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Who are these activists?

Photos and Text by Michelle L. Povinelli

staff photographer

It was hard to overlook the giant American-flag phallus in the middle of the Student Center Lobby. In fact, it got so much attention that students were stopping by throughout the day to take their pictures next to it.

The paper-mache pinata was part of the Smash the Patriarchy Bake Sale, held on International Women's Day. Those who stopped by the bake sale table could stock up on anarcho-feminist baked goods, buttons, and assorted hand-outs and flyers. Among these was a sheet explaining the ideological significance of the pinata: by smashing it, “people are symbolically taking aim at an unfair, violent, and destructive power structure.”

Also on display was a collection of posters used by various MIT fraternities, dormitories, and living groups to advertise their parties. Several of the students at the Bake Sale have been active in protesting the sexual imagery on these posters.

When Zeta Beta Tau used pictures of a semi-nude man and woman on advertisements for their Bling, Bling Party, Julia K. Steinberger G objected. “For me, seeing those posters was really a slap in the face,” she said. Steinberger responded by posting a parody poster featuring a drawing of a penis being cut by scissors. “It was a way of trying to viscerally demonstrate that it was a really bad feeling to see [the original] posters,” she said.

When Ashdown House's Jungle Party posters featured images of Tarzan and Jane, Aimee L. Smith G started an e-mail flame war by stating that the posters provoked “a hostile working environment for women at MIT” and were in violation of her civil rights.

Smith also objected to posters advertising DKE’s “Playboy Party,” which included images of the Playboy rabbit logo, by writing “KKK” over “DKE” on several posted copies. Her attempts to liken Playboy to a hate group apparently went unappreciated by several fraternity members, who interpreted her actions as an accusation of racism. Smith later made a counterposter entitled “DKE Gyno-Nazis Go Home,” which linked reading Playboy and similar magazines to sexual aggression against women.

Behind the Controversy

While the Bake Sale and controversy over postering attracted a lot of attention on campus, they were only a part of these students’ activities. Steinberger, Smith, and others are part of the Social Justice Cooperative, an MIT student group engaged in political activism around a wide range of left-leaning causes.

The organization and membership of the SJC are hard to define, for as much as possible, the group avoids hierarchical structure in favor of collaborative action. While most MIT student groups have a President and a Vice President, the SJC has an “internal Facilitator” and an “external Coordinator” -- at least for the purposes of its Association of Student Activities-mandated constitution. While there is a core group of particularly energetic and active students, others just participate occasionally, showing up for events and activities posted to the group's mailing list, <peace-announce>.

In other words, as Steinberger said, “The SJC is just a bunch of people.”

The World Bank and Other Issues

This year, the policies of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank were particularly important issues for the SJC and other campus activists. After World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn was selected as graduation speaker, a group of students organized to overturn the decision, calling themselves the “Students for a Democratic Commencement.” While their efforts were unsuccessful, Wolfensohn agreed to a student forum on the day of graduation. Throughout the semester, the SJC held a documentary movie series to show case studies of the effect of IMF and World Bank policy on the developing world.

The war in Afghanistan and the conflict in the Middle East were also important issues. Students constructed a tent city in Killian Court to draw attention to the situation of Afghan refugees and participated in a number of rallies in support of the Palestinian cause. The SJC also sponsored a petition calling for MIT President Charles M. Vest to oppose a bill that would ban the issue of visas to citizens of countries classified as “state sponsors of terrorism.”

Life as an Activist

What makes some students so passionate about these causes, and why do they devote such enormous time and energy to political action?

Along with a desire to improve the world, students point to the energy they get from seeing their opinions resonate with a larger group. “To me it strengthens you,” said Martin A. Hunter about participating in events like protests. “The more I do it, the more I feel like ‘Wow! There are all these people who feel like me!’ It pumps me up to do more.”

Aram W. Harrow G echoed a similar theme in describing how he got involved in political action. “It's a little weird,” he said, “but all of my political opinions were shaped by high school debate. I have opinions on almost everything, but I never really got worked up about it.” Then he got involved in planning a peace rally at MIT.

“At one point, I was printing out a lot of stuff and tied up all the printers in W20 for fifteen minutes, which obviously got a complaint from stop-it,” he said. But when Harrow told the stop-it officer that he was printing flyers for a peace rally, the officer asked when it was so that he could go, Harrow said. “It was great,” he said, “even the guy who was arresting me was supporting me!”

A Shared Ideology

“I moved to the U.S. in September, and I hated everything,” said Soraya Yekta G. “I hated the country, and I hated MIT, and I hated George Bush.” Going to large events like protests reassures her that she is not alone in all of her views. “Events like protests are to be assured that there is a community that on some level shares an ideology.”

What is this ideology? For many of these students, it is a larger world view in which corporate interests and governments work to increase their power and profit at the expense of ordinary people. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, Israel is seen as an oppressive force that takes advantage of U.S. military aid to continue the occupation of Palestinian land and the persecution of the Palestinian people. World Bank policies such as structural adjustment are viewed as a way for Western governments to impose neo-liberal economic policies on developing countries in order to provide their own multi-national corporations with cheap labor.

The underlying ideology can thus motivate students to take action on a wide range of seemingly disparate issues. “The way we win and create peace around the world,” Smith said, “is by recognizing that all humans are valuable and deserve having their rights stood up for against the powerful few that benefit by creating division, in terms of both profit and power.”

Not surprisingly, the view that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one particular example of a general problem can be irksome for some. After a picture of Smith and her husband Anton Van Der Ven at a pro-Palestinian rally appeared in The Tech, an anonymous letter was posted on the bulletin boards near her office. “As much as I appreciate your need to fight for all right causes and your will to change the world,” it said, “Have you ever even been to the middle-east?”

The Larger Movement(s)

On the weekend of April 20, 2002, tens of thousands of people converged on Washington, D.C. The weekend's events brought together activists from several major groupings. Along with supporters of the Palestinian cause were protesters against the war on terrorism, IMF and World Bank policies, Plan Colombia, and the School of the Americas.

On Saturday, a large rally brought all these groups together in a march towards the Washington Mall. The march was a study in visual contrasts, from the giant puppets of the anti-globalization protesters, to women wearing the traditional Muslim hejab, to groups of policemen, a group of Orthodox Jews who oppose the existence of Israel, and an occasional rainbow flag.

In the van on the way to D.C., MIT students discussed their reasons for attending. “A lot of stuff is going on, and we're not getting a voice,” said Michael J. Borucke ’01. “To put an end to war and oppression and racist ideology and corruption and nuclear arms -- that's why I'm here.”

Some in the group, however, wondered whether the message of the march would be diluted, with so many groups attending. What would the mainstream media even say about the event? “There is a root [behind all these issues],” Hunter said. “Bastards that do really bad things. But there are all these little groups with their own banner and flag. It's really weird.”

“That’s the beauty of it,” answered Mark Weaver. “We're not like one uniform force, with a common purpose decreed by a board of directors or something.”

In the end, it was felt that perhaps it wasn’t terribly important what people were protesting; the important point was to register their opposition. “The central point is that tens of thousands of people are pissed,” said Bryan A. Ford G. “Even though they're not one large group, they're still in a sense a de facto platform. The fact that they’re willing to get together and march shows they're not diametrically opposed.”

Limits to Cooperation

A group of Muslim students from MIT went down separately for the march, travelling on busses chartered by a local mosque. These students seemed grateful for the range of support seen at the protests. “For me it was important to go to this rally, which showed some of the commonality between the groups,” said Numan Waheed G.

However, cooperation between these groups is sometimes limited, as is the case with the Muslim Students Association and the SJC. While the two groups have co-sponsored events, “we’ve had some events where they’ve wanted to work with us, and we’ve hesitated,” said Waheed. He explained that differences over tactics sometimes rule out official MSA recognition. “They draw a lot more attention than we're used to drawing,” he said, referring to what he called the group's “F-War signs.”

Going Beyond Protest

After returning from the protest march on DC, Ford had some doubts. “I’m still frankly skeptical about how far protest-style action can really go,” he said. “It’s important, but it's only one step. I feel there hasn’t been enough emphasis on developing new institutional schemes to form solutions to these problems. A little too much 1960’s style action and not enough imagination.”

One vision for such alternative institutions comes from the political theory of anarchism, embraced by some in the SJC. To reduce the potential for corporate exploitation, institutions must be firmly based on the principles of cooperative action and local control.

Anarchical Institutions

A model example of an anarchical institution is Indymedia, a collective of about 50 local media organizations that originated in coverage of the Seattle WTO protests. Indymedia rests on the concept of “open publishing” -- anyone can post their material to the site by clicking “publish” on the Indymedia web page. Articles are not edited, though they are arranged and organized on the site. Anyone who disagrees with an article is free to post a response below it.

Indymedia blends journalism and activism, using local coverage to facilitate the formation of international networks. For example, when a group of South African activists were arrested and denied bail, a spokesperson for the group posted a news article to South African Indymedia. Steinberger forwarded the post to <peace-announce,> urging students at MIT to take action and call the South African consulate. In another case, Hunter summarized material from Argentinian Indymedia for a panel discussion at MIT on the Argentinian monetary crisis.

Are institutions like Indymedia mean to replace traditional ones, or supplement them? It depends who you ask. While Steinberger envisions an ideal world in which “no one is making any profit,” Ford is unwilling to go that far.

“I don't agree with many on the left who seem to think that traditional capitalist structures have no place in a better world,” he said. “Traditional structures have shown that they get things done -- the problem is that they are out of control.”