Over spring break, a handful of Wesleyan students traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in Our Spring Break, a program organized by high school and college-aged students to engage youth in nonviolent direct action in opposition to war and torture.
Despite a smaller group than last year, Yael Chanoff ’11, one of the trip organizers, felt that the program offered a great learning experience for the eight participating students. They spent most of their time either lobbying and planning for or participating in direct actions, often in collaboration with other activist groups, including Witness Against Torture, Code Pink, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and Students for a Democratic Society.
Due to a decreased number of events organized by these other groups, Our Spring Break organized and executed more of its own actions.
“The antiwar movement is sort of at a standstill,” Chanoff said, suggesting that it might be partially a result of the recent election.
These circumstances gave Our Spring Break participants, who come from across the nation, a unique opportunity to gain practical knowledge and experience in organizing outreach, working with the press and initiating actions. The group particularly focused upon two issues: the excessive costs of war and the imprisonment of 17 ethnic Uighurs in Guantánamo Bay. Though they were both proven innocent in 2003 and ordered to be released immediately by a judge in 2008, the Uighurs remain incarcerated, according to Chanoff.
To mark the sixth anniversary of the War in Iraq on March 19, the group led a March of the Dead, a protest that has been performed across the country. Participants dress all in black, don white death masks and attach the names of killed Afghani, Iraqi or American soldiers to their clothes.
Although participants were skeptical about the effectiveness of their actions in influencing public policy, they emphasized other positive results of the trip, such as a strengthened activist community and inspirational personal experiences. The participants ran into people from all walks of life, including veterans, Black Panthers, homeless people, sick and disabled people and many fellow activists.
“It was like an alternative reality,” said Adam Jacobs ’10.
While no students who participated in Our Spring Break were arrested, participants said the presence of police was felt very strongly.
“There were rows and rows of riot police, with shields, helmets, guns, batons and tear gas containers,” Jacobs said, describing a 10,000-person march to the Pentagon on March 21 that the group participated in.
Chanoff was surprised by the police’s prior knowledge of the group’s plans. During the March of the Dead, organizers talked with an officer who had a list that included every office that the group was planning to march past. The group was blocked from reaching the Capitol steps, where they had planned to end the march.
“Everyone in D.C. knows about us, even though we’re only there for two weeks a year,” Chanoff said.
She explained that Our Spring Break is one of few large student groups currently involved in anti-war actions in D.C. Many of the activists involved in the movement are older, she noted.
Our Spring Break’s march included walking through various war memorials and performing street theater, which Chanoff said received positive reactions from bystanders.
In another direct action, 17 participants dressed up in orange, hooded costumes—meant to resemble inmate jumpsuits—to represent the 17 detained Uighurs. Together, they walked in rhythm, formed circles at certain points and would then perform interpretive dances.
“It was agonizing to watch because people were so into it,” said Meggie McGuire ’12. “A lot of people stopped and watched.”
In each dance, one person would leave the circle and take off his or her hood. After one such dance, Jacobs approached bystanders and asked them to remove his hood, though most declined or ignored him.
“We were trying to express that [one person] can exert pressure to try to free these people,” Jacobs said.
Our Spring Break also lobbied in Congress on behalf of both the Uighurs and Vietnam veterans suffering from the effects of Agent Orange, an herbicide and defoliant used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Vigils were held in memory of veterans who died or were debilitated by the use of Agent Orange and to commemorate William “Doubting” Thomas, the recently deceased activist who had been living in a tent in Lafayette Park—across the street from the White House—for 27 years in protest of the United States’ nuclear disarmament policies.
Amidst the more sobering moments, the group also found time for a bit of fun, attending an anti-war dance party entitled Funk the War.
The planning and events offered participants a chance not only to make their voices heard and learn about activist strategies, but also to reflect on their own beliefs in a setting outside of books and academic theories.
“Action can create belief,” Jacobs said. “People don’t need to be completely certain in order to act.”