’s editors. “The walkout not only spurred a healthy discussion among students, it resulted in talks between those concerned about an intolerant environment and the university administration.”
Then on April 16, the Post went even further.
“Ohio University students have been fighting an uphill battle for equality…Without action, university officials’ words of sympathy for the community mean nothing,” The Post boldly declared in an editorial entitled “Campus needs more action, fewer words.”
Finally, the paper’s editorial board joined with OU student senate to explicitly endorse several of the demands put forward by the walkout-initiated campaign, including domestic partnership benefits and an end to OU’s policy of restricting demonstrations to hidden corners of campus.
Sadly, this victory proved fleeting. Three and a half years later, student journalists at The Post (and Quinn Bowman at the Athens News) are more committed to expressing elitist hostility to grassroots activism than they are committed to producing journalism.
Yet despite some current excuses for OU journalism majors, the ACWC’s November 2 walkout and march on the Athens military recruiting station mobilized 200 people for the largest anti-war demonstration since nearly 1,000 students and local residents rallied at the intersection of Court and Union on March 19, 2003, the day the U.S. invaded Iraq. The demonstration also succeeded in bringing the issue of counter-recruitment and other intensified activism against the war to the front pages of all three local newspaper. Our Nov. 2 demonstration claimed a further victory by effectively disrupting military recruitment at the Athens Armed Forces Recruitment Center. The recruiters can say whatever they want. We know how thin those walls are, and how loud our rally was. So long as we were there, recruiters weren’t having such an easy time making phone calls to high school students and getting enlistment contracts signed.
Walkouts rarely, if ever, accomplish anything substantial by themselves. But we have every reason to believe that, just as in the past, walkouts will continue to be a useful tactic within winning grassroots movements for social change.
As for the plan The Post claims counter-recruitment activists lack, it’s easy enough to grasp. The Bush regime cannot continue to wage the war on Iraq if already falling enlistment numbers continue to drop. The faster we can make them drop, the faster the war will stop.
If The Post supports the continuation of the war, the newspaper’s editors are welcome to argue their case. If, on the other hand, The Post opposes the war but has a better strategy for ending it than counter-recruitment, we’re all ears. But in bypassing an honest examination of activist tactics and refusing to confront or even acknowledge the ACWC’s plan, The Post has shown itself to be what we might call “all rhetoric, no journalism.” We all deserve better than that.
[Author’s note, 3/18/13 – Less than five months after the above piece was published, HBO released Edward James Olmos’ 2006 film Walkout. The film told the story of the 1968 East Los Angeles Walkouts, through which Chicano high school students successfully overcame substantial repression to improve the unequal conditions in Los Angeles public schools. The film helped to renew interest in the historic 1968 walkouts, which in turn, helped inspire many of the 2006 walkouts and marches of millions of people protesting anti-immigrant legislation in the U.S. In the fall of 2007, the Ohio University Latino Student Union brought original East L.A. Walkouts organizer Paula Crisostomo to speak at OU and present a screening of Olmos’ film. At the time, the LSU also was busy leading a campaign against racism at The Post. For more information on that campaign, see my interview with LSU members from the October 2007 edition of The InterActivist and the links contained therein.]