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Caught Between a Hawk And a Radical Place

Raj Krishnan

Why protest? Why commit yourself to a demonstration where you will oppose the majority opinion, potentially get caught up in violence, and possibly face arrest or ridicule? Why protest over a controversial issue that you likely aren’t sure about, and facing the likelihood that protesting will have zero policy impact?

Every person who doesn’t participate in a demonstration surely has a good solid reason, and together those reasons add up to a campus widely considered to be passionately apathetic. It’s the job of the folks organizing a political rally to overcome those reasons and make people feel they have no choice but to participate, that apathy is stupidity. And while I think this war of ours (yes, it is our war, the entire nation’s) is a bad idea, I don’t think March 20’s anti-war walkout propelled people to protest.

I was saved from the “to walk out, or not to walk out” dilemma by being a grad student and having no classes to walk out of. So I decided I’d wander the halls and observe. Remembering that 26-100 was frequently packed with freshmen, I went by a few minutes after the walkout started. Stunningly, the whole classroom had emptied. I later found out that this was the exception and not the rule; right then, however, it seemed to impressively disprove the apathetic-MIT theory. I headed towards the student center, passing in the Infinite Corridor the chanting, water bottle-beating demonstrators bearing the papier-machÉ Bush. It was intense, and that was all right: that’s what protests are all about. Partly, at least.

But I started to get disappointed when the protest returned to Kresge Oval and the chanting turned into speeches. This was when what had been a mob should have coalesced into a focused policy-oriented demonstration. This was when the uncertain in the crowd should have stood up straighter and thought “Yes. I hadn’t thought about it that way, what they’re saying makes sense.” Instead, the speeches started about the war and then started meandering to other topics distantly related.

For instance, the U.S.’s long-standing pro-Israel stance was brought up, and attacked. Yes, the U.S. supports Israel, and yes, that may be one of the causes of anti-American sentiment in the region. But what of Jews in the audience who oppose the war in Iraq while still wanting protection for a nation of their religion? Is there no room on the MIT anti-war platform for them? An even bigger dilution of the anti-war focus was when one of the speakers refused to call Bush the President since he really “wasn’t ever elected President.” What about audience members who want to put the election debacle behind them, but still oppose the war? Or, God forbid, Republicans who oppose the war? Is this now the Left-wing Democratic Anti-War Walkout?

Of course, speakers can say whatever they want, and there’s is no requirement that they keep their statements narrowly focused. But it seems like it would be in a demonstration’s own interest to be as inclusive as possible. What a stronger message it would be, if even the Pro-Israelites, even the Republicans, marched alongside the card-carrying ACLU members. Even worse, the average MIT student, whose primary policy passion is passing the 6.033 design project, likely walked away associating the rally with a hippie circus: entertaining, a fun activity to participate in since the weather was nice, but not worth walking all the way to Government Center for. The organizers of Thursday’s rally, and of other rallies like it nationwide, have lost the moderate ground and have let the advocates for war paint their protests as fit only for the flaming tree-hugging liberals. And they have left the average Joe MITer with no choice between radicalism, hawkishness, and apathy.

But perhaps worst of all, they do an injustice to their own cause. The audience had to wait through four speeches to get a vital message: a listing of reasons why this war is legally wrong. And there was so much more to bring up. How about a discussion of alternatives to removing Hussein? Rigorously time-tabled inspections, Arab pressure for him to step down, or a partial lifting of sanctions in exchange for gradual regime change were unemphasized. How about the dangers to the American people of setting a precedent of unilateral U.S. imperialism? How about a direct explanation of how greater anti-war participation can have an actual impact on policy? And most importantly, how about an outline of things concerned citizens can do after the war to at least mitigate some of the negative effects? Things like more rallies for a truly democratic Iraq, donation of humanitarian aid, and switching over to media sources that actually give unbiased reports.

Rhetoric and Bush-bashing wins laughs, I admit: the audience roared with approval at the “wasn’t ever elected” comment. It’s fun to make fun of people in power, and that goes double for Dubya. But MIT students are smart enough that they won’t be swayed to your side just because you make them laugh. Combining those powerful speakers with strong analysis would have had a better shot at winning the hearts and minds of the MIT community. And perhaps that would have translated to more of us marching across the Harvard Bridge.

Raj Krishnan is a graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.