Student activism seems rare in 2010

Nick Glunt

Laura Davis will never forget May 4, 1970. Standing near Lake Hall that day, Davis was trying her hardest to steer away from the path of the Ohio National Guard as they marched around campus. When they reached the pagoda by Taylor Hall, her life was changed forever.

“From where I was standing,” said Davis, now a professor of English at Kent State, “I clearly saw them turn in unison and lift their rifles in unison and start to fire.”

Davis said she bent over and started screaming, but her friend pulled her into the back door of Lake Hall. It wasn’t until a little later that Davis heard some people had been hit.

That day, Davis saw the bodies of Jeff Miller and Bill Schroeder, two of the victims of what has become known as the Kent State Massacre.

This was the result of a series of events at Kent State that placed the Ohio National Guard in the city and on the campus. In an effort to get the Guard off campus, between 2,000 and 3,000 students gathered in protest.

That was 40 years ago.

At Kent State today, activism takes a different face behind technology, spread over a wide variety of topics. In 1970, student activists focused on a single issue: the Vietnam War.

Kent State 2010

Davis said that in 1970 there were lots of demonstrations around the Student Center. Students and faculty alike may notice today that demonstrations and protests are fairly rare.

Scott Sherwood, this year’s executive director of Undergraduate Student Government, said his enrollment at Kent State has sparked questions from family members.

“When I go home,” he said, “my grandparents and my uncles always ask me, ‘How’s Kent life? Do people protest? Are people coming together to talk about the war?’ and stuff like that. I’m like, ‘Not really.’ It’s a reputation based on those events.”

To some, this lack of activism on campus may appear to be apathy. Sherwood disagreed.

“I don’t think it’s apathy. I just feel like there hasn’t been a huge issue to impact our lives,” he said. He explained students in the 1970s were facing the possibility of being drafted into a war they didn’t support.

“I feel like there’s a good amount of people who disagree with the war,” Sherwood said, “but you still don’t see people protesting.”

On the contrary, Davis said that people really are protesting, they’re just not as obvious about it.

“I think there’s probably as high a percentage of people who care and are demonstrative in some way about their liberalism now as there was in 1969, 1970,” she said. “They just may not be out in the streets expressing that.”

Activist issues

Jerry Lewis, emeritus sociology professor at Kent State, said there are three “fundamental differences” between students in 1970 and students in 2010.

“Nowadays, the activists are all over the place,” Lewis said. “Not that there aren’t activists, but there’s no central cause.”

He also said students believed then that change was needed more than they do today. More importantly, however, they believed change was possible.

“I think today’s students are concerned about American society and world society,” Lewis said, “but they don’t think they can do much about it.”

The issue that brought so many students together was the draft, said Steve Hook, chair of the Political Science Department.

“With the end of the war and the end of the draft,” Hook said, “that took some of the oxygen out of the balloon for liberalism. And since then, there hasn’t been an issue that has mobilized college students on the left anywhere near the intensity of the Vietnam War.”

Booked schedules

Hook said another reason students aren’t politically active today is their busy schedules.

“I worry that students are becoming politically disengaged,” Hook said, “but I recognize that students have very limited time.”

Because of the cost of college, many students are forced to spend their free time working part-time or even full-time jobs, Hook said. They also spend a lot of time with social activities.

“I would have thought there would be more activism at the time of the Iraq Invasion and more protests against the torture of prisoners,” Hook said, “but students have tended to be more preoccupied with their studies and their jobs off-campus and their private lives.”

Activism and technology

At a typical rally in 1970, Lewis said, between 300 and 400 people would show up. The May 4 rally had between 2,000 and 3,000 people involved.

“I always say there were 3,000 people on the Commons on May 4,” he said, “but there were also 17,000 who weren’t on the Commons on May 4.”

He said that in 1970, activists advertised by handing out fliers. Today, social media, like Facebook, would allow for better awareness of such an event.

He said Facebook groups with names like “1,000,000 Against Animal Cruelty” are as close as some students get to activism.

“Just because you join, just because you RSVP,” he said about them, “doesn’t mean you do anything more.”

News media and activism

Davis said another reason why students aren’t active today is because of how different the news media covered them.

“The Vietnam War had a different place in the culture and in the society that year than the wars we’re involved in now,” she said.

She explained that in 1970, news of the war was on the 6 p.m. news every night. Davis recalled the news showing images of injured soldiers on stretchers loaded onto helicopters and dead soldiers in flag-draped coffins coming home.

“The focus in the media (today) is much more on the death of the individual,” she said. “I’m not saying that’s not right, but we’re never getting any sense of what the overall cost of the war is, both in terms of literal cost and in terms of human costs.”

She said because the media focuses on the deaths of particular people, criticizing the war becomes a question of morality.

“How can you express a criticism of the war?” she said. “Because to do so is to say that the loss of this person’s life is meaningless and no one’s going to say that. It would be inhuman to say that.”

What it means

Because of all these issues, Davis said it is difficult to reach a specific conclusion as to why public activism at Kent State is so rare.

“I think the way people feel about themselves and how society should act and how we take care of other people may look different,” she said.

“I think people’s concerns may be more diffused and it may be happening more behind closed doors while people are on their computers, but I don’t necessarily think that there’s any less of a spirit of people concerned with positive social change now.”

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Nick Glunt at [email protected].