Student Activism Lacks Cohesion, Unity

Max Zahn and Jake Streich-Kest

The most disconcerting thing about former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton’s Feb. 29 speech in Craig Lecture Hall was the applause. It remained steady throughout his hawkish criticism of President Obama’s foreign policy, culminating in an all-out roar when Bolton defended the burning of Qur’ans by American soldiers in Afghanistan. It was sufficiently overwhelming to hear such crass conservative machismo in an Oberlin classroom usually devoted to the preservation of intellectual honesty and cultural sensitivity. Yet even more shocking was the enthusiastic audience response to rhetoric reminiscent of the lead up to the Iraq war. Shortly thereafter, a handful of Obies walked out in protest.

In the hallway we expressed a common sense of frustration. We wanted to be angry at Bolton for his demagoguery or the crowd for their fervent support, but these complaints lay atop a much more disquieting confusion: Where was the Oberlin activist community? Except for a few staccato retorts from left-leaning audience members, the Oberlin progressive contingent had been noticeably absent. How did we let Oberlin College, with its history of progressivism and left-wing activism, become a platform for John Bolton to spew hateful remarks unchallenged?

To us, the Bolton event was a sign of a larger trend in Oberlin: the decline of activism at the College and a retreat from our once progressive values. We do not think this statement should come as a surprise. Since coming to Oberlin in 2009, we have seen numerous discussions, panels and Reviewarticles about the decline of activism at the College. Most of the time, these conversations fade like so many others in a din of essays and tests, club meetings and sports practices — yet sometimes an event so roundly exposes the sheer lack of unity and action among Oberlin lefties that it demands our attention. Last year, the weak, fragmented response to Karl Rove did the trick. This year, John Bolton’s Iran war pep rally has done the same. Nothing really changed in the aftermath of Rove’s visit, but Oberlin progressives should not squander this second opportunity to mobilize.

Even as we point out the need to rejuvenate Oberlin’s activist presence, it is important to note that good work is being done. For example, just a few weeks ago, several carloads of Oberlin students traveled to Columbus to protest outside meetings between fracking industry execs and state legislators. And last semester, the Student Labor Action Coalition and Oberlin Democrats contributed significantly to the landslide repeal of Senate Bill 5.

Despite these achievements, there is still a clear problem with activism at Oberlin. While single-issue groups do incredible work, Oberlin lacks a unified body pushing the College and its students to uphold their progressive values. The left is active in small pockets but rarely visible in large numbers, and in turn has not had a strong discursive presence at Oberlin College, leaving no coherent way for the greater progressive community at Oberlin to identify issues at the College that we want changed and to act in a manner to change them. Though we feel strongly about this, we hold ourselves responsible as two leftist Obies who have done far less than we could have up to this point. It is not our intention to reprimand anyone; rather, we want to bring attention to a less-than-stellar state of affairs, and try to become part of the solution.

With its large progressive population, Oberlin’s student body has tremendous power in numbers. But we need to start thinking of this college as our college. If we see this school as ours, then we must demand that it reflect our values — and only through unity can we can bend College policies into greater alignment with values of social, economic and environmental justice.

We would like to use this space to announce the formation of a new club at Oberlin: Oberlin Students Unite. This organization’s mission will be to unify the left at Oberlin in order to promote both a more progressive discourse in the school and more progressive institutional policies. Furthermore, we will seek to facilitate communication between the left-leaning groups on campus so that activism is more visible at Oberlin.

For too long we have sat idly and watched as our school has moved away from its progressive values. Come to our meeting on Monday, April 16, and help reclaim those values.

(Editor’s note: As has been stated before but bears repeating, the Review welcomes letter and op-ed submissions from students, faculty, staff, community members and alumni regarding important issues both on campus and around the world. While it may not be evident on a college campus full of tech-savvy young adults, thoughtful engagement with traditional as well as non-traditional news media is an important component of effective real-world activism.)