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Student antiwar activists chart way forward

By Michael Smith | October 28, 2005 | Page 11

BERKELEY, Calif.--More than 650 college and high school students, parents and community activists from across the country participated in this past weekend's On the Frontlines counter-recruitment conference at the University of California-Berkeley.

Cosponsored by the Campus Antiwar Network (CAN) and Military Out of Our Schools-Bay Area, the conference reflected both the recent reawakening of the antiwar movement and the increased role of counter-recruitment in that movement.

The conference brought together community organizers with years of experience in educating youth about alternatives to military service; CAN activists at the heart of the counter-recruitment movement on college campuses nationwide; and high school students interested in getting involved in or starting counter-recruitment activities on their campuses.

The event also served as the annual CAN national conference, bringing together delegates from nearly 40 CAN chapters. The delegates voted to make "College not combat, troops out now!" the central slogan for CAN over the coming year, reflecting political growth for an organization that previously had been divided over the issue of when U.S. troops should leave Iraq.

CAN adopted several proposals for its work over the coming year, including a national day of action on December 6, which coincides with the Supreme Court hearing of Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights v. Rumsfeld, the case that will decide whether it is unconstitutional for the government to withhold federal funds to universities that kick out military recruiters.

John Robinson, an activist with the just-formed CAN chapter at the historically Black school of Hampton University in Virginia, said he plans on making it to D.C. for the December 6 protest. "There's so much youthful energy here at the conference," he said. "I really see CAN leading the antiwar movement through counter-recruitment."

In addition, plans include a May 4 commemoration of the 1970 massacre at Kent State (where a CAN chapter was newly formed), a national CAN newspaper, sending delegates to the January World Social Forum in Venezuela and a spring campaign for CAN chapters to "adopt" a local high school and help start a CAN chapter and counter-recruitment movement there.

Workshops included discussions of broad political issues, such as whether U.S. troops should leave Iraq immediately and the nature of the "war on terror," as well as practical organizing--such as starting a CAN chapter and strengthening the ties between schools taking part in the counter-recruitment movement.

One of the central themes of the conference was defending military resisters--soldiers such as Pablo Paredes, Kevin Benderman and Camilo Mejía--who refuse to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan. As a part of that effort, CAN decided to organize a speaking tour of war resisters in the spring on college campuses.

Paredes, who was a featured speaker at the conference, remarked that having a strong movement makes it easier for current members of the military to resist. "Counter-recruitment has to lead the movement," said Paredes. "It's a confidence booster because it's a tangible act, it's attainable. Having the conscientious objectors here, this is why we do the counter-recruitment work. It gives you something to fight for."

Given the increased targeting of student activists across the country by campus administrators from San Francisco State University to Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, a proposal was adopted to create a nationwide anti-repression working group.

The group will give CAN activists a chance to share ideas and strategies for defending students targeted by their universities as well as organize national actions to combat repression. "It's been really inspiring coming here to Berkeley and seeing all the support," said Charles Peterson, a Holyoke student attacked by cops for protesting recruiters. "It makes it much easier to go back to school and continue the fight."

Many of the conference attendees said that, since this past summer, the opportunities for CAN around counter-recruitment, and in building the antiwar movement generally, have improved significantly. There was a definite sense that the conference was the first step in building CAN into the premier student antiwar organization in the country. "This is a do-or-die time," said Chris Schwartz, a member of CAN from the University of Northern Iowa. "There's a momentum that's getting ready to explode, and we need to capture the moment or else it will pass us by."

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