Passive Voices: SU Activism
We're more apathetic than ever
By Brian Amaral
Six or seven protesters stood outside Crouse-Hinds Hall — the Chancellor's HQ — in the freezing cold, plotting where to put their protest snowmen.
“Right in the middle of the walkway that leads to the front door,” one suggested. “That’ll show ‘em,” another replied. “Show ‘em we’re serious about this tuition stuff.” The group quickly vetoed that idea. The snowmen might block handicapped access to the building.
The others nodded in agreement and began building snowmen to the side. The next morning, the snowmen still stood, but nobody was around to give a shit. Once again, the Students for a Democratic Society hadn’t made a blip on Syracuse University’s radar.
This is the story of campus activism — or lack thereof — at SU. With tuition on the climb and Mayfest, the one day of salvation, almost ripped from our hands, this is not the time to be a social loafer. Those that do care, like the liberal members of SDS who tried to give Chancellor Nancy Cantor a frosty welcome to work that morning, complain that the rest of the student body is a bunch of inert, apathetic babies. It’s difficult to determine what happened to the enthusiasm of the 70s. Back then, the campus teemed with bearded, dope-smoking revolutionaries, and the administration cowered in fear of an incipient student uprising.
Many believe it was simply a different time. America was at war while sex, love, drugs, and music overturned the stiff cultural mores of the 50s. Granted, America is currently involved in wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, but almost all the soldiers who fight choose to do so. Male students in the 60s and 70s faced the very real prospect of being shipped off at a moment’s notice to a war that claimed more than 58,000 lives.
“It became a matter of literally life and death,” said Robert Tembeckjian, a former leader in the Vietnam protests and current administrator of the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct. “Your future was either going to be in Vietnam or it was going to be protesting against Vietnam.”
“The cultural and political evolution ... the music, the drugs ... made us think that we were going to change the world,” said Sam Hemingway, who served as the editor-in-chief of The Daily Orange at the time. “If you’re going to change the world, you’re going to have to do some protesting, getting arrested, shake the powers that be. It was in the flow of something that seemed natural.”
Protesting violently, standing up to the man, and power-to-the-people-ing were necessary to be heard. And as we all heard on our campus tours, SU led the way. But not really.
SU saw about a month of balls-to-the-wall protests in May 1970, but if news reports and stories from alumni are a good measure, this case was more lightning in a bottle than an indication that SU has some sort of proud, rooted tradition in activism.
On April 30, 1970, after promising America was on its way out of Vietnam, President Richard Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia. On May 4, students at Kent State University in Ohio protested, and National Guard troops opened fire, killing four students. SU erupted in earnest protest, according to archives of numerous publications, including The Post-Standard, The Syracuse Herald-Journal, and The Daily Orange. Thousands of students converged on the Quad to listen to speakers at Hendricks Chapel. Protestors sat in at the administration building, demanding an end to both the war in Vietnam and military contracts at SU, The Daily Orange reported.
Students set up barricades around campus and demanded that SU shut down for the remainder of the school year in honor of the Kent State shootings. That night, protestors firebombed the bookstore, smashed dozens of windows across campus, and repeatedly spray painted “Strike!” on the Hall of Languages. Even The Daily Orange, which was then under university control, changed its masthead to “Strike! Strike! Strike!” with a clenched fist between the “D” and the “O.” Student body President David Ifshin became the face of the movement when he draped an enormous banner with a giant fist over the student government building that read: “By any means necessary.”
How would Student Association President Jon Barnhart pay homage to Ifshin’s efforts? Perhaps by hanging a poster that reads: “Mayfest: By any University Senate-supported means necessary.” But Ifshin-style activism wasn’t commonplace.
“When I first arrived in 1967, it was a pretty calm, quiet campus,” said William LeoGrande, the editorial editor of The Daily Orange in 1970, who is currently the dean of the American University School of Public Affairs. “There weren’t major demonstrations about much of anything.” The university reverted back to its old ways of May 1970.
“We took a lot of shit for what we did from the administration,” Hemingway said. He expected the same sense of campus activism when. The Daily Orange ran an in-depth article about racism on the football team in the fall of 1970.
“We thought it would bring [students] to a new sense of focus, things that are closer to home,” Hemingway said. “But in fact the passion of spring had dissipated over the summer. They just wanted to go to football games. They wanted to go back to their lives pre-strike. We walked out on a limb and we got really left out there.”
Tembeckjian argued that most of the attention SU received came from Ifshin. When commencement rolled around in 1970, however, Tembeckjian was chosen to speak and represent the strike, rather than the radical Ifshin.
The protests at SU weren’t on the radar of national media outlets. Strikes and protests hit 450 other schools after the Kent State shootings, according to a 1970 article in U.S. News and World Report. SU was no University of Wisconsin-Madison, where students blew up the Army Mathematics Research Center and killed one student, norwas it or any of the numerous campuses where violent protest erupted.
“Frankly, our [strike] was pretty peaceable by comparison,” Hemingway said. Fast forward to today. What do we want? Mayfest. Where do we want it? On Euclid Avenue. What will we do to get it? Join a Facebook group. And if the mood strikes, update our statuses or “like” someone else’s in the ultimate show of modern solidarity.
The economy might be an issue that could mobilize students like the Vietnam War did, but it’s a double-edged sword, argued both LeoGrande and Hemingway.
“Back then, there was really not much worry that we’d be able to go out and find jobs,” LeoGrande said. “We had some student debt but it wasn’t as big a burden as it is today. All of those things tend to make students today a little more focused on their personal aspirations.”
Hemingway agreed. “People don’t want to risk their student loans,” he said. “Back then, you assumed you were going to get a job. Now, you get a reputation that wouldn’t look good to an employer, a couple arrests, maybe they figure you’re not their kind of person.”
The day after the snowman fail, SDS held a sit-in at Bird Library. They had permission from librarians, of course, who checked up on them every so often to make sure they weren’t breaking the library’s quiet rule.
The truth is, SU has always been like this — a cross-section of sports fans, bookworms, and few-and-far-between activists — no matter what you hear on campus tours. The late 60s to the early 70s was a watershed era for activism at SU, but it was the result of a rare cultural epoch that swept college campuses around the nation.
Ever the student body president, Ifshin maintained hope for the future of activism at SU. But concerns about a passive future still apply 40 apathetic years later.
“We hope that SU has not retrenched itself back into its apathetic past,” Barry Lowe wrote in a Shut-Down editorial on May 16, 1970, less than two weeks after the strike started. “We can’t live long in the glory of a mass meeting on May 4. We are slipping back … maybe no one cares … maybe someone does.”
illustration by Monica Palmer