Student activism is battling apathy

Across Maryland college campuses, the war fails to energize debate

September 21, 2005|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

The flier, one among a clutter of paper advertising everything from med-school prep classes to Greek Week 2005, goes largely unnoticed by the backpack-toting students who breeze by a notice board on the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus.

"National March on Washington," it reads. "End the War on Iraq!"

By yesterday afternoon, the Hopkins Anti-War Coalition had signed up about 45 people for Saturday's demonstration, including graduate students and professors, the driving force behind the coalition.

The relatively small numbers, some say, are a testament to students' apathy about a war they feel largely disconnected from.

"I guess it's not surprising seeing how Hopkins is and how everybody's always in the library," said sophomore Amanuel Alemu, 19, noting that he has little time to devote to activism between his economy major and track, though he said he opposes the war in Iraq.

Students have embarked on their fall semester against a backdrop of mounting casualties in Iraq and polls showing public opinion increasingly against the war. Many questioned yesterday on campuses across Central Maryland expressed apathy or hopelessness that anything they do can make a difference.

The anti-war movement across the country is noticeably weaker than in the Vietnam era - with factors including fewer dead U.S. soldiers and the draft's absence.

Some universities remain hotbeds of activity, with frequent protests and highly organized movements. But in Maryland, that is not the case.

Most of the students approached yesterday say the anger and energy when the country first entered the war fizzled away more than a year ago.

At the University of Maryland, College Park, the student body president, Andrew Rose, said what was once a widely debated topic there has given way to issues that directly affect students, such as campus safety and tuition costs.

"Once a semester, there is protesting [of the war]," Rose said. "It's just not as huge as it used to be."

But last night at Hopkins, about 500 people turned out for an appearance by Cindy Sheehan and her Washington-bound "Bring Them Home Now" bus tour. Sheehan, whose soldier-son died in Iraq, became a focal point of anti-war activism by camping outside President Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch during his summer vacation there.

The energetic crowd filled Shriver Hall, some of the people waving signs such as "Cindy's Right, Mr. Bush," and "Thanks Cindy, Loving Mother And Patriot." At the front of the stage sat seven pairs of combat boots with seven photos of soldiers who died in the war, including Army Spc. Casey Austin Sheehan.

"I don't know if I'm Joan of Arc or just the spark that started the prairie fire," she told reporters before entering the auditorium. "There's so much proof out there that this war is based on lies and deception. ... All I want is the troops to come home."

Earlier in the day, Hopkins anti-war organizers were expressing hope that change is in the wind.

Sociology graduate student Kevan Harris, 26, an organizer of the Hopkins coalition, said he believes the campus is reflecting changes that he sees as washing over the country, including an increasing disenchantment with a war that appears to have no end.

Last weekend, many students and the public took notice as the traveling "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit came to the Homewood campus, where empty boots and shoes representing thousands of soldiers and Iraqi civilians who died in the war were spread across the campus lawn off Charles Street.

Harris was among several students yesterday who saw Hurricane Katrina as a force that has deepened opposition to the war.

"I've thought for a while we should pull out, and the hurricane just pushes me further in that direction," said Brandon Silver, a junior at Hood College in Frederick. "It's gotten to the point where the Iraqis have their own government. Our resources should be here when we need them."

At Morgan State University, junior Shakeya Grant didn't mince words in expressing her disgust at the president and his policies.

"The war is a waste of money," she said. "Bush should take care of his own country."

"There are too many problems here; too many homeless people," she added, saying Katrina magnified domestic problems.

Still, Grant did not mind the lack of anti-war activism at Morgan. "I don't have time," she said, pointing out that her course load of 18 credits and finance major occupy her time.

For Bryan Johnson, 21, a senior in business administration at Morgan, the war is personal. He said he has a friend in the Air Force who was sent to Iraq last month.

Johnson says he is adamantly opposed to the war. But after Bush was re-elected, he said, the consensus on campus was pretty much there was nothing left the students could do.

"Everybody has just kind of given up," he said.

At St. John's College in Annapolis, several students said they felt distant from the war, immersed in the school's Great Books curriculum that tends to focus discussions more on the past and on philosophical concepts.

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