The evolution of activism
Today's activists have learned from the '60s
At the time, my friend Leah Hartman '12 had already lived in East for about a month. But for some reason, at 11 p.m. on a school night, she wanted to explore. And for some reason, she took me with her. We walked down one of East's many staircases and opened a door that led to the basement of Hassenfeld Hall. To me it looked like a regular basement, filled with cardboard boxes and dust. But to Hartman it looked much different. It was prime real estate-a perfect headquarters for the Activist Resource Center. Hartman had unearthed the perfect place to revive Brandeis' spirit of activism-a legacy rooted in the upheaval of the 1960s.Hartman, a member of the Brandeis Labor Coalition and the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, is one of the Brandeis students working to revive ARC. The Center will increase communication among more than 30 activist organizations at Brandeis, serving as a pipeline between clubs. Hartman says that ARC will also "be a source of centralized information, like how to start a club, how to get it chartered and how to reserve rooms." There is also a social element to ARC; as Annie Hodges '11, a member of Democracy for America, says, "We have so many people on campus who are awesome and passionate. I don't know why we don't all talk."
Students today recognize that activism has always been central to the Brandeis psyche. Says Hartman, "We are not starting from scratch. Everything builds on what came before it." Brandeis' legacy as an activist institution stems from pivotal events that occured during the 1960s. From Jan. 8 to 18, 1969, student protestors occupied Ford Hall, a campus building that was demolished in 2000, and presented the administration with 10 non-negotiable demands, such as better minority representation on campus. About a year later, in the spring of 1970, Brandeis students established the National Strike Information Center. The Center developed in response to Students for a Democratic Society leader Tom Hayden's call for a national protest against the incarceration of several Black Panthers. Protesters were subsequently directed toward the Brandeis University Strike Center, thus making the University a hub of activism.
Despite the legendary significance of the Ford Hall takeover, some students would prefer to see more focus on current activist concerns. When asked about the Brandeis of the 1960s, DFA member Liza Behrendt '11, coordinator of last April's DFA-co-sponsored Bill Ayers visit, responded, "We talk about it too much. It does very little to inspire activism today." Hodges, once "infatuated with the 1960s," admits, "I have learned that it is not good to be stuck in the past. I am appreciative of their work, and I am also aware of their flaws. We have to stay relevant." Years after Brandeis students protested the Vietnam War and the gentrification of the South and West Ends of Boston, current students have their own issues to face: Hodges says, "DFA works on whatever campaigns are relevant. Right now health care is on the tip of everyone's tongue." Behrendt also touched upon Palestinian rights and recent protests against the G-20, a powerful group of financial leaders from 20 international economies.
Alumni who attended Brandeis during the 1960s are somewhat divided over the significance of the Ford Hall takeover. Elliot Frank '70, once a member of the Student Strike Committee and now a high school biology teacher, supported the Ford Hall takeover by participating in sit-ins in the Bernstein-Marcus Administration center. Yet Frank is hesitant to glorify the protests the way that others have, remembering the excitement as well as the fears. Asked to reflect upon his involvement in the protests, Frank says, "Sensible people had nothing to do with it. I wasn't sensible. It all makes great stories, but what nobody tells you is how incredibly anxiety-provoking this was-How many nights people worried about what the hell they were doing, if they were in fact doing the right bloody thing at all." Years later, Frank questions the impact of his actions during the protests: "Did they have a positive effect? Damned if I know. I'm not sure if we did anything useful, if the thrill of it all was remotely worth it."
Some alumni believe that accounts of the takeover give Brandeis a somewhat distorted reputation as a radical institution. As Bill Callahan '69, once a member of the Student Strike Committee, explains, "The Ford Hall takeover gave the school an exaggerated reputation compared to lots of other campuses. Brandeis was really just another liberal campus with a reasonably competent core of New Left organizers." Although Callahan feels that "it's kind of hard to overglorify a decade that gave us the Voting Rights Act, decent popular music and the modern women's movement," he also says that "the 1966 to 1970 student left was a small piece of a big picture. It was way too self-obsessed at the time, and that obsession continues for a lot of people who should have gotten over it long ago."
Yet other alumni value the 1960s Brandeis protests as a pinnacle in American political history. Ricardo Millett '68, a graduate student during the Ford Hall upheaval, was chosen to read students' demands of the administration. "I feel most definitely connected to the 1960s," he says. "The decade opened a moral compass. It was the formation of Jeffersonian democracy, calling America to live up to its principles." Of the notion that the takeover has been glorified and its realities obscured, Millett says he refuses "to have anyone characterize it as poppycock or radicalism."
Today's activists see the 1960s less as a model for imitation than as a series of errors and achievements to learn from. Says Lev Hirschhorn '11, a member of DFA, "It is our responsibility as activists to build on the successes and learn from the mistakes. We do not live in the 1960s; we live in the 2000s. We must adapt our strategies to fit within the times." Sahar Massachi '11, creator of a blog about Brandeis called Innermost Parts, values the achievements of all Brandeis alumni activists: "There are Brandeis alumni who graduated in 2000 who are doing great things-just like Brandeis alumni who graduated in 1969. You have to look at the entire spectrum of the century."
Hartman agrees with Massachi: "I love the idea of taking over a building. I love it. But I don't think that's the way to affect change now." I couldn't help but notice the tie-dye shirt peeking through her black cardigan.