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Taking to the streets in a digital age
These are heady days for student activists -- they're enjoying quite the winning streak of late.
In Canada, several secretive exclusivity deals between the giant soft drink companies and universities have been derailed by energetic student protests. In the United States, universities are scrambling to respond to charges from students that T-shirts and athletic wear featuring school logos are being assembled in Third World sweatshops with terrible working conditions. Several universities have put new policies in place as a result.
On a larger scale, of course, there is renewed vigour among student activists in the wake of the well-organized and powerful protest in Seattle last year that disrupted the World Trade Organization's meetings.
While some protesters were criticized for needless vandalism (and some police were criticized for being needlessly rough), not only did the activists knock the WTO off balance, suddenly the media was paying attention to their criticisms of corporations and globalization. Even U.S. president Bill Clinton said he thought the protesters made some good points.
"Things are looking up for campus activism," says political science and women's studies student Erica Weinstein, an organizer with the Women's Union.
"Campus activism is becoming more popular and I think you can link that to the Seattle syndrome," says Weinstein. She is busy these days organizing a McGill contingent for the Canadian March of Women in Ottawa on October 15, a protest centred on the effects of poverty and violence on women.
"Students realize they can make a difference," agrees law student François Tanguay-Renaud, one of the students who helped rally student opinion against McGill's proposed Cold Beverage Agreement (CBA) with Coca Cola last year.
"It's an exciting time for people to get involved," says cognitive neuroscience student Pauline Hwang, a member of the Shakti women of colour collective and a prominent figure in the anti-CBA movement last year.
Hwang welcomes the enthusiasm that the Seattle protests have engendered in a new generation of student activists, but she sounds a note of caution.
Compared to the drama of Seattle, much of student activism is decidedly low-key and not terribly sexy: publishing pamphlets, organizing meetings, sharing ideas, re-examing your own notions about issues.
Lauraine Leblanc, the coordinator for McGill's Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG), concurs. "Activism largely involves educating yourself about what's going on in the world." There are teach-ins, conferences and debates to attend -- an activist's version of networking -- in which alliances are formed and new information is picked up.
And not every protest can be expected to be as spectacular as Seattle's, says Hwang.
"We can't successfully shut down a major meeting and shock the world every time."
Leblanc is a veteran observer of the protest scene.
"When I was involved in student action in the early '90s, the big causes were freezing tuition fees and protests against the Gulf War. Before that, we pressured corporations to divest themselves of holdings in South Africa during the apartheid era."
She believes the issues students organize around today tend to be more complicated.
"Students are much more aware of the issues they're protesting against. They have to be, because the issues today are more complex. They require more in-depth knowledge.
"You have to know something about science in order to take a position on biotechnology and genetically modified food. You have to understand something about the nature of global politics and the roles played by organizations like the International Monetary Fund to take a stand against globalization.
"When [an earlier generation of activists] protested against apartheid -- well, it's pretty obvious why apartheid was wrong."
QPIRG has 16 working groups focused on different themes and between 300 and 400 students take part in QPIRG activities each year. When a new student arrives, eager to take up a cause, "chances are we have a group that meets their interests," says Leblanc.
In recent years, QPIRG has promoted the sale of fair trade coffee (coffee that directly benefits the farmers in developing countries who supply it) by McGill cafeterias and prodded the University to put its green plan into practice.
The focus of student activism is shifting largely off campus now. Tanguay-Renaud, Hwang and Weinstein agree that globalization is the hot topic for the moment and many of the anti-CBA warriors are organizing around a major spring get-together in Quebec City that will see officials discuss expanding free trade throughout the Americas.
"After the CBA, we've developed trust as a group," says Hwang. "That's helped motivate us to take on other campaigns together."
But with issues as big as globalization, activists won't always see eye-to-eye.
"It's hard to put together a ten point plan of action when we might not agree about everything," notes Hwang.
There are anarchists and diehard anticapitalists involved who see the system itself as the problem, and other activists who don't necessarily see free trade as evil, but who want companies to be more sensitive to environmental concerns and the concerns of developing countries. Hwang says the key is to find common ground. "You look for the things you agree about."
Tanguay-Renaud says there are issues closer to home at McGill that concern him. "I would like to see students play more of a role in governance, for instance."
But with Quebec City coming up, activists can't spread their energies too thinly.
"You have to pick your battles. We're looking beyond our little university world."
In terms of strategy, navigating the media presents a particular challenge, say activists. For instance, while National Post journalists might object, that particular paper isn't deemed by many left-leaning activists to be especially even-handed in how it deals with their concerns.
Hwang subscribes to Noam Chomsky's notion that there are inherent biases evident in the media that are directly related to the interests of the corporations that own them.
"It's not just a matter of what side the media takes on an issue. They have the ability to ignore something completely."
Greenpeace is one organization that garners media attention by regularly staging colourful events -- playing to the media's thirst for arresting graphics in order to receive coverage for the organization's concerns.
Student activists do that too on a regular basis -- it's part of the rationale for big street demonstrations.
While the media can be an essential way to get attention for your causes -- and if activists want to effect changes, they need to win popular support -- dealing with journalists makes some activists uncomfortable.
"I know one activist who writes everything down before he says it to make sure his quotes don't get taken out of context," Hwang relates. "My strategy is to deal as much as possible with the independent press and to choose my words very carefully."
Tanguay-Renaud credits The Gazette's Kate Swoger with solid objective reporting of the CBA debate last year. But he believes much of the media is dismissive of activists' views.
"I prefer no coverage to bad coverage."
The Internet provides an opportunity to get activists' messages out directly without relying on the media as an intermediary, says Tanguay-Renaud.
Indeed, the Internet is considered to be a great boon to how activists go about their business.
"I think it's had an enormous impact," says Aaron Freeman, a McGill graduate active in Democracy Watch, a Canadian group that monitors the influence of corporations on government decision-making, and the author of Cashing In: Money and Influence in Canadian Politics.
"I don't think you would have the same movement without [the Internet]. Organizing people is easier. You're able to get information out of parts of the world you wouldn't ordinarily have access to."
The Internet helped Hwang and her anti-CBA collaborators gain quick access to information about cola exclusivity deals at other universities.
"We found out about non-disparagement clauses [preventing campus media from being critical of the companies involved] at other universities. We found out about price quotas. That helped our case a lot."
But Internet access itself is an issue, points out Hwang.
"Someone analyzed the reasons why there were relatively few people of colour participating in Seattle. One of the reasons suggested is that white people tend to have much easier access to the web."
Stereotypes of the self-righteous, humourless activist abound. "Sometimes it's true," Hwang laughs, "but usually, it's not. Activism isn't the only thing we're about. We're people first. I have to worry about doing my organic chemistry lab; that's part of my life too."
"My uncle tells me he used to major in activism and minor in school work when he was in college," Weinstein says. "Sometimes I'm afraid I do that too. But mid-terms are coming up, so I'll have no choice. I have to hit the books."
Hwang recognizes it can be intimidating for students to get involved in activist groups initially.
"It's really important to me to create an environment that isn't threatening. I'm anal about that.
"You have to allow important roles to be shared with new people. If there is this core group making all the decisions and everybody else is just a poster putter-upper, that's not going to work."
Tanguay-Renaud thinks it makes perfect sense for students to take up causes.
"University is a place where students are open to new ideas and they're exposed to them. That's why we're all here in the first place. We're here to learn and to develop our critical abilities."