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MIT Walks Out Against War

By Nathan Collins, Brian Loux, and Keith J. Winstein


Several hundred MIT students joined more than a thousand Boston-area students in a march to Government Center yesterday to protest the war in Iraq.

The day of protest began at 11:30 a.m., when a stream of people left their classes to protest on the Student Center steps.

The walkout, planned for weeks, appeared to go smoothly. Professor Alexander H. Slocum, teaching Design and Manufacturing I (2.007) in 26-100, announced at 11:30 a.m. that he would stay to answer students’ questions but that anybody would be permitted to leave. Most of the class then left, but it was unclear how many left to protest and how many simply left. In MIT’s other main lecture hall, 10-250, only a few students appeared to leave Circuits and Electronics (6.002) at 11:30 a.m.

Speakers address protest crowd

At the Student Center, a lengthy roster of speakers addressed a dense crowd of five or six hundred at noon.

Anthropology Professor Hugh Gusterson said that President George W. Bush wanted to create “an American empire.” He complained that the present war largely served oil interests.

Urban Studies and Planning Professor Balakrishnan Rajagopal took up legal concerns. “There is no question the U.S. action has trashed international law,” he said, but the larger issue is that the U.S. has defied the charter of the United Nations, part of the law of the United States.

The protest then died down as participants paused to make signs for the upcoming march.

“Think. It’s patriotic,” read one sign. “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t bomb it,” another said. “Give Bush the tush,” said a third. A few counterprotesters showed up but caused no serious disruptions.

Some protesters drew comparisons between the United States and Nazi Germany, with some carrying American flags with swastika-shaped cutouts.

“These flags are meant to represent the genocide that we believe is being committed against the Iraqi people,” said Laura Rodriguez ’03.

Republicans fault debate quality

Gillian M. Harding ’05, the president of the MIT College Republicans, said she was not moved by the walkout and protest. The group supports the war.

“I’m really disappointed that there has been very little debate from the anti-war people,” she said. “I think all I’ve been hearing is ‘blood for oil’ and ‘fuck bush’ and comparing America to the Nazis, and I want a real debate.”

“I think a lot of people are scared in an atmosphere like that to come out against the war,” she said. “I generally think that it’s more anti-Bush and anti-America than anti-war.”

In general, however, it proved difficult yesterday to find students who supported the war in Iraq.

Protesters happy with walkout

“It’s empowering the know we are joining millions of people around the globe,” said Jean Walsh G, one of the organizers of the walkout.

“For many students, this is their first experience with public expression,” she said. “A whole generation is getting education about being part of a political movement,” she said, drawing parallels to movements in the 1960’s.

“I think this will make the world a much more dangerous place,” she said. “Unfortunately, 9/11 is just a foreshadowing of what’s to come. We’re not ridding the world of terrorism, we’re fueling it. We’re making a big mistake.”

“This war has really destroyed my year here,” said Elina Vuola, a visiting scholar at Harvard University, from the University of Helsinki. She said she did not expect the war to stop because of the protests. “I just want [Bush] to see that there are so many people that he can’t just turn away.”

Sharon L. Benedict, an administrative assistant in the architecture department, agreed. “I don’t see it as stopping war,” she said. “I think it’s the unity of soul and effort of the people here today.”

Joseph Dahmen G said he was at the rally “because I oppose the war.” There is “no demonstrated connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida,” he said.

“I think we’re a bigger threat to world security,” he said.

Dahmen said he found the turnout heartening. “It’s hard not to be myopic at MIT, but that people coming out shows they’re looking at the larger picture,” he said.

Federal employees chat nervously

As the protest against the war continued outside, federal employees in MIT’s student center post office chatted nervously about Postal Service security precautions for the war.

“They told us to bring food, water, and clothing” to be prepared in case of an attack, said Jack Driscoll.

“They offered us those pills -- iodine pills,” said Sue Azulay, to help if there’s an attack on MIT’s nuclear reactor.

“They brought us all nametags, so if I die, they can say ‘Jack’s dead,’” Driscoll said.

“They changed the code,” said another employee.

Azulay asked if he meant the code that used to be “02139.” (The number is also MIT’s ZIP code.)

Reflecting on the precautions, Driscoll said, “I’m not for [the war], but I’m backing them. I was in the military for 10 years. You hate to see those kids over there.”

Sue Brennen, a spokeswoman for the United States Postal Service, said the service had offered potassium iodide pills, which help protect the thyroid in the case of a nuclear accident, to all of its employees, and that the offer had nothing to do with MIT’s nuclear reactor.

“The probability of anything happening at this nuclear reactor is very very very minute,” said John A. Bernard Jr., the director of the nuclear reactor laboratory. “The best thing to do if there’s a radiation problem, like say a dirty bomb, is just evacuate the premises,” he said.

“We’ve had special precautions since 9/11, and I can’t go into them for the newspaper,” Bernard said. “Nothing has changed as a result of the war.”

Chaplains discuss peace

Among the protesters was the Rev. John Wuestneck, MIT’s Protestant chaplain. “We’ve been having prayers for peace for a long time,” he said.

Wuestneck said he supported the anti-war effort because “this has long term implications and I’m very worried about them.”

MIT’s Baptist chaplain, the Rev. Michael D. Dean, said he was proud of how the MIT chaplains have helped bring students of disparate faiths together.

“Obviously, as a Christian minister, I would hope for as little war as possible, but we want to challenge students to think critically about issues of politics and faith,” he said, while distributing religious literature inside the student center. “It’s not a simple issue.”

Professors debate merits of rally

“I think the opposition’s important, but not because it’ll have any effect on what happens militarily,” said Professor Joshua Cohen, head of the political science department. “I think all you can try to do [is] try to make clear the level of hostility and opposition.”

“The terrain has shifted,” Cohen said. Before yesterday, the anti-war effort was focused on forestalling a war, he said. “Now we gotta figure out how to stop it from getting even more out of control.”

Cohen was optimistic about the strength of the opposition to the war.

“There’s opposition on a scale that emerged” only much later in the Vietnam war, he said. “In ’66, ’67, you didn’t have a former president of the country writing an op-ed saying it’s an unjust war, as Carter did,” he said.

Some professors said they felt torn between their personal feelings and professional responsibilities.

Professor Martin F. Polz of the civil and environmental engineering department decided to continue with his class even though he said he strongly wanted to attend the rally.

“It was a decision of conscience,” he said, adding that he didn’t feel he should be a “political agitator” outside his home country of Austria. “I’m a foreigner,” he said.

“If I had grown up here,” he said, “I may have acted differently.”

Additionally, “I did not want to impose my opinion on anybody,” he said. Polz said he told his class that if there was a consensus on the walkout, he would cancel the class. The consensus did not materialize, he said.

Some stay put, not sure on war

Katherine C. Lin ’05 said she decided not to participate in the walkout because she felt she didn’t know enough about the situation either way.

“I have my own sentiment about the war,” she said, “but I don’t think I’m knowledgeable enough take part in an activity meant to convince others.”

Lin also expressed disappointment with the handling of the walkout. “I thought it was strange that we had an excessive amount of contact from the faculty and administration saying if students participated, there would be no repercussions,” she said.

Kolenbrander said he thought the letters clarifying whether students could miss class were just common sense.

“Students [can] miss classes, as they sometimes do, but they are responsible for what they miss,” he said. “And the way to deal with that is to work it out with the instructor. I think that is the position of the administration,” he said.

Students march on to Boston

At about 2 p.m., protesters from Harvard and Tufts University arrived at MIT and, breaking somewhat from original plans, kept marching toward Boston.

A truck of construction workers brandishing an American flag yelled “support our troops” back at the protesters. Nothing came from the confrontation but heated words, a result common to most of the acrimonious encounters during the protest.

The group, which stopped traffic and spanned the width of the Harvard Bridge, paused about halfway across to sit down, dance, and chant before continuing on to Boston.

That pattern continued until Government Center. The Cambridge group joined a large crowd apparently from various Boston universities at Copley Square. Chants of “This is what democracy looks like,” and “whose streets? our streets” were common. One chant was resurrected from the first Gulf War: “Hell no we won’t go, we won’t fight for Texaco.”

In stark contrast to protests in New York City, the Boston march was peaceful. One counterprotester was arrested after trying to punch a protester, and a few bystanders argued the pro-war case with those who would listen.

More speakers, including several Cambridge and Boston city councillors, awaited at Government Center. Several thousand people showed up to listen and protest.

Calm protest pleases MIT, police

Many MIT administrators watched the events on the campus during the day.

“I’m here as a non-participant,” said Kirk D. Kolenbrander, the special assistant to the president and chancellor. “I wanted to be here to be helpful if I could.” Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75 also attended the beginning of the protest.

Kolenbrander said he, Police Chief John DiFava, and the leaders of the walkout had worked to “make it safe and appropriate.”

“I thought it went very well,” said Lt. Daniel Costa of the MIT Police, who was in charge of organizing the police detail for the rally.

“The officers we had were low key and they kept an eye out for keeping the peace,” he said.

Costa also praised the cooperation of the leaders of the walkout. “We worked with them closely for a peaceful rally,” he said.