Washington, D.C., hardly a tropical paradise, may not be a typical vacation destination for college students on break. Yet the organizers of D.C.-based Our Spring Break, a two-week program begun by students to promote anti-war activism, have a different vision as to how their time and energies can best be spent. Paul Blasenheim ’12, who is currently on leave from the University, explained their rationale.
“We need to demonstrate why the youth of this country will never accept torture, extraordinary rendition and useless war that cost almost as much in money as they do in lives,” he said.
Our Spring Break, now in its second year, will be held from March 8 to March 22. Many progressive activist groups, such as Code Pink and Campus Progress, have sponsored it. This year, participants have two primary focuses; the use of torture and the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Participants will work with activists in Washington to work out the specific actions that they will take. Yael Chanoff ’11, the organizer for Our Spring Break at Wesleyan, described the decentralized nature of the program.
“It’s a very spontaneous process,” she said. “We have a calendar of events and our three main actions planned, but things will happen that we can’t predict. The point is that we should be participating in democracy, and every day we find different ways to make our voices heard.”
Student participants have decided to cooperate with other groups this year. They plan to work with Witness Against Torture and its 100 Days Campaign during the first week of the program, in which they will put pressure on lawmakers and the President to implement Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-VT) proposal for a truth and reconciliation commission confronting torture. For March 19—the sixth anniversary of the War in Iraq and one month since the beginning of President Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan—participants are organizing a large multi-part protest, incorporating direct lobbying of Congress, a march and street theater. March 21 will be another day of activism, as students plan to join other groups for a march at the Pentagon in a large-scale protest of American involvement in what they believe are illegal and unethical military operations.
“The theme for this year is the cost of war, and everything that might mean,” Chanoff said.
The idea for Our Spring Break emerged after Ashley Casale, a former member of the Class of 2010, walked across America in the summer of 2007 to raise awareness of peace and nonviolent action. She met Robby Diesu, a student at the Catholic University of America, in jail in Washington after a protest at the Supreme Court, and the two began to plan alternative spring break options for students interested in promoting peace and social justice.
Casale and Diesu’s plans came to fruition last spring, when Our Spring Break organized students from across the nation to participate in the protests connected to the fifth anniversary of the War in Iraq. They spent the break sleeping on church floors and participating in demonstrations such as Stop Loss Congress, in which participants tried to prevent legislators from leaving Capitol Hill in order to protest stop loss, and the March of the Dead.
“We were basically trying to create a living war memorial in the middle of the street,” said Jacob Dinklage ’11. “Then we all got arrested.”
While many of the students involved with Our Spring Break were arrested, they are reluctant to draw attention to the experience.
“It’s not something that should be glamorized,” Chanoff said. “We’re doing it as a statement to show that we’re dedicated to our message. It’s not important because it’s supposed to show you’re a badass.”
One major aim of Our Spring Break is to attempt to build a stronger anti-war movement. Both Chanoff and Blasenheim described their time in Washington as “activist training camp.” Students spent much of their time participating in workshops and sharing strategies. Chanoff also sees the meetings with other activists as a major morale-booster.
“It empowers people who feel passionately about promoting peace but don’t feel like they know what to do,” she said. “It shows that there’s a big community out there.”
This year’s expected participation is lower than last year, with organizers expecting an estimated 100 participants compared to last year’s 150. Other groups are also arranging smaller actions. Our Spring Break’s march that is scheduled on the sixth anniversary of the War in Iraq may be the largest in D.C. on March 19. They attribute this trend to the influence of the new administration in the White House.
“I call it the Obama effect—the idea that now Obama has been elected and we don’t need to do anything anymore,” said Diesu.
Members of Our Spring Break say that they have felt an opposite effect. They explain that, while they oppose many of President Obama’s policies, most notably the troop surge into Afghanistan, they believe that they now have a chance of being heard. They believe that President George W. Bush’s administration would never have taken their opinions into account.
“We need to step up what we’re doing,” Blasenheim said. “Now there’s a door, and if we try our hardest, they might actually do the right thing.”