On March 19, the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War came and went with not much more than a whimper from Fort Collins — subtle evidence of a decline in activism among students and young people across the nation.
A group of 35 activists showed up at a downtown office to present a regional director for Sen. Ken Salazar with petitions and requests for withdrawal from the war. It was a quiet affair with little fanfare.
A vigil was held at CSU last year on the fourth anniversary of the war. Only 100 people showed up.
This year CSU didn’t do anything for the anniversary, remaining even more silent.
In a college town where the university is the city’s largest employer, where college students have a prominent voice — not a sound came from campus.
In fact, the last visible token of awareness came Nov. 11, Veterans Day, when College Republicans hosted a booth in the plaza for concerned students to write letters to soldiers.
Before that, the last visible act of awareness occurred last May when Laurel Street, adorned with yellow ribbon, marked “Taking the Yellow Ribbon Back.” The movement to remind people that yellow ribbons historically were meant to signify the waiting for the return of soldiers, and not to support the war. And that visible protest was instigated by two CSU students who are Iraq War veterans.
When Brendan Durkin and Ben Schrader decorate Laurel Street in yellow ribbon again this May, it will be the first visible antiwar sentiment seen on campus in more than a year.
It’s not merely a local apathetic attitude. In a national poll by the Pew Research Center last August, 54 percent of Americans were aware of roughly how many American deaths the Iraq War had suffered. In the most recent poll from early March, only 28 percent of Americans were aware of how many deaths there had been — at the time nearly 4,000.
Saturday is Iraq War day
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, same as every Saturday, people on both sides of the Mulberry Street and College Avenue intersection waved their flags, their signs. One side stood to raise awareness, spurting messages about the “real cost” of oil, signs begging for peace. The other side stood to raise awareness as well, signs unanimously agreed, “Support the troops.”
Eight people stood on one side, eight people on the other.
Joe Stern, an 89-year-old World War II veteran, paced the corner like he does every week. He wore a cardboard antiwar sign hanging by string around his neck and a blue “veterans for peace” cap, doling out political cartoons to passersby.
He walked over, closer to the corner where Chester McQueary held his rainbow-colored flag with the word, “Peace” broadly embroidered across it.
Stern posed the question, “How is it that 70 percent of the American public disagrees with the war but there’s not more people out here protesting the war?”
Stern was most likely referring to an AP poll that last fall found 67 percent of Americans disagreed with the occupation of Iraq.
Just then, a car careened by, an occupant yelled “f*** you” and flipped off McQueary and the others in the anti-war corner.
Like this war, McQueary protested the Vietnam War, too. He was a member of American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization. During Vietnam he traveled around the country and counseled young men on how to avoid the draft.
Holding his flag, fidgeting with the makeshift wooden post, McQueary embarked upon his diatribe: “It’s Britney Spears, it’s Paris Hilton, pro sports. It’s total distraction. Distractions are endless in the culture, in our computer society.
“Ask people about the Final Four. They’ll have an opinion on that. . It’s certainly not like it was during the 1960s when there was a myriad of organizations.”
McQueary added it was “much thinner” now. At a recent anniversary rally in Denver, he said there were only 200 people raising a voice.
And one trend, both sides of the street agree, is that there is a serious lack of youth for, against and between.
Kendy Bliss, holding her “support the troops” sign, admitted that at 37 years old, she’s usually the youngest one out there.
“I wish more people would voice the positive side of things,” Bliss said.
Harry Campbell, a Navy Vietnam veteran out support the troops, said, “It has toned down greatly.”
Campbell, who was out on the corner even during the infamous “31-inch snow storm” the year the war began, speculated that the small group of vocal street corner advocates has been narrowed down to those with a “stronger sense of commitment.”
Indeed, those holding “support the troop” signs were all either veterans or people with family in the military.
Kevin Cross is the director of Strength Through Peace, a local advocacy group that, among other causes, takes aim at ending the war. He said that right before the war began, activism was at its peak. Between 300 and 350 people stood on the corner. When the invasion took place and the war set in, the number dropped to between 25 and 30 people. With each election, the corners would become more populated. But after the elections, numbers would drop again, and that’s just counting one corner.
Last week, those rallying agreed that 16 to 20 sign-holders per week were about average for the combined corners.
CSU’s two war activists
There are plenty of political student organizations on campus, but none of them take issue with the war. Chris Anderson, president of the Student Peace Alliance, said, “We’re pro peace, not antiwar.”
The Americans for Informed Democracy won’t take a stance on the war because they are nonpartisan.
A few months ago, CSU student Ben Schrader and fellow Iraq vet and CSU student Brendan Durkin started the first Fort Collins chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War; however, IVAW is not a CSU student organization.
Unable to name any other students who protest the war, Schrader said, “I guess you could say that we’re some of the only Iraq War activists on campus.”
Schrader, a junior political science major, spent a year in Iraq serving with the 19 Delta Cavalry Scouts. He’s now chief of staff for the Associated Students of CSU. Last term, he served as a student senator.
When Schrader, now 27, first went to college at Mesa State University, he was politically active, acting as a member of the Young Republicans.
“I actually helped George W. Bush get elected the first time, unfortunately,” Schrader said, laughing.
It wasn’t long before Schrader felt that he “wasn’t ready for school”, and instead, enlisted in the Army with two close friends. Two months later, the Twin Towers would tumble in New York.
“We were like, ‘ah what did we sign up for?’, you know?” Schrader said.
After boot camp, his unit, based out of Germany, was twice deployed to Kosovo. During this time, Schrader developed strong beliefs regarding what he called the “social stratification of the world” and the negative effects of war.
Then, with the “second surge of ground troops,” Schrader was deployed to Iraq. He said it felt hypocritical to fight a war he didn’t believe in.
“I did my research, and by the time we were getting ready to go to Iraq, I felt as though we should not be there,” Schrader said. “And then, while we were there, it made it that much harder, because I was actually seeing the things I was reading, that I was disagreeing with. Every day I felt like a hypocrite.”
After a year of being “in sector, on mission every day,” the former Young Republican returned to Colorado in May 2005 radically changed.
He enrolled at CSU and became heavily involved in student government, partially to deal with his post traumatic stress disorder, partially to gain the ability to affect the changes that his experiences led him to believe were necessary.
Last spring, he sponsored a bill denouncing troop escalation in Iraq. The legislation passed ASCSU Senate.
Schrader aspires to go on to law school or grad school and stay involved with politics.
As of now, he’s attempting to affect change as president of the Fort Collins chapter of IVAW. He recently helped an ASCSU senator write a resolution for withdrawal of troops.
“We’re just getting our feet wet right now, so it’s kind of difficult. We’re hopefully gonna be getting events up here soon, raising money, so we’ll be holding more events, bigger events,” he said.
He hopes to bring a Tower Guard to campus soon, makeshift scaffolding covered in camouflage and signs with messages concerning the war. He’ll be spending time today in City Park hosting an IVAW table.
Schrader admits frustration with current apathy toward the Iraq War on campus, but said he’d “hopefully be changing that soon.”
“I almost wish that they’d implement a draft to get everybody’s attention that something was going on,” Schrader said. “If more people cared or knew they’d be affected by it, then possibly we could end this war.
“. It’s so sad that so many students can’t even point out where Iraq is on the map, I mean it’s ridiculous. Or people don’t know the difference between what a Sunni or Shiite is. We need to be more aware of what’s happening in the world because it really does affect us, even if we don’t think it does.”
Professionalization of Activism
In popular culture, the common images of activism and war tend to be images of Vietnam War protests.
There are a few similarities between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. But that both have gone on longer than five years may be the most salient.
However, the two eras show have their differences. There has been no draft. Five years into Vietnam, there were nearly 30,000 American casualties, as opposed to the 4,000 who’ve died in Iraq. And a free speech and Civil Rights movement was changing the scope of American politics.
The political climate is different now, more subdued.
When Schrader returned from Iraq, he said he knew that the only way to change was to pursue an education — not just to raise awareness.
“When I got out (of the military) and saw the way things were going . I saw that the only way to find the power to change things is through an education,” Schrader said.
Schrader became involved with student government, and is learning how to become a political player.
And while he said he feels that there’s “not enough activism” on campus or in general, he felt people weren’t going to get involved unless it affected them.
The logistical juggling act
Megan White, senior political science major and president of the CSU chapter for Americans for Informed Democracy, has been familiar with activism on campus since she first came to CSU.
She has organized events to raise awareness about HIV, immigration issues and climate change among other causes. AID is non-partisan organization, so it won’t take issue with the Iraq War. White said that the group, otherwise, most likely would.
However, her group may serve as an example for why visions of the visible protests of Vietnam War greatly differ from today’s students.
AID, she said, has disbanded for the rest of the semester. She said balancing school and activism activities becomes nearly impossible in the latter third of a semester.
“I feel like I do a lot, but I know I don’t do enough,” White said. “I got reasons to care, but I have rent and a job. A lot of people who get involved get burned out, cynical and jaded.”
Schrader, who bartends at the American Legion, agrees that in the daily grind of school and work it can be difficult to be an activist.
“It’s quite a juggling act,” Schrader said. “It would be nice to focus on one thing, but sometimes it’s impossible. But I’m only one man.”
White said in principle, as a privileged college student, she has a responsibility to choose a moral conscience, but she also has to maintain grades and pay rent.
However, White said there remains a gap between those who are “burned out” and those who wait to vote at elections.
“You don’t have to put a tent up on the Capitol, but you can write a letter to a senator — you can e-mail your senator,” White said.
But in today’s political landscape it’s not grassroots organizations wielding power in Washington. It’s Big Money, professional lobbyists, trade groups, labor groups and national organizations that grab the attention of a bipartisan system.
White understands this, which is why she plans to pursue graduate school after she earns her degree in political science. While she may be working serving tables at local restaurants instead of rallying for political causes, her eye is still focused on “affecting change” in the political realm.
CSU College Republicans hosted a letter-signing booth on Nov. 11, Veterans Day, encouraging students to write letters to soldiers. Chairman Chelsea Penoyer said the group wishes they could do more but realistically can’t.
“We should be doing a lot more, but with busy college schedules, it’s hard,” Penoyer said. “. And the general apathy is a factor, too. I think part of it is that people get burnt out over the whole war thing.”
Byron Moore, the Young Democrats liaison for student government, said that within the organization, he can’t “pinpoint anything specifically people are doing right now” to raise awareness for the war.
“The thing is that it’s less about let’s protest,” Moore said. “It’s more about let’s get somebody in office — let’s change leadership. The emergency protests are over.”
The war, it seems, has become tolerable.
Staff writer Tim Maddocks can be reached at email@example.com.