WASHINGTON – There is a juncture on Interstate 495 where roads from New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Virginia converge, funneling motorists into the heart of Washington. By the time dawn broke over the Maryland foothills yesterday morning, this highway was alive with caravans of buses leading student activists from Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and New York to rally in front of the Supreme Court.
While the Supreme Court justices picked apart the University’s admissions system, University students joined with several thousand activists in support of the race-conscious policies. Many protesters said they thought their actions will convince the justices to rule in favor of the policies this summer.
“They’ll be watching this, their children will watch this,” said Education senior Agnes Aleobua, a member of the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Integration and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary. “They’re human. They’ll be affected by it.”
Law School student Tracy Thomas rode to Washington on one of six buses carrying University members of Students Supporting Affirmative Action. She said the demonstrations build public support for diversity.
“Just the march and people showing how they feel about affirmative action – it has an impact on public opinion, showing how you feel,” Thomas said. “I want people to have the opportunity (for higher education), and it’s important that we are a racially diverse student body.”
In addition to the buses sponsored by SSAA and BAMN, the Michigan Student Assembly sponsored and chaperoned six buses for the overnight trip to Washington. Unlike the SSAA buses, MSA called its vehicles nonpartisan – meaning that both students supporting and opposing University admissions policies were welcome to board them.
“MSA gave money so that all students, regardless of political affiliation, could participate,” Pete Woiwode, SSAA organizer, said. Nearly 700 students raced to claim seats on the MSA and SSAA buses, he added.
“The list took basically no time at all to fill,” Woiwode said. “Hours after the sign-ups opened, they were already filled.”
But Woiwode said although he invited all MSA affiliates to the rally, mainly advocates of the race-conscious admissions rode the buses to Washington. As the rally gained strength in the gray April morning, students protesting race-conscious admissions were conspicuously absent.
“Saying you’re against affirmative action when the predominant ethos is against you takes a lot of balls,” said Michigan Review Editor in Chief James Justin Wilson, who camped outside the courthouse for two nights in order to hear the arguments firsthand. “The very nature of conservatism is to keep your mouth shut.”
Apart from staffers of the Review and The Michigan Daily, no other University students attempted to gain admission to the courtroom by weathering the cold.
“You can’t show these numbers in the courtroom,” LSA sophomore Nathan Cohen said, referring to the thousands of protesters at the rallies. “I did the courtroom thing in high school. It was like, we all crammed into the courtroom, taking up space of people who were more interested.”
During BAMN’s midday rally at the Lincoln Memorial, several students and social action moguls gave speeches advocating race-conscious admissions. As planes heading toward Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport clipped the sky above the Reflecting Pool, students carrying signs and sporting BAMN T-shirts gathered on the memorial steps by the thousands to listen and to cheer.
“The fact is, none of us has ever wanted race to be a factor in society,” former Michigan 36th District Court Judge Greg Mathis said.
“I am one judge who is not afraid of admitting I benefited from affirmative action.”
“Ultimately, most people agree that diversity is important,” Rackham student Neali Hendrix said. “A diverse student body brings diverse experiences and breeds new ideas.”
Although protesters said the University’s admissions policies were the impetus behind the rallies, they added that the outcome of the lawsuits will have far-reaching resonance.
“I have a younger brother, he’s 14,” said LSA junior Brandis Taylor, an SSAA member. “In all honesty, I’m doing this for him. I feel like I have a duty to him.”