Back to the Future: The New Campus Radicals

Jay Schalin

On March 4, 2010, tens of thousands of college students at over 100 campuses in at least 33 states took to the streets to protest budget cuts and tuition increases. At least that’s how the mainstream press described “A Day to of Action to Defend Education” (and the earlier protests in California that started the “movement”). The Washington Post’s response was typical, calling it a “national day of protest against rising fees and dwindling services in public higher education.”

Yet there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it was actually something more sinister than a broad-based grass-roots movement of ordinary college students.

Indeed, the protests revealed a resurgence of hard-core campus radicalism that has not been seen since the Vietnam era. And the 1960s protests exhibited a similar pattern—genuine concerns by regular citizens about racism and the war became intertwined with radical demands to completely remake society and resulted in domestic violence on a scale not seen since the Civil War.

A quick survey of Facebook pages of the first fifteen local campus protest organizers listed on the “March 4th National Day of Action to Defend Education” website showed that every one was a fan of multiple radical pages. Among the pages that received frequent mention were: “Industrial Workers of the World (IWW),” “Socialist Worker,” “Freedom Road Socialist Organization,” “Radicals at Work,” “U.S. Social Forum,” and “Students for a Democratic Society” (SDS). Several of the fifteen organizers were even fans of the Facebook page for 19th century Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.

Some March 4 events became confrontational. Police arrested over 150 people in Oakland who had marched onto a freeway and shut down both directions for more than an hour. In Santa Clara, students blocked the entrance to the university and intimidated motorists, breaking at least one windshield. The protest at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee—organized by the school’s SDS chapter—grew violent and resulted in 16 arrests.

In North Carolina, the SDS played a major role in organizing the local protests. The organizers listed on the “March 4th National Day of Action to Defend Education” Facebook page for both UNC-Asheville (Kati Ketz) and UNC-Chapel Hill (Scott Williams) are key figures in their local SDS chapters.

The background of Williams’ fellow protest organizer at Chapel Hill provides further insight. Ben Carroll, a senior sociology major, is the president of the Chapel Hill SDS chapter. He helped to coordinate a protest against invited speaker Tom Tancredo last April that erupted out of control and forced the former U.S. Congressman and anti-illegal immigration advocate to abruptly end his lecture. The protestors based their actions on the premise that hate speech (speech in favor of enforcing the existing immigration laws, in this case) should not be protected as free speech.  

Also in April, 2009, the UNC conservative student magazine Carolina Review published an article that was uncomplimentary to the local SDS. Most of the copies of that issue disappeared from the racks shortly after they were distributed, never to be seen again.

At least, they weren’t seen again until they appeared on an SDS member’s Facebook page, being used as drop cloths while Carroll, Williams, and third student painted a room. They were brought up on charges for theft before the student senate, but only received minor punishments.

A month later, seven protestors were arrested while attempting to disrupt a lecture by a second anti-illegal immigration activist, former Virginia Congressman Virgil Goode. Carroll was again involved with organizing the protest, according to the student group that invited both Tancredo and Goode.

Carroll’s first big moment in the local protest scene was in May of 2007, when he and five others were arrested for occupying U.S. Congressman David Price’s office. They demanded that Price vote against funding for the Iraq War. Price, a liberal Democrat representing a district that includes three large universities, eventually requested that the charges be dropped, which they were.

Carroll and Williams also belong to the Raleigh chapter of Fight Imperialism Stand Together (FIST), another national radical organization. Carroll co-authors articles with FIST leader Dante Strobino for such publications as Workers World, the house journal of the Marxist Workers World Party. Carroll and Strobino attended the 2009 protests of the G20 summit meeting in Pittsburgh and are also organizing the North Carolina contingent of an April 10 march on Washington, D.C, named the Bail Out People—Not the Banks Movement.

Carroll’s Facebook page indicates that he is a “fan” of such sites as “El Che Guevara,” “The Marxist-Leninist,” and “Radicals at Work.”

Only 30 or so people participated in UNC-Chapel Hill’s March 4 protest—hardly a broad-based movement of students for a school with 28,000 undergraduates. Their demands seemed either unrealistic—free tuition at a time when the state is scrambling for funds, budgetary personnel cuts to the top of the administration instead of to lower-level staff—or had little to do with the concerns of most students, such as in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. Protestors carried signs that said 'Education is a right, not a privilege,” “A Job is a Right,” and even the anachronistic “Repeal Jim Crow.”

However, even these demands were sensible and “on-mission” compared to the ultimatums issued by San Francisco State University protestors in December. (Despite the litany of absurdities demanded by the protestors, an ABC news article merely reported that that “the protest is over the skyrocketing cost of education.”) Included in the list of 34 demands were:

  • We demand that the presidents of the universities and the trustees have their salaries redused (sic) to the level of janitors.
  • That the multinational corporations and oil companies pay fifty percent in taxes.
  • That the bailout money, all 5 trillion of it, be returned to the people who lost their homes.
  • That education, from kindergarten to PHD, be free of charge.
  • That the imperialist wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Gaza are ended, and that money is used to feed and clothe the poor.
  • That the university system be run by the students, faculty, and staff. Not administrators.
  • That prisons are closed and defunded. 

While it is easy to dismiss these demands as juvenile silliness, they contain a more serious underlying intent—to tear down civil society and to rebuild it according to redistributive principles.

The protests’ national turnout was greatly aided by modern technology—Facebook in particular enables organizers to spread the word via interlocking networks of “friends” and “fans.” And the time seems especially propitious for radicals. They have many allies in both academia and the media—even in the White House. Furthermore, the current economic climate is fertile ground for groups seeking to capitalize on the disaffection of young people. Many students are graduating—or dropping out—with high levels of debt and few prospects for decent employment. And perhaps most important, we have been sending increasing numbers of young people to college in recent years without truly educating them—leaving them susceptible to trendy demagoguery with simplistic solutions.

New radical groups have been forming on campuses in recent years to exploit the potential for attracting young people who are frustrated, resentful, uncertain, or just bored. For instance, the SDS rose from the ashes of national disgust with its 1960s violence in 2006. According to UNC-Asheville SDS member Kati Ketz, SDS chapters from at least 23 colleges took part in—or took the lead in—the March 4 protests. This time around, the SDS has the backing of many people within the establishment—at UNC-Chapel Hill it is an official student organization that receives money from the administration to hold events.

While the media and government officials vilify the largely well-behaved Tea Party movement for its potential violence, the country should instead focus on some real potential troublemakers on its colleges and universities rather than encourage them. They are rapidly growing, have shown a tendency to not just voice their opinions but to disrupt the conduct of business, and can rapidly organize on a national level. To ignore them is to encourage future mischief on a grand scale. The divisions are deepening in <America, and these campus radicals seek to divide us further.

Jay Schalin is the Senior Writer for the JohnWilliamPopeCenter for Higher Education Policy.

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