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Stanford Report, March 12, 2003

Students participate in national strike against war


Hundreds of chanting students marched noisily but peacefully across campus on March 5, then gathered on the east side of the Main Quad for a day-long strike of thousands of students who demonstrated nationally against a possible war on Iraq and the effects a military campaign would have on federal spending for education and social services.

The National Youth and Student Peace Coalition, which organized the "Books Not Bombs" strike, estimated that 30,000 to 50,000 students at 400 to 500 colleges walked out on classes Wednesday. At Stanford, Public Events Director Elaine Enos judged the crowd to be less than 500 at its peak.

Ahmad Dallal, associate professor of history, spoke to a group of students at the teach-in on the Main Quad during the national student strike on Wednesday, March 5. Photo: Kevin Scheirer

"We're taking back our campus in various forms throughout the day," student Angad Bhalla announced to cheers. "As students who are here to learn and to get an education, this is the most powerful statement we can make," said student Clara Webb, an organizer. More than two dozen student groups sponsored and helped organize Wednesday's strike and teach-ins.

E-mail messages were sent to all faculty before the strike to ask for their support and explain the reason students were skipping class, said Stanford Asian American Activism Coalition co-chair Hai Binh Nguyen. As of Tuesday night, 26 professors had canceled class on Wednesday and 64 professors had pledged their support, said student Eric Shih.

President John Hennessy told the Faculty Senate that he believed fewer than 20 faculty canceled their classes for the strike. "I think it's probably unfortunate that classes were actually canceled, because the vast majority of students did not choose to take the day off." Hennessy said he hoped faculty who had canceled classes would reschedule them.

"This is history repeating itself," said poet and playwright Cherrie Moraga, an artist-in-residence at the Drama Department, who read a statement early on the day of the strike. "The U.S. is determined to become a global empire and it's happening on a scale that makes Vietnam look pitiful."

Students set up a stage and sound system on the Quad, where they hung dozens of painted posters between sandstone pillars and draped American flags dipped in orange paint from tree limbs. (The orange signified the alert system used by the Department of Homeland Security.) Students also set up tables where they collected hand-written and signed form letters addressed to former provost Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser in the Bush administration, and to California senators.

Along with green armbands, students passed out printed instructions on the South African tradition of toyi-toyi, a protest dance used in the struggle against apartheid. Protesters had reclaimed the right to occupy public space and to participate in civil society by keeping their bodies in motion and participating in a call-and-response chant, the instructions explained. Students on Wednesday led others in the movement with a "books not bombs" chant.

Organizers ignored a request from the administration that the strike and teach-in be located on White Plaza, where it would not interfere with academic and other activities on the Quad. In an e-mail sent to student organizers, Nanci Howe, assistant dean and director of student activities, cited a prohibition against using amplified sound in the Quad. "Students participating in this venue are in violation of university policy, which could result in student disciplinary action for both individuals and student groups."

Shahid Buttar, a third-year law student, didn't use a microphone when he performed a spoken word piece in the late afternoon because it would reduce his intimacy with the crowd, not because of the restrictions placed on amplified sound, he said.

"By using the Quad, we are stepping it up so that people will recognize and know that we are here. We are pressing the discourse," he said. "We're expanding the community -- and the challenge. You have to be in people people's faces to do that."

Approximately 20 professors were scheduled to lead teach-ins on the Main Quad Wednesday on topics ranging from the regional repercussions of war in the Mideast, presented by Ahmad Dallal, associate professor of history, to a discussion of what has historically constituted a just war, led by Rega Wood, professor of philosophy.

In a presentation called "Views from Iraq," Carol Delaney, associate professor of cultural and social anthropology, and Kathleen Namphy, a retired lecturer in English, talked about their experiences visiting the Middle Eastern country. They said the Iraqis are a proud, sophisticated people in despair about their future. "Our government has never wanted to talk to people it doesn't like," Delaney said. "We need to include people in negotiations instead of treating them as barbarians. We've got to learn to include everybody at the table and spread the wealth."

So many students -- about 150 -- gathered for a presentation on the evolution of aggression and warfare given by Robert Sapolsky, professor of biological sciences, that organizers brought the soft-spoken professor two successively larger megaphones so he could be heard.

Humans are spectacularly skilled at "pseudo-speciation" -- offering arguments that others are so different than ourselves that they hardly count as human, Sapolsky told students. Animal behavior is motivated by the desire of individuals to pass on copies of their genes and their relatives' genes, he said. Unlike other animals, primates use cognitive skills to determine who they are related to -- and there's a critical flaw, he said. "If we're smart enough to figure this out, we're smart enough to be manipulated." Our cognitive sophistication comes at a price, he said. "We damn well better remember how easily manipulated we are."

Although many students stayed all day at the rally -- lunching on the peanut butter and jelly and corn chips provided by organizers -- other students sandwiched the teach-in sessions between classes.

"The faculty support of the strike is key," said Hilary Spencer, a symbolic systems major from New York, who had attended two classes on Wednesday and planned to go to another. Spencer initially had been concerned that a strike would undermine support for education, "but this has worked out well," she said. She'd learned from the teach-ins, she said. "I'm a technical major, so my courses don't cover these topics."

"I think it's amazing," said Katherine Kelman, a sophomore who attended one class and two teach-ins on Wednesday. "Any expression of public awareness is important, even if it doesn't have a direct effect. And this is not just walking around in a circle," she said, looking around the Quad.

The strike "is astonishingly well organized," said Robert Siegel, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology who came to the Quad when a Swahili class he is auditing was canceled. Siegel got a surprise -- he spotted his son, a student at Jordan Middle School, who had come to the strike with a group of about 20 other students.

"This isn't sanctioned by dad -- or the school," Siegel said.


Professor Emeritus David Abernethy conducted one of several teach-ins held on the Main Quad Wednesday, March 5. Photo: Kevin Scheirer