Déjà vu all over again

Voices on campus, then and now

You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud
—Bob Dylan, “Masters of War,” 1963

Christopher Columbus knew
Vasco De Gama and Magellan too
The profits of oppression grow like never before
All Hail to the capitalist thief
Mourn your lost ones and covet our grief
The holidays are here and we’re still at war
—Brett Dennen, “The Holidays Are Here, And We’re Still At War,” 2005

On a gloomy Wednesday in November, the day when civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks was laid to rest in Washington, D.C., a little anti-war rally took place on the Free Speech quad at Chico State, followed by a short march down The Esplanade.

As demonstrations go, it didn’t amount to much—fewer than a hundred people, mostly high school and college kids, gathering at Chico State and then marching with a few placards held aloft to Congressman Wally Herger’s office. Wally wasn’t there, so the demonstration sort of petered out, though a couple of dozen Chico Police officers waited behind Herger’s office in full riot gear just in case the gathering of anti-war protesters did anything provocative.

In its size, the rally and march were reminiscent of similar marches against the war in Vietnam. Though popular mythology would have younger generations believe that the anti-war movement of the ‘60s was huge and virtually monolithic on campuses, the fact was that for most people of that generation, the war was something that provided background noise as they pursued their degrees and their future careers.

Early marches against the war, in Butte County and throughout the land, were small and rather embattled. Bystanders shouted insults and taunts (hence the line from the old Rolling Stones’ song: “I went down to the demonstration/ To get my fair share of abuse") and sometimes that abuse led to pushing and shoving.

Courtesy Of Kate McCraken

Protesting the war in Vietnam was not, initially, a popular stance, and support for the war on college campuses was surely the prevailing opinion. Frat boys hassled fellow students who wore their hair long, or exhibited other outward shows of dissent, and a popular bumper sticker of the time depicted a peace symbol accompanied by the slogan: “The track of the American chicken.”

For many people of a certain age, the atmosphere surrounding the war in Iraq seems eerily consistent with a remark made by that master of unintended irony, Yogi Berra, who once observed: “It’s déjà vu all over again.” And, as Bob Dylan said in a song from days long gone, “How much do I have to pay to get out of going through all of this twice?” On any given day, people old enough to have lived through the anti-war movement that grew up around the Vietnam War feel as though those days are come again.

The number of Americans who believe the nation was taken into the current war on pretenses has grown substantially, and the calls for withdrawal have become louder, most significantly in the appeal made by Congressman John Murtha for an orderly six-month timetable to get troops out. Murtha, a decorated war hero, touched off a fiercely angry exchange on the floor of the House, a reflection of the bitter division in the country at large.

When the wars get fought, it’s the young who fight them, but seldom does anyone ask their opinion before the wars begin, and it’s just as rare for the young to be heard after the wars start, unless they go to great lengths to make their voices heard. Those young people’s futures are being cast by people whose futures are largely used up. Though the opinions of the young are rarely sought, much is done in their names.

The war in Iraq was planned and implemented mostly by men who managed to avoid the wars they might have fought when they were young. The architects of war—Cheney, Wolfowitz, Perle and the president himself—were all men who had opted out when their generation was called to fight. Now they have called another generation to sacrifice, but that call falls selectively, and that sacrifice is borne narrowly, largely by those who lack the range of options available to the more favored.

None of this is particularly new. The war maps change. The enemies are redefined. But the beat goes on.

Kate McCracken turned up in Chico in 1968, just 17 years old, already a committed anti-Vietnam War activist. There weren’t many like-minded people in Butte County in that year, but she found a handful of others who shared her views, and a dozen of them formed a Resistance Commune and took up residence together in a house on the corner of Third Avenue and The Esplanade.

Malachi Meahl

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

That house is no longer there, and much else has changed as well. The population of Chico has swelled, recapitulating the sprawl seen in so many other valley towns. Enrollment at Chico State has tripled. Butte College has grown from a fledging new college in ‘68 to its current size, with enrollment rivaling that of Chico State. Lots of old oaks trees have been felled, and a raft of big stores has opened on the fringes of the town’s center in places where cattle once grazed.

But in other ways, the times they aren’t a changin’ all that much. Kate McCracken is still protesting, this time against an increasingly unpopular foreign war in Iraq.

She’s 55 now, with streaks of gray in her hair, and an impish sense of humor, but she’s dead serious when she talks about the old days of protest, and the current days, as well.

“The atmosphere here in Chico was downright hostile in ‘68. When we marched against the war, or handed out leaflets, we were called names—commies and cowards, the usual stuff—and we had stuff thrown at us.

“We were very serious,” she says, “we weren’t sitting around smoking dope. We spoke out against the war everywhere we could. It was a slow process, but we surely brought some people around.”

She’s a small woman, probably not more than 5-foot-3, and she wears a button that reads: “Another American who didn’t vote for Bush.” Now a licensed clinical social worker, she’s spent much of her time in that career counseling veterans of the war she once protested.

“One thing younger people aren’t in touch with is just how hard it was to be a radical in those days. It wasn’t easy, but people were so dedicated because we were convinced we were right.”

Tom Masterson

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

She pauses, reflects. “And we were right,” she adds. “It took a little more courage to be a peace marcher in ‘68 and ‘69,” she says, “but it still takes guts to go against the grain.

“I want to say something about the passion that drove us,” she says. “I came from working-class people in San Jose, and that war, like this one, was being fought by working-class kids. It was clear who was being drafted back then, so it was, for me, partly a class issue, and it still is, even though there’s no draft now.

“I continue anti-war efforts,” she says, “and it seems like I’ve been to every peace march since 1968, and people are still driving by yelling that we’re unpatriotic.”

Until quite recently, the war in Iraq elicited much the same kind of local antipathy toward those who might question it, both from the community at large, and on its two college campuses. Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, we were told, so he had to be taken out. Saddam Hussein was in league with the terrorists who attacked the nation on 9/11, so he had to be taken out. Those were the administration’s arguments for war, and for a popular majority, the case was made.

And many still believe in that case. Among those people on local campuses is Malachi Meahl, a 24-year-old Butte College student. He’s about to transfer to a seminary in Louisiana, and he plans to become a children’s minister and social worker. He grew up in Paradise, and says he was home schooled “and proud of it.” He is a six-time collegiate missionary through the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“I think the war is right,” he says, “in that Saddam needed to be dealt with. While war should always be a last resort, Bush followed the Constitution and got permission while waiting for Saddam to obey and only used war when Saddam refused. While the war may or may not have been planned, from the very beginning Saddam was given a chance to cooperate.

“My view on the Iraq War is rather simple,” he says. “On Oct. 2, 2002, the United States Congress used the powers granted to it by the U.S. Constitution and the War Powers Resolution and passed what is known as the ‘Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Iraq.’

Mike DeFreitas

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

“No matter what you might think of the man,” he says, “President Bush waited five months from the time he received congressional approval for Saddam Hussein to cooperate with numerous U.N. resolutions. Saddam did not, so Bush acted. Bush followed the U.S. Constitution and got permission from Congress to act. The war is legal under U.S. law. Since it is legal, I support it. There is nothing more to be said on the matter. When someone does something that is legal and stands up for what is right under the law, what else can be said? If you don’t like the law, then vote to change it. Otherwise don’t complain.”

Does his support for Bush and the war create conflict with his teachers, or has he felt any intimidation from those who disagree with him?

“I have had no pressure from teachers to share their political views,” he says, “except for one teacher in the speech department who refused to let us mention God during our speeches or in class. Otherwise, the war in Iraq has not been mentioned or dealt with in my classes.”

Tom Masterson teaches political science at Butte College, and he supports the war, in part, on humanitarian grounds. “If the justification for intervention were genocide and crimes against humanity under Saddam Hussein,” he says, “then no counterargument could be made. At least half a million of Saddam’s own people were slaughtered and buried in mass graves within Iraq, not including those killed by chemical and biological weapons.”

Masterson has taught at Butte since 1996. He’s a Republican, and he says, “I support the president,” but, he adds, “the young are our future—we need to give them hope as well as inspiration, encouragement and the benefit of our knowledge and experiences. Taking a college course in the social sciences should not be, or constitute indoctrination and an exercise in mimicking the political views of professors. Students are the most precious gift of all—instructors must nurture as well as provide wisdom to help them on the road of life.

“I just asked some students in my last class about the war,” he says. “Some students were surprised to learn that only Congress can declare war and that Congress controls the purse strings and can reduce or cutoff funding for the war effort. Public opinion is the ultimate check on presidential power.”

He knows that some of his views aren’t shared by many of his colleagues and he chooses not to share those views very often, either with fellow teachers or with students.

Justin Meyers

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

“You may call me naïve,” he says, “but I fully support our president and our government. I have at least a half-dozen DVDs on terrorism and al Qaeda. Intelligence is never perfect in an imperfect world.”

As he shares these ideas, his training as a political scientist kicks in. “Providing for the common defense is a pre-eminent goal expressed in the preamble to the Constitution,” he adds. “Our Founding Fathers were right: government was instituted to secure the blessings of liberty.”

He draws attention to an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, a piece he says, “asserts that Mr. Wilson (the diplomat to Africa charged with finding out if Iraq had tried or was successful in purchasing uranium yellowcake) had lied on several occasions about his mission, his findings, and so forth. I believe that so many people have placed their faith in the truthfulness of his account that they would now be shocked to learn that he had a political agenda when he tried to out the government’s claim of WMD in Iraq.”

One of Tom Masterson’s political science students is Mike DeFreitas, a graduate of Paradise High School. He’s 19 years old, majoring in business. He says his parents aren’t particularly political, and he considers himself to be an independent. His views contrast sharply with his instructor’s.

“When Sept. 11, 2001 occurred,” he says, “everyone in this country was scared shitless, even our president. At first it made sense going to war in Afghanistan and searching for Osama, but then our president got too cocky and wanted to invade Iraq. So then we went to war in Iraq because we were told that they had weapons of mass destruction! Have we found those weapons? Nope! I first supported the war until I realized I was being manipulated by our president. The only support that I have is for our soldiers that are over there in combat.”

The change of heart Mike DeFreitas speaks of in the late fall of 2005 sounds remarkably similar to what happened 40 years ago when then-Chico State history student Dan Trevithick changed from hawk to dove, turning in his draft card after receiving letters from two friends who were serving in Vietnam. “These people hate us and don’t want us in their country,” those letters said. “If there’s anything you can do to prevent going, don’t go.” And so Dan Trevithick became a war resister. Both of his friends died in Vietnam.

And now, speaking of Iraq, Mike DeFreitas continues: “I’m proud to say I voted for Kerry in the 2004 election. I believe 100 percent we are fighting in Iraq for the following reasons: No. 1, because Papa Bush told Little Bush that this was his chance to finish what papa started; No. 2, because Iraq is a threat to the Saudis and we are doing them a favor since the Bushes are so close to the Bandar family; and No. 3, because our country is so thirsty for oil!”

Hannah Metzger

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

Justin Meyers is new to Chico. He’s 21, and he’s intensely engaged politically, a posture that puts him in a distinct minority of his peers. “Most people my age are apathetic as far as the war is concerned,” he says. “Of those who do have an opinion, most are against the war. However, most young people I have encountered can’t elaborate beyond the main talking points of either side.”

Since moving to Paradise from Grand Rapids, Mich. last March, he’s already become the founding president of a group called the Shasta/Cascade Young Democrats, and he’s deeply involved in local Democratic politics. He plans on finishing his college work at Chico State.

“In general,” he says, “pro-war youth are the same people who will tell you that Iraq was directly connected to 9-11. And, on the flip side, anti-war youth can’t get beyond telling you that Bush is the devil.

“As with most political issues,” he says, “young Americans don’t give a damn until they are personally affected. They know more about how the 49ers are doing in the red zone, as opposed to knowing how U.S. troops are doing defending the green zone.”

His words seem shaped by the frustration he experiences at the fact that so few of his coeval share his passion for politics.

“I personally was against the war at the onset,” he says. “Not because I did not believe we could defeat Saddam. I knew the U.S. could defeat the Iraqi Army (my father and two uncles are veterans, and I have two cousins in the service). My opinion was based both on the Just War theory and my understanding of Iraqi history.

“Now that we are there, I do not believe that we should have an immediate pull out. A slow pull out of U.S. forces over the next two years or so would be my suggestion. U.S. forces should hand over the guard duties of infrastructure first, but my biggest concern is that the Bush administration has complicated things so badly that I’m no longer sure there are any good answers. It’s more a matter of the lesser of hundreds of evils.

Robin Abbott

Photo by Tom Gascoyne

“This is where I think most American youth become apathetic. Politics in our time has always been about the easy answer. A bad economy? Cut taxes. A foreign enemy? More military spending. Failing schools? Get rid of bad teachers and raise spending. Poor health care? A new health program. I think you can see where I’m going. In the age of sound-bite politics, the majority of young people attempts to avoid any deep political thought (unlike policy wonks such as myself).”

Hannah Metzger was among the people who rallied against the war on the Chico State campus on Nov. 2. She is 16, only a bit younger than Katie McCracken was when she rallied against that other war back in ‘68. Hannah cut her classes at Chico High in order to participate in that November rally against the war in Iraq, choosing to express her feelings about the war in the time-honored American right (and rite) of peaceful assembly. On the sidelines, her father, Steve, a professor of English at Chico State, watched proudly as his daughter stood up for what she had come to believe. More than three decades earlier, he had been engaged in much the same activity: marching against his generation’s war at rallies in his hometown of San Rafael. When the rally began its march to Wally Herger’s office, Steve Metzger turned away to go teach a class, and his daughter took her first steps on the path of political activism.

“I think this war has given me a firm political standing,” Hannah says. “I’ve never felt so strongly about a political opinion before. I don’t want to offend anyone, but some of the people supporting this war just seem so ignorant to me. I know I probably seem ignorant to them, too, and I don’t want that to sound bad or disrespectful when I say it, but there was a guy, a counter protester in favor of the war there at the Free Speech Area when we rallied against the war, and he had a sign that said, ‘Shut Up. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Some of us talked to him politely, but it got to the point of yelling back and forth, but what I got from his point of view is that everyone over there in Iraq is a terrorist and they were involved in 9/11, and I just don’t believe that.”

Hannah Metzger is so sweet, so earnest and so idealistic it is almost heartbreaking to think of some of the disillusionment that her future is sure to bring. But her idealism sounds, in the thoughtful way she frames her words, like the human species renewing itself, an antidote to the inevitable cynicism that all too often infects all sides of any political argument.

“I’m pretty optimistic about the future,” she says. “Pollution, wars, all that, it’s gone downhill, but it can’t get much worse. I think people will realize what they are doing and start to try to turn it around.

“I support the soldiers in Iraq, but I don’t support the cause. It’s very brave of them to be over there, and I think they know that those of us who are against the war aren’t against them.

“I think it’s wrong what we’re doing over there,” Hannah says. “My friend Sophie told me about the march, and I thought it would be just like a dozen people or so hanging out with signs, but there were lots of people there, and I thought it was really cool because I’d been hearing lots of people talking about the war, but I hadn’t seen much being done about it, and it felt really good to be taking action, to actually be doing something.”

She continues. “At Chico High, my views are probably in the minority. In last year’s election, many kids covered their backpacks with ‘Go Bush’ stickers, but now most students probably oppose the war, at least those around me.”

One of those students in Hannah’s circle of friends is Robin Abbott, 17, a senior at Chico High. After he graduates next June, he hopes to enroll at U.C. Santa Cruz, where he plans on majoring in Environmental Science.

Robin Abbott is the kind of kid who could give even those who disagree with him a faith in the nation’s future. He is extraordinarily articulate and self-possessed, a thoughtful young man who says he does not feel alienated from mainstream American attitudes, though he is fervently opposed to the war in Iraq. Now that we are engaged, he says he would “like to see the insurgents lay down their weapons, the Sunnis, the Shias, and the Kurds to find ways to cooperate, and for a non-corrupt government to emerge.”

“Some people,” he says, “seem to think that people who are against the war want Bush to fail, but I just want to see peace come to the poor people of Iraq, and our soldiers as well.”

He blames the war in Iraq, first and foremost, on the president, but says there is blame for Congress, “for enabling it,” and a large proportion of the American people for going along with it.

“If there was a draft,” he says, “I wouldn’t go. I don’t know how I’d get out of it. If I had to lie and say I was gay, I would, or maybe I’d just flee the country.”

The students at Pleasant Valley High, he says, are not as liberal as the ones at Chico High. “They’re more conservative. There’s more racism. There aren’t really any racists at Chico High, but there are some homophobes. PV is more preppy. Their parents tend to have more money, maybe.”

It was important to him to take part in the march on Nov. 2. “When Rosa Parks sat down on that bus, she left the message that one person can make a change, that it’s OK to voice our opinion. If we stand up, more will join us. Democracy only works when citizens voice their opinions.”