Column | Feb. 9

Where are the student activists?

My underpants are showing.

I’m lying on the stairs of Frist Campus Center, during Late Meal, in an intentionally public display, and my underpants are showing.

And they brought a photographer. My underwear could be on the front page of The Daily Princetonian.

I’d joined the Anti-Keystone XL pipeline “die-in” in Frist at the last minute. The email that Princeton United Left distributed to its associated campus groups had billed the protest as “short and sweet and risk-free.” Curious and desperately searching for something worth writing about in my column this week, I put on my black pants and black fleece and rushed over to Frist after organic chemistry precept, so I could finish the protest in time to get Late Meal.

Besides thinking about my underpants, it occurred to me as I was lying there, pretending to be an oil spill, that this was the largest in-place expression of student political activism that I’d seen in my two years here. Despite the indisputable engagement of the University’s student body, seldom do we see large groups of students getting together for a large, visible protest in favor of or against some policy. Instead, we take actions in ways that seem far more becoming of Princeton students — working with ideas, behind the scenes and within the walls of academia, to make our voices heard, without undue personal inconvenience. Why march on Washington when you can join a scholarly discussion instead? Why picket up and down Nassau Street when there’s a sociology paper to write? While this more tame variety of activism is generally more amenable to our skills and inclinations as Princeton students, it lacks much of the urgency of large-scale, traditional protests, and is often shallow and weak in the face of the most important issues of our time.

The University has a long, inconsistent history of radical political movements, dating back to Nassau Hall’s playing host to that daring experiment in democracy that was the United States government in 1783. Modern student activism at Princeton reached its zenith in 1970, when the University instituted a two-week fall break to allow students to participate in advocacy for that year’s presidential elections, in the wake of Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia that spring. As the protests — which ended in four deaths at Kent State University — raged, Princeton students went on strike to protest the invasion and the draft. The University supported them, delaying final papers and creating a two-week election break before that year’s election day. That fall, according to a 2011 article published in The Daily Princetonian, approximately a quarter of Princeton students participated in some kind of political campaign. Though student protests would never again reach the level it did in 1970, “election break” has remained a fixture to this day, an artifact of an age of radical activism.

Today, University students express their political sentiments more subtle ways. Due to academic priorities, a desire for intellectual discussion over rash activism and our geographical distance from political centers in cities like Washington, D.C. and New York, we tend toward more subtle and non-confrontational acts of dissent.

It’s easy to put my name on a petition — so why not sign every petition that comes my way, from J Street U’s petition supporting the two-state solution to Cory Booker’s senate election petition? Slightly more time-consuming is taking the time to attend a talk by a political speaker, whether it be Richard Falk, Justice Scalia or Ben Bernanke.

Those of us who are extremely committed may volunteer our time to political causes, but still at our convenience, with academics taking priority. As a nominal member of the Princeton University College Democrats, I receive a steady stream of emails about volunteer opportunities with this congressional candidate or that cause, each of which I can commit a free evening to.

Perhaps these efforts are a better use of our time and energy. There is, indeed, less need to leave campus as activism has spread to the Internet. President Obama owes much of his successful presidential campaigns to the armies of volunteers cultivated and coordinated online; some public advocacy campaigns exist solely online. In a column published on March 5, Aaron Robertson discussed “dry-erase board activism” in the “I, Too, Am Harvard” campaign, a tactic adopted by the Princeton DREAM team, which is a powerful means of raising awareness. Just as we feel confident as students working within the system to change it, we feel confident as millennials in working virtually to change reality.

But all too often the challenges we face are too real and too large for virtual, gradual activism to change them.

After the protest, I asked Mason Herson-Hord ‘15, one of the protest leaders who had been arrested at the White House the week prior, why public protest and civil disobedience were necessary. He cited the “apocalyptic” consequences of global warming, claiming “nothing else would matter” if the full effects of climate change were realized. Fellow protest leader Katie Horvath‘15 added that it was so urgent that “the time to act was yesterday”.

You, dear reader, have an issue you are deeply passionate about. It may not be climate change, but the time to act on it was yesterday, and the world is changing all too slowly. If you don’t take action now, the consequences could be apocalyptic. Go march, sit, stand, die and live. But, unlike me, remember your belt.

Bennett McIntosh is a sophomore from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at bam2@princeton.edu. 
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Kent State University. The ‘Prince’ regrets the error. 
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