On the morning of May 3, 1971, upwards of 3,000 protesters who had flocked to the nation’s capital to protest the Vietnam War sought refuge on Georgetown’s campus.
Driven out of their main base in West Potomac Park by police, the May Day protesters pitched tents across Georgetown’s campus, rapidly transforming Copley Lawn and Healy Hall classrooms alike into hotbeds of dissent.
Without written consent from the university, the Metropolitan Police Department stormed campus, arresting some protesters and unleashing tear gas on many more.
Although Georgetown students were not among the leadership of the People’s Coalition of Peace, which organized the 35,000-strong protest, their role in the protest would continue the trend of robust student advocacy that had characterized the campus’s response to the Vietnam War.
In reaction to the MPD decision to make arrests and release tear gas on campus, as well as the university’s willingness to allow such a response within its gates, then-student body President Roger Cochetti (F ’72) created Students of Georgetown Inc. along with Nancy Kent (F ’72) to, in their words, “assert and protect the inherent rights of its members and community.”
The organization that is today the largest student-run 501(c)3 in the United States, best known for satiating students’ needs for caffeine, on-the-go meals and summer storage, was incorporated March 6, 1972, with the aim of using the powers of a corporation to facilitate student protest. It also sought to sue the university for failing to protect student rights amid the May Day protests nearly a year earlier, ultimately filling a civil lawsuit on Jan. 25, 1974.
The Corp, as it came to be known, had to sell simple food items in the basement of New South Hall to finance its mission, but it became an important vehicle of protest. Yet it was only one dimension of an acute fervor that had gripped the campus for half a decade.
Much like The Corp has changed since 1974, so has the nature of student protest on the Hilltop. The tumultuous days of Vietnam and the sea of cultural change that rocked the country during the 1960s has gradually transformed to a calmer campus, with extreme approaches to student activism falling out of the mainstream even as other forms of protest take off online. While social justice remains a passion of many Georgetown students, and some students and student groups take a strong approach to advocacy, the culture of protest that characterized the campus during the Vietnam War has since been altered to accommodate a changing campus culture.
Before Vietnam, protests at Georgetown had been few and far between, but as the war worsened, methods of dissent escalated along with it and campuses were defined and solidified as protest venues. In May 1970, after then-President Richard Nixon had authorized the invasion of Cambodia, Georgetown’s student government voted to boycott classes for the remainder of the semester; faculty subsequently supported the decision with an overwhelming vote of 156-13. All remaining classes were cancelled and students never sat for finals that semester.
Then, in late April 1972, more than 600 students boycotted Friday classes, heeding the student government’s plea for “each student [to] consider conscientiously his position on the war in Southeast Asia, and, on the basis of that consideration, decide whether or not he will attend classes on Friday.”
Other less overt forms of protest sprang up, too. Fearing that The Hoya had become a bastion of conservatism, its editor, Steven Pisinski (CAS ’71) defected from the newspaper in 1969 and founded the Georgetown Voice. Many of The Hoya’s more liberal-minded editors crossed the floor to the other publication, which within a year would become an established progressive media outlet on campus.
Today, the image of 3,000-plus protesters spilling out of Healy Circle and university faculty voting to cancel finals is difficult to fathom. The disappearance of this kind of all-consuming protest on campus is a nationwide trend that Kathryn Olesko — a professor of the history of science and modern European intellectual history — laments.
Olesko, who was an undergraduate at Cornell University from 1969 to 1973, recalls a tumultuous campus climate in which protests, riots and teach-ins were highly disruptive.
“Either you went to class walking by Cornell police and Ithaca police outfitted in riot gear, or classes were cancelled and you were free to participate in the debates and meetings that took place all over campus,” Olesko said.
The protests — some of which Olesko actively supported — were centered not only on the Vietnam War, but also on the university’s lack of support for African-American studies and black students, as well as civil liberties issues in general. In her freshman year, Olesko jumped at the opportunity to serve on the Committee on Special Education Projects, a three-person transitional outfit charged with addressing minority student issues.
At Cornell, the effects of such a robust student protest culture were widespread and long-lasting. Frequent teach-ins, which Olesko described as “mass assemblies of students, professors and administrators,” led to the founding of the Constituent Assembly, which later became the school’s university senate in 1969. Similarly, anti-war movements at Georgetown in the late 1960s and early 1970s formed the impetus for the founding of the university’s faculty senate, designed as a structural solution to anti-war activity on campus.
Anna von der Goltz, a Georgetown history professor who specializes in European protest movements in and around 1968, agrees that student attitudes toward activism have changed since that time.
“One of my SFS proseminar students commented last year that students today are ‘incredibly comfortable with authority.’ That was definitely not the case in the 1960s. Back then anti-authoritarianism was the catchword of the day,” Von der Goltz said. “Students thought that they had a much wider political mandate beyond organizing campus politics or commenting on higher education policy. Many students became more or less full-time activists.”
According to Olesko, the defining feature of that era that caused such widespread protest — in sharp contrast to today’s relatively docile culture on college campuses — was the Vietnam draft.
“We have another war now but no draft, so the protest level is a lot lower. The war then was much more personal than it is now,” Olesko said.
In a similar vein, Michael Kazin — a professor of history specializing in U.S. political and social movements of the 1960s — argued that unlike the circumstances of the Vietnam era, there is currently no cause as galvanizing for students to protest.
“Economic insecurity also plays a part in the decline,” he said, as people are more concerned about their financial situations and maintaining fiscal stability in the future.
In addition, Olesko stressed the role of media in instigating a culture of protest.
“Back then, television news stations announced the casualty rate for both sides every single day. I even remember watching these reports during dinner. Today, reporting on casualties, especially on the enemy side, is much more subtle. Only occasionally do we hear of the total number killed,” Olesko said.
Von der Goltz suggested that the novelty of the college campus as a forum for interaction contributed to the popularity of student protest — both in Europe and the United States — in that era.
“The expansion of higher education, the creation of campus universities in the 1960s, turned students into a significant political force in the first place,” she said. “Space mattered then in a way that it no longer does. Campuses were the only places where young people from different parts of the country spent time together in a prolonged way with a lot of free time at their disposal, and were able to exchange ideas without that many distractions.”
“[There is] increasing financialization of the higher education sector. A university degree is a commodity; the acquisition of ‘marketable skills’ is emphasized. Everyone is incredibly busy filling their [resumes],” she said.
Not only does students’ fixation on resume building take up time that might otherwise be spent protesting political issues, but, according to GU Fossil Free member Caroline James (COL ’16), the possibility of arrest and the resulting imperilment of employment prospects keep many students from protesting as vigorously as they might if this were not the case.
“Here at Georgetown, you have a concentration of kids who are thinking, ‘I’m going to work for the government, therefore I can’t get arrested,’” James said.
James, who was one of three Georgetown students arrested during the demonstration against the Keystone XL pipeline on March 2 in which students from colleges across the country marched to the White House, is still intent on a government career, and is skeptical that the arrest will affect her prospects.
Nonetheless, professors are quick to point out that political activism remains a vital force on the modern college campus, albeit in a different form.
“I wouldn’t want to suggest that students are, on the whole, depoliticized these days,” Olesko said, alluding to student participation in the Occupy movements and the widespread mobilization of youth during the 2008 Obama campaign as examples.
Kazin added that a spike in student volunteerism and social consciousness is an important form of protest.
“There is, as you know, a lot of volunteerism at Georgetown and many other campuses. And some students pick certain majors because they want to work in an NGO after graduating. So this is a kind of planned activism, too,” he said.
At Georgetown, though Healy Circle is rarely if ever at the forefront of a national anti-war protest, student political activism has continued to thrive in different ways since the days of Vietnam, largely in the form of lobbying and institutional change.
Laura Narefsky (COL ’14), president of H*yas for Choice, recognizes Georgetown’s conservative tradition and commitment to dialogue and tries to work with, rather than against, those features in fulfilling her organization’s mission.
“Because Georgetown has a little bit more of a traditional background, more conservative students are drawn to the university, which is then sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Really radical students don’t come to Georgetown because they know that [radicalism is] not the environment,” Narefsky said. “Georgetown has a culture of debate and intellectual curiosity and of real academic involvement. We’re much more inclined to talk things out, to debate in the classroom, and I think that’s just a larger culture that has been cultivated on campus.”
James — whose organization GU Fossil Free sent 10 Georgetown students to the 1,000-strong Keystone XL protest — agreed.
“I get the feeling that some people think that protest is not as legitimate as some other ways of going about working towards change,” she said. “The emphasis at Georgetown is more on creating change through policies and through institutions than it might be through pure people power.”
Indeed, Georgetown’s Vietnam-era response, while dramatic by today’s standards, was tame in comparison to the daily riots that gripped other colleges nationwide.
But a healthy dose of marches and other forms of peaceful protest exist at Georgetown, too.
Last fall, the Georgetown Solidarity Committee (GSC) partnered with students from Hoyas for Immigrant Rights, the Georgetown University Student Association and the Georgetown chapter of the NAACP to address the working conditions at Epicurean. The group created a petition demanding fair treatment of workers and received more than 500 signatures. In what GSC member Chris Wager (SFS ’17) described as a “mini-rally,” 40 students marched from Healy Hall to Epicurean on Nov. 11, 2013, to deliver the petition to Epicurean owner Chang Wook Chon.
On entering Epicurean, the students presented workers with flowers and cards to show their appreciation.
For Nate Tisa (SFS ’14), who as GUSA president championed the “One Georgetown, One Campus” resistance to the administration’s September announcement that it was considering housing some students in a satellite dormitory, a rally in Healy Circle — to which about 70 people turned up — was essential to communicating the student body’s message effectively.
“We wanted it to be very visual. We wanted to emphasize Healy, we wanted to emphasize the centrality of campus. We also wanted to demonstrate that students were really passionate about this. We don’t hold events like that often, if ever,” Tisa said. “We wanted to demonstrate how serious we were, how much it mattered and also to help communicate what we were doing.”
A second anti-satellite residence demonstration, in which students held up signs of their making beside a banner in front of the John Carroll statue used social media to crystallize support, as photos of student posters were splashed across Facebook and Twitter.
“We found that that was pretty helpful because at any given time there’s only so many people that are in a physical space, and so much has shifted to social media. By doing that, you can tag people, their friends see it, the audience is much wider,” Tisa said.
In early December, the Black House also organized a Twitter-based protest, encouraging students to tweet about their experiences related to discrimination at Georgetown with the hashtag #BBGU, or Being Black at Georgetown University. The 12-hour protest, which elicited responses from Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson encouraging student participation in the protest, and Vice President for Mission and Ministry Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., prompted similar campaigns by the Asian and Latino communities. A committee — including black, Asian and Latino students along with white allies — plans to draw on common themes to stoke further dialogue.
#BBGU joined the trend of online-based protests at universities across the country, including #BBUM, or Being Black at the University of Michigan, and #itooamharvard, in which students of color shared their experiences on Harvard’s campus.
“I think social media has a way of spreading messages in a much bigger way. It can give a minority a large voice, and everyone can be involved,” Black House Residential Director Aya Weller-Bey (COL ’14) said. “So many people can share messages and connect with other individuals. You can gain attention and spread awareness. Not only can current Georgetown students participate, but graduates in California can, from their home or wherever they are.”
Still, Tisa stressed the importance of physical protest in the success of GUSA’s campaign, which culminated with a sweeping anti-satellite student referendum and Olson’s announcement that the university would commit to housing all students on campus.
“I don’t think you can really replace that physical gathering,” Tisa said. “It’s the most effective. Social media doesn’t really touch administrators. They don’t necessarily see it. You can’t photograph it. A picture is worth a thousand words, and you can’t get a picture of Facebook feeds with people angrily posting about something.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the May 3, 1971 protest on Georgetown’s campus concerned the My Lai Massacre and that the faculty and student boycott of classes occurred in May 1969.