On a campus that once was a bastion of anti-war activism, few students have loudly opposed the war in Iraq since it began more than three years ago.
There have been scattered protests, assorted bumper stickers and occasional canvassing, but a largely apathetic student body has expressed little interest in replicating the storied demonstrations of the 1960s.
Yet not everyone is docile. There is a small, devoted group of protesters willing to forsake sleep and free time – though not yet class or exams – to voice dissent.
Two of these, LSA seniors Alex Smith and Mikhail “Misha” Lomize, are members of Anti-war Action, a fledgling student group devoted to perform exactly what its name prescribes. They and about eight other core members are diligently working to foster a peace movement on a campus that cares, but often doesn’t participate.
Their group is not the first of its kind. Last school year, a loose student association formed under the same name, only to crumble before developing an identity. After that group folded, there were no student groups specifically devoted to protesting the war on campus.
“I felt it was utterly absurd that there was no student anti-war group on campus,” said Smith, who organized the new group’s first meeting and has since taken a lead in recruiting new members and organizing events. “I felt obliged to do something about that.”
Drawing support from a strong local activist community, Smith launched the group at the beginning of the semester. Though aimed at students, the group’s meetings have attracted working young adults and middle-aged Socialists. Legendary Ann Arbor activist Alan Haber, who helped found Students for a Democratic Society in 1959, attended the first meeting. Since then, Anti-war Action has worked with local groups like Michigan Peaceworks to plan and publicize anti-war events.
The group counts 37 names on its e-mail list and is slowly growing.
In their first protest in several weeks, Smith, Lomize and four other group members campaigned yesterday for several hours on the Diag, the holy ground of campus protesters.
In the activist tradition, they set out to raise awareness, handing out flyers advertising a speech last night by the father of First Lt. Ehren Watada, the first U.S. military officer to refuse deployment to Iraq.
They chatted with passersby who stopped to gawk and take pictures of group members Jackie Wagner and LSA junior Adam Lax, who were standing in front of fake tombstones labeled “RIP Geneva Convention.” They wore orange jumpsuits, black bags over their heads and handcuffs on their wrists, pantomiming detainees of the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Smith and LSA junior Matt Roney dutifully tried to start conversations with people walking through the Diag about the Military Commissions Act, a bill passed last month that suspends the writ of habeas corpus for enemy combatants.
A similar but quieter scene unfolded in Rackham Auditorium two weeks ago.
A group of History Department faculty and graduate students held what they called a teach-out, a set of panel discussions about the war and its effects on the United States and the Middle East.
While third-party candidates cruised the auditorium’s orange aisles passing out campaign literature in the final days before last week’s election, University experts on the panel fielded questions about the war.
Audience members relaxed in the sleepy auditorium. They were mostly middle-aged. Some toted small children, who furiously scribbled with crayons on scrap paper. They applauded intermittently, sometimes briefly cheering.
Only a few students dotted the audience. Anti-war Action members originally planned a recruiting table at the event, but in the end none of them made it, citing homework and other obligations.
Most of the students who did come left while a folk guitarist spouted ballads on stage during an intermission. Though named in honor of the renowned teach-ins of the 1960s, the gathering looked weak in comparison to the anti-war events of counterculture lore.
History Prof. Matthew Countryman, who helped organize the event, said student activism has indeed withered since the 1960s.
“At this particular moment there’s not a lot of activity on campus,” he said.
He suspects the 1960s movement was stronger for two reasons: the Vietnam draft brought the war into college students’ daily lives, and the success of the Civil Rights Movement gave them a deep sense of political efficacy.
Both motivators have since ebbed. Congress ended conscription in 1973, and the idea that young people can influence national politics has waned, Countryman said.
But Countryman cautioned against romanticizing 1960s student activism, lest today’s student activists be discouraged because they cannot draw thousands to protest in the streets.
“We have a sense that everyday, everybody on campus, all students were involved in very dramatic and exciting protests,” he said. “That certainly wasn’t true.”
Haber, who now owns a woodworking shop on Phelps Street in Ann Arbor, agreed.
“As the war heated up and there were more issues . more and more people became aware,” he said. “But it was never, you know, half of the student body.”
Considering how different the political climate is today, Smith is like his 1960s counterparts in many ways.
He explains his cause with frequent references to core American values like liberty and equality. With a tall, lanky stature, long copper hair and a propensity to discuss alleged human rights violations, he neatly fits the protester stereotype. He has opposed the war since before it started and said his long history of unorganized campaigning for various causes helped him slide gracefully into the role of anti-war activist.
Much like his Baby Boomer predecessors, Smith is not a single-issue activist. He said his primary reason for opposing the war is his belief that the federal government spends too much time and money planning military operations and too little trying to address environmental issues. He and fellow group member Yousef Rabhi are running on the Defend Affirmative Action Party slate for seats in this week’s Michigan Student Assembly election.
Lomize, on the other hand, is strikingly different from the activist caricature. He is slight in stature, with small wire-rimmed glasses and a permanent smile. His Facebook.com profile is cluttered with Bible verses, and one can barely speak with him for more than a few minutes before the conversation turns to his faith.
His activism stems from his beliefs. A lifelong Christian, the Russian-born Ann Arborite read Leo Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God is Within You” over Christmas break his freshman year.
“It opened my eyes to how Jesus’s teachings relate to nonviolence,” he said. “After thinking about that more, I couldn’t understand how you couldn’t believe in nonviolence and believe in Jesus’s teachings. I couldn’t understand how you could love your enemy and kill them at the same time.”
Now he proudly proclaims his Christian anarchism, often wearing brightly colored shirts with logos like “Love your enemies” or “Who would Jesus bomb?”
In contrast to Smith, who said his family fully supports his activism, Lomize has yet to tell his parents about his involvement with Anti-war Action. He expects they will be less than enthusiastic when they find out.
“My parents grew up in the Soviet Union, and my parents weren’t actively involved in any organizing there,” he said, laughing. “They don’t know I’m a part of an anti-war group. They probably wouldn’t approve of it.”
So far, their group hasn’t inspired any mass revolution or building occupations. But Smith said that’s not their goal, at least not yet.
“A lot of our focus at this point is informational outreach and inspiration,” Smith said. “Signs are good, bodies are good, but that’s not all. There’s more to protest in direct democracy than just holding signs and shouting.”
After saying that, Smith paused and turned to Lomize, who wore a sheepish grin.
“But we’ve done that,” Lomize said as both of them laughed.