2006 Athens News Readers Choice Awards
Editor’s notes, 4-5-13
In January 2006, the Athens News released the results of its annual “Best of Athens: Readers Choice Awards.” Winning “Best Student Organization” that year was the independent, Athens, Ohio-based, progressive activist group InterAct.
I was a founding member and leading organizer of InterAct during its heyday, which lasted (according to me, at least) from early 2003 through late 2005. During that time the group benefited from the surge in anti-war and other grassroots activism that accompanied the presidency of George W. Bush. While most of the group’s members were Ohio University undergraduate students, several graduate students and non-student community members (myself included) participated.
By early 2006 InterAct had dramatically decreased in size and scope. This was partly because several older members left with me to found the (now defunct) community-based non-profit People Might and then to pursue other endeavors. Shortly thereafter, many of the group’s younger members left to focus on the newly formed OU chapter of Students for a Democratic Society.
In addition, the anti-war movement, the group’s main impetus (InterAct was the organizational successor to OU Students Against the War), waned as an economic recession caused military recruitment numbers to rebound and the window of opportunity closed on counter-recruitment activism. Finally, the recession combined with steadily increasing tuition costs at OU to produce an ever more conservative student body, which, although predominantly “liberal” in terms of voting and opinion on many subjects, was much less likely than students of the late 90s and early 2000s to engage in civil disobedience and other forms of militant direct action and generally more inclined toward advocacy than activism.
Not only could this shift be seen with regard to the anti-war movement, but also in terms of how student groups addressed LGBT, feminist and environmental issues. For example, OU students had been involved in at least three acts of civil disobedience resulting in arrests over logging in the Wayne National Forest (1998) and Zaleski State Forest (2001), and mining beneath Dysart Woods (2002), respectively. OU SDS turned out to be the only exception to this trend between 2005 and 2009. (If I remember correctly, SDS’s activities did not involve any civil disobedience, but did result in a few threats of arrest.)
InterAct’s last major direct action was the November 2, 2005 student walkout, un-permitted Court Street march, and demonstration to disrupt military recruitment for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (See “Standoff with the military: Demonstrators vow to shut down recruitment,” Athens News, 11/3/05.) While the event officially was organized by the Athens Can’t Wait Coalition (later renamed “Athens Anti-War Coalition”), an alliance of several campus organizations and otherwise unaffiliated individuals, InterAct effectively played the leading role. About 200 people participated in the demonstration.
The November 2 demonstration received a great deal of local media coverage – much of it negative. All three Athens newspapers carried harsh condemnation of the action, with the most severe coming from The Post, Ohio University’s student newspaper, and the Athens News’ campus reporter Quinn Bowman. (See “World Can’t Wait…for decent journalism” 11/6/05, “OU students unite! You have nothing to gain but civic responsibility!” 11/8/05 and “Responding to more J-student nonsense about counter-recruitment…” 11/10/05) Yet this criticism didn’t stop readers of Athens County’s most widely circulated paper from voting InterAct “Best Student Organization” in Athens. Indeed, within the Democratic Party strongholds of Athens City and Athens County, InterAct even managed to beat out the OU College Democrats. The OU Dems had declined invitations to participate in the November 2005 counter-recruitment demonstration and prominent members had publicly opposed the action. The Dems came in third place in the “Best Student Organization” category, after the International Student Union.
Two more things worth highlighting about InterAct’s Reader Choice Award:
First, InterAct had a broadly progressive, multi-issue agenda that encompassed many concerns in addition to the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. The Athens News mentioned this fact and, as proof, cited InterAct’s partnership with a coalition of regional building trades unions in a joint effort to clean up OU’s frequently abyssmal, and sometimes illegal, labor practices at university building and renovation projects. When former InterAct member Elahu Sustarsic Gosney was elected to Athens City Council two years later, he continued promoting the wellbeing of local workers through the introduction and passage of the City of Athens Responsible Contractor Resolution, which was modeled after InterAct’s earlier effort directed at Ohio University, in which Sustarsic Gosney also played a major role. (See: “Council adopts new guidelines for firms that work with city,” Athens News, 10/23/08 and “Athens law director explains ins and outs of contractor resolution,” Athens News, 10/30/08.)
Second, the same month that Athens News readers voted InterAct “Best Student Organization,” the News ran a story providing further insight into InterAct’s activities and the climate of activism in Athens 8 to 10 years ago. In “Name of OU freshman shows up on federal surveillance list,” the News interviewed Will Klatt (then a member of InterAct and the Athens Anti-War Coalition; later of SDS) about his inclusion in a leaked database of domestic government surveillance targets and also discussed the inclusion of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group, an organization InterAct had helped bring to Athens twice to discuss counter-recruitment activism.
In retrospect, I would say that InterAct’s popularity in Athens and affiliation with the Bush Administration’s perceived domestic enemies are two signs the group was doing a lot of things right back in the day.
Since I left Athens during the summer of 2009, I know much less about more recent progressive activism at OU. However, I do know that InterAct has managed to persist to the present, now some ten years since its founding. This is an especially impressive accomplishment for a student group which is not a local chapter of a larger national or international organization. The reason appears to be The InterActivist magazine – now also about to celebrate its tenth anniversary – which for the past several years has been InterAct’s primary or even exclusive project.