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