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The fight against apathy rages in our back yard

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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003


Dissent protects democracy.

-- Antiwar slogan at Eckerd College

* * *

Many baby boomers, of which I am one, who came of age during the turbulent 1960s -- when the Vietnam War raged -- have been appalled until recently at the apathy smothering many of today's university campuses as the nation poises yet again to enter a faraway military clash.

Where, boomers were asking, is the campus peace movement? Why are so many students silent over an event that could plunge the nation and the rest of the world into unnecessary, violent turmoil for years to come?

The worldwide antiwar demonstrations of Feb. 15 and 16, which drew tens of thousands ofAmerican college students and millions of other protesters, were good to see. Those demonstrations suggest that apathy -- lack of interest in or concern for things that others find moving or exciting -- is losing ground on many U.S. campuses.

Right here in St. Petersburg, where I live and work, Eckerd College, a small, private, liberal arts institution, apathy toward war with Iraq is taking a holiday.

Last Wednesday night, at 10:15, I had the pleasure of attending a meeting of Eckerd College Iraq Awareness. Sixteen student organizers, along with one professor, spent more than an hour discussing ways to get more students and faculty involved in opposing what appears to be certain war with Iraq. Frankly, I am impressed with anyone willing to attend a meeting at 10 p.m., but I find these young people remarkable for their principled decision to speak out and risk being labeled unpatriotic and their diligence in researching both sides of the conflict.

The group began in September, as a forum for students to voice their opinions on the government's Iraq policies. It has developed into a coalition of students, faculty and administrators committed to promoting peaceful solutions to the conflict.

The organization has been busy and its influence far-reaching. Its members have distributed information and participated in protests in Washington, D.C., Miami, Clearwater, MacDill Air Force Base and downtown St. Petersburg. Members have spearheaded two campuswide letter-writing campaigns, the first directed at congressmen who were undecided on President Bush's domestic war resolution. The second was for a "Rice for Peace" campaign in which students were encouraged to send letters to the president stating their opposition to war. Each letter was attached to a plastic bag of rice to grab attention.

I was most impressed with the fact sheets the members compiled, which were placed in students' mailboxes to give students vital information about the conflict. For the same reason, members have written dozens of articles, columns and editorials for the campus newspaper and Web site. In one of its best moves, the group recently organized a "Faculty-Student Discussion" that attracted four Eckerd professors and two prominent community leaders who debated Iraq-related issues.

Many other antiwar activities are planned, including an effort to persuade the college to adopt an antiwar resolution and a class walkout if military attacks begin.

As White House war rhetoric heats up, Iraq Awareness leaders are not waiting for direction from other campuses, and they are willing to show the courage of their convictions. One of the group's leaders, 21-year-old political science major Evan Krick, of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., believes that the Bush crowd is wrongheaded.

"When I look at the actions of the Bush administration, both before and after Sept. 11, I see a group of politicians who continually alienate potential allies through their 'our way or the highway' mentality," Krick said. "While this has been readily apparent in the administration's fight against terrorism, the mentality has come out in their environmental policy and even in the way they have dealt with civil liberties in this country. I feel that much of their current foreign policy is based on a pre-existing agenda that predates the Sept. 11 attacks and the current war against terrorism.

"As a result, I feel that many of the Bush administration's policies will do little to curb the threat posed by terrorism and may, with its bully mentality, actually fuel the anti-Americanism at the heart of terrorists' actions. Furthermore, I find it very hard to believe that the same country that has continually bombed Iraq for the last 10 years and has starved its people through economic sanctions will be looked at as 'liberators' by the Iraqi people in the future."

I was thrilled to hear a 21-year-old student speak with such concern for the nation -- close to midnight in a dormitory lounge.

But what about campus apathy? I asked.

"The problem that generates apathy is twofold," Krick said. "The first problem is the reluctance, by people who feel that a war on Iraq is wrong, to create organizations to demonstrate their opposition. As we have seen here at Eckerd College, all it takes is a handful of people with energy and initiative to form a coalition of people with like-minded views to take positive action.

"The second part is the failure of those who strongly oppose the war to make the antiwar movement relevant to the broader population. Given the way our society is structured, it is very easy to feel that what happens in Iraq does not affect your day-to-day life in the United States. The inability to point out this fallacy by those who understand its shortsightedness provides the base for apathy here and throughout the country."

As the annual college spring break season approaches, Krick and other antiwar organizers on the nation's campuses know they must double their efforts to battle apathy in trying to bring more attention to possible military action against Iraq.

I am glad to see the antiwar movement growing in my back yard.

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