As we have all been reminded ad nauseaum, Columbia today lives in the shadow of over forty years of leftist political activism. True to that tradition, the spectrum of political groups on campus leans left. For progressive students, the fall activities fair presents an abundance of opportunities for involvement, based on everything from party affiliation to favorite social cause to personal identity.
Having both served as board members for the College Democrats and participated in various ad-hoc projects with other activists, we have witnessed firsthand how disagreements over tactics and identity politics have neutered any comprehensive progressive movement here. Instead, we see isolated organizations with inflexible goals, incompatible tactics, and clearly, if sometimes implicitly, defined pools of acceptable membership. Although members of different organizations may share a passion for ending the war in Iraq or for rebuilding America's failed immigration policy, coalitions between these groups break down. Partisans insist that actions be linked to active legislation, socialists eschew engagement with democratic government, or identity groups dismiss the validity of opinions held by students of different backgrounds. Once coalitions are abandoned and groups return to their own agendas, the academic year becomes a parade of unsurprising events, from the moderate phone-in to the radical attempt at a walk-out. These caricatures of activism have long since ceased to shock the campus into action, let alone attract attention outside the activist crowd and the media folks who cover them.
This is a sad reality for students hoping to bring Columbia's activist legacy into a new era where the diversity of our individual identities actually increases the success of our actions. There is little space for students who wish to pursue progressive goals, hopefully while garnering the support of a diverse array of students, without the backing of an official student group. We personally became frustrated by having to choose between Democrats who considered flag washing controversial, and radicals who wanted to take over buildings for the cause of the month.
At this point, you might be wondering why we don't just start another group. The Happy Leftist Not Nutso Brigade, or something along those lines. But another recognized group, with its own agenda and restrictions, would be the structure least likely to facilitate the type of student activism we are seeking. The framework of the Columbia bureaucracy encourages students to organize in neatly regulated, properly registered groups. The practical benefits of University recognition include funding and the ability to reserve space on campus for meetings and events. Students acting in unison based on a shared concern over a current issue—i.e. Ahmadinejad or Manhattanville—do not have a supported way to organize. Consider the difficulty faced by the organizers of the anti-war "5 Years 5 Days" event last year, who were forced to wrangle student groups officially unrelated to the event to reserve space on campus. Columbia administrators refused to accept that the event was planned by individuals acting on their own volition, not as part of a recognized group under SGB or ABC. While it is critical that students with genuine commonalities find each other and, upon arrival at school, have a framework within which to unite, the structure should not overwhelm the political intention.
Fortunately, groups like the 5y5d organizers and the Columbia Coalition which formed around Ahmadinejad's visit prove that resourceful students are beginning to find ways to work around the mess and form ad-hoc groups to run events. In fact, 5y5d could serve as a useful model for future actions. Not only were individuals from partisan, radical, and identity groups involved, but anthropology graduate students drove the process and reached out to faculty in new ways. By organizing around discrete actions and avoiding overt student group involvement, 5y5d managed to use attention-grabbing tactics without alienating the student body. In fact, as an art installation was affixed to Alma Mater, students who had been basking on the steps linked arms with the organizers to protect the installation. Clearly something about 5y5d resonated on campus just a few months after the hunger strike was met with widespread cynicism and ridicule.
Yet even activism like 5y5d is limited. Perhaps one of the sources of its success was a lack of concrete demands. While nearly anyone with anti-war sentiments could participate, it's hard to imagine that real change will occur when the only common objective is as nebulous as 'increased awareness'. The goal of progressive activism at Columbia in '08- '09 should therefore be twofold. First, students should strive to organize outside any bureaucratic structures that prevent the building of an activist community more representative of the campus. Second, we should use the strength of this network to determine specific and realistic goals for our actions. As the year progresses, we hope to apply these principles concretely to campus happenings as they become relevant.
Here's to a year of successful activism. Don't let SGB get ya down.
Sarah Leonard is a Columbia College junior majoring in history. Kate Redburn is a Columbia College junior majoring in history and African studies. Shock and Awe runs alternate Tuesdays.