Frustrated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a handful of Wesleyan students who participated in Our Spring Break devoted their two-week breaks to protesting, dancing, chanting and marching against wars that they feel are unjustified and immoral.
“We were impassioned by the idea of dedicating this entire time of our lives to protesting the war,” said Ashley Casale ’11, who, along with Adam Jacobs ’10, came up with the general idea of Our Spring Break. “We wanted to do as much as we could during the break.”
She estimated that 30 University students went to Washington to protest over the course of the two-week break. These students were joined by over 100 other college and high school students from across the country, and collaborated with anti-war groups, peace activists and Iraq War Veterans Against the War (IVAW) in anti-war protests and non-violent actions.
Fifth Anniversary Actions
On March 19, the fifth anniversary of the War in Iraq, students participated in several non-violent actions intended to “disrupt the pillars of war.” Throughout Washington, business as usual was interrupted as protesters marched through streets—unannounced and on a weekday, unlike previous anti-war protests.
“It’s tactically different to have a protest on a weekday,” Casale said. “We’ve always had protests on weekends. By doing this on a weekday, we were demanding the attention and participation of the public.”
Students participating the March of the Dead donned black clothes and white masks, as well as a placard with the name and age of a soldier or civilian who had been killed in either the war in Afghanistan or Iraq. Hundreds of marchers walked single-file through the streets of Washington, catching the attention of many passer-bys.
The march ended in the middle of an intersection on Capitol Hill, where some participants froze in positions of anguish and despair, creating an “endless war memorial for an endless war.” Others marchers surrounded them, chanting “arrest Bush” and “this is what democracy looks like.”
As the frozen marchers, as well as those around them, were blocking traffic, the police who had been following asked the protesters to move. When they refused to do so, police arrested them for failure to obey a lawful order.
“When the police came to arrest me, I let my body go limp, I didn’t just stand up and let them take me away,” Jacobs said. “They just laid me on the ground and came back a few minutes later and dragged me away.”
Along with Jacobs, 12 other Our Spring Break students—eight of whom were from Wesleyan—were arrested on March 19.
Other students joined the environmentally focused anti-war organization No War, No Warming.
“We stood outside of the American Petroleum Institute building, and helped them announce their name change to the Alternative Power Institute,” said Laura Heath ’11.
Heath, who spent the entire two weeks of her spring break in Washington, said that her involvement with Our Spring Break was a way for her to act upon her feelings against the war.
“There is no justifiable basis for this war,” she said. “I have such a strong conviction that I felt like I had to be doing something. I might as well not even have my beliefs if I don’t act on them.”
Stop Loss Congress
Throughout the week before the fifth anniversary protests, Our Spring Break participants joined forced with IVAW in attempting to “stop loss” Congress. Stop loss is the involuntary extension of a serviceperson’s enlistment contract.
“The administration has exploited a volunteer military and tried to keep this information from the public consciousness,” said Kathy Stavis ’10.
Over the course of two days, students and members of IVAW went to every Congressperson’s office to issue stop loss orders—demanding that Congress remain in session until the war is over.
“We decided to stop loss Congress because Congress is there to serve the American people, which they aren’t doing,” said Liam Stanson ’10. “So until they stop stop losing our troops, we’re stop losing them.”
Casale pointed to the importance of direct action and interaction in the two days of Stop Loss Congress events. She contrasted the personal conversations she had with members of Congress and their legislative assistants with massive protests.
“While I think there is strength in numbers, I think that the power of the specific action is actually stronger,” she said.
After speaking with many secretaries, legislative aids and several members of Congress themselves—students met with Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinnich—students attempted to enforce the stop loss orders by blocking the exits of Congress’s parking garages.
Police ordered students—who linked arms and held coffins with American flags on them—to move, as they were impeding traffic. When students refused to move, they were arrested.
Heath, who was filming the blockade of the Senate Hart building, was overcome with emotion as she watched the non-violent protest.
“I was supposed to be an ’objective observer’ but I obviously wasn’t because I started sobbing,” she said. “People were screaming ’this is what democracy looks like’—the bravery of the protesters was so poignant.”
Though the stop loss Congress action was a collaboration between IVAW and Our Spring Break, students were largely responsible for working out the details and logistics of the protests.
“It was really a student-done, student-driven action,” Stanson, who helped to plan the blockade of the Hart Senate Office Building parking garage, said.
Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan
Just several miles outside of Washington D.C., in Silver Spring, MD, soldiers and veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan spoke about their military experiences in the four-day Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan event. It was organized by IVAW. The first Winter Soldier first took place in Detroit in 1971, when Vietnam veterans spoke about the atrocities they encountered and perpetrated in Vietnam.
“First of all its incredible for people from military to come and say that this war is immoral,” said Nora Hansel ’11, an Our Spring Break participant who attended Winter Soldier. “To stand up and point to a picture of a dead Iraqi and say ’this is a civilian that me and my platoon unnecessarily killed’ takes a lot of courage.”
Panels focusing on different aspects of the war experience—from racism, to gender, to rules of engagement—filled the four days of Winter Soldier.
According to Hansel, in the panel on rules of engagement, soldiers and veterans talked about how the regulations that limit unnecessary violence became increasingly lax.
“The rules became more and more vague,” she said. “One soldier talked about getting updated about a new rule to ’shoot anyone that seems to be a threat.’ Of course, everything could seem like a threat, so you’re going to shoot at anyone.”
Attending Winter Soldier personalized the war for Hansel, who believes that others should watch the testimonies for similar reasons—to gain a deeper and more personal perspective on the war.
“Millions are dying and millions more are suffering,” she said. “Many of us here are removed and not affected by it at all. So many of us have the privilege and option to turn our heads and not be effected, but that only makes us more obligated to know what’s going on. It’s our duty as humans to try to be exposed to it.”
In addition to Winter Soldier, Stop Loss and actions on fifth anniversary of the War, many other events took place during the two weeks of Our Spring Break. Students put up banners with anti-war messages all over the city, and froze in Union Station, the main train station in Washington.
“[After freezing], the plan was to yell ’rise up, end the war,’ but that transformed into 20 minutes of chanting ’end the war’ and ’bring them home,’ in which hundreds of people completely took over the space and energy of Union Station,” said Lucas Guilkey ’10.
Students who participated in Our Spring Break have returned to campus with much energy and many new ideas.
“I think that all the students in Our Spring Break felt energized by the power of our protests,” Casale said.