A New Age of Activism
Young Alumni Turn Oberlin-Inspired Activism Into Full-Time Careers

The scene in pre-protest Seattle was frantic and daunting. No fewer than a dozen activist and human-rights organizations had scheduled activities for the week of the WTO meetings: demonstrations, skills-training workshops, issue briefings, and working-group meetings. Each evening hundreds of tired activists crowded into the Denny space's basketball-court-sized warehouse to hammer out, through a painstaking consensus process, the upcoming protests.

Spalding had never been to Seattle. Like most others in the Denny space, he had never been to a demonstration like this before--partly because he had just graduated from college, and partly because the United States hadn't seen a protest of this scale since the majority of its participants had been born.

He could have felt lost, but every hour or so he ran into another Obie. Dave Kammer '98 was coordinating an affinity group of medics with Devin Theriot-Orr '97 and Jenn Carter '98. James Quinn '98 was working as a legal observer with the National Lawyers Guild. And Ginger Brooks Takahashi '99 was roaming the space with a video camera, capturing footage for the Independent Media Center's daily satellite broadcasts.

Nowhere to be seen, though, was Josh Raisler-Cohn '99, a good-humored ex-classmate whose long ponytail, thick beard, and mild, compassionate manner conveyed a prophetic air. Raisler-Cohn's sporadic reports on the intensive preparations for the protests had convinced Spalding to fly out for the week. Rumors placed him at an undisclosed location, playing an undetermined role in a series of "banner-drop" actions planned for the coming days in which people would ascend to the tops of bridges, buildings, and even the famous Seattle Space Needle to unfurl massive banners inscribed with anti-WTO messages. But nobody really knew when or where Raisler-Cohn would surface. Since his junior year at Oberlin, when he had devoted nearly a full-time effort to environmental organizing, his classmates and friends had become accustomed to his unpredictability. He might show up in a city on 18 hours' notice, hang out for two days, and then be gone again.

Even without Raisler-Cohn, Oberlin alumni were in ample supply at the now famous WTO protests in Seattle, at which thousands of protesters blocked access to the Convention Center and disrupted nearly a day of the weeklong talks. Seattle marked the beginning of post-collegiate activist life for dozens of Oberlin students who graduated in the late '90s. Connections were forged that week, as clouds of fog battled pepper spray for prominence in the tiny downtown shopping area. The experience changed the course of many Oberlin lives and inspired others back on campus who would not receive their diplomas until long after the last tear-gas canister had been swept from the Seattle streets.

But the WTO protests don't tell the whole story, of activism or of Oberlin's part in it. The same week that Liz Guy '97 was being dragged to solitary confinement in the city jail, Kirti Baranwal '98 was recruiting members for the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union. Lisa Zahren '98 was documenting abusive conditions in Alabama jails. And Jackie Downing '02 was settling back into campus life after having marched, with thousands of others, onto the grounds of an Army base in Georgia.

The connections among these differing advocacies run far deeper than a common alma mater, and the actors involved are just beginning to see how their scenes intertwine. That, in the end, may be the most remarkable part of the age-old story of Oberlin activism: that a common idealism born of so many backgrounds and channeled into so many causes could lead into one common river. The alumni and students in this article are all in their mid-20s; none have yet had a five-year reunion. But in their youth and idealism are halting attempts toward strategy--and victorious, loping strides toward hope.

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