New era of campus activism
The ’60s meet the ’00s as political consciousness resurfaces
Michael Hoopingarner knew he could no longer be just an observer of world affairs after spending a year on Chico State’s speech and debate team, debating U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. He had to act.
He didn’t really know where to start, though. The major political parties are proponents of a foreign policy he does not agree with, and neither fulfills the environmental consciousness he looks for in a party.
“I don’t understand the disconnect between the rhetoric behind the sustainability movement on campus and their choice of politician and the Democratic Party,” Hoopingarner said during a recent interview at Peet’s Coffee & Tea, in downtown Chico. “Nukes, ethanol, Energy Policy Act of 2005, NAFTA—Obama supports them all, and there is no possible way to be sustainable, under the guidelines that Chico State sets forth as to what is sustainable, and still support these four issues.”
So he turned to the Green Party, attending its monthly meeting in April. It was a third-party experience to remember.
The Butte County Green Party was actually “imploding” that night because nobody was prepared to take the reins as chairman. The Greens’ Northern California regional coordinator pleaded for someone take on the responsibility. And so, after his first meeting and first foray into politics, 24-year-old Hoopingarner walked out as the chairman of the Butte County Green Party.
Hoopingarner and many others at Chico State represent a new age of student activism, a far cry from the campus’ “Playboy top-10 party school” years. The apathy of the past has been replaced with a sense of urgency and awareness regarding the policies of the Bush administration after the attacks of 9/11, the sustainability movement, the presidential campaign of Barack Obama and issues such as the Iraq war, gay rights, global warming and genocide in Darfur.
“Apathy only comes when people can afford it,” said Aaron Quinn, a journalism professor who teaches a class on Public Opinion and Propaganda. “In the ‘90s there was an enormous growth of wealth, and university students had little to worry about.”
That wasn’t always the case.
Chico State’s history is rich with student activism. The civil-rights movement, feminist activism and the anti-Vietnam War movement all were conspicuous on campus during the late 1960s and into the ‘70s. The 1980s saw the rise of conservatism that brought with it a new dynamic around campus and in the classroom.
Michele Shover started teaching political science at Chico State in 1968, when the political climate was “confused"—struggling to reconcile a passion for ending the Vietnam War with the rise of the counterculture movement, changing attitudes and the sexual revolution.
“There was a sense of turmoil,” she recalled, sitting in front of her computer in her home office. She remembers the pressures faculty felt to relax the classroom environment and the informal student-faculty relationship that existed.
Students called on teachers by first name. Classrooms were sometimes empty because “someone declared it so.” Outside students held protests, and often they were joined by faculty. As “students of political science,” Shover and other faculty in the department refrained from joining the protest ranks, sometimes to the criticism of the engaged students and faculty.
Ron Hirschbein, a philosophy professor and friend of Shover’s, also began teaching at Chico State in 1968. Then, as today, an unpopular war was the rallying cause for campus activism, he said. Teach-ins—forums on campus to inform people on the war and opposition—were common, as were sit-ins, in which students would occupy a building like the administration’s Kendall Hall to draw attention to a cause or make a statement.
“Here we were isolated in a little Northern California town at an average college, and we got it right on Vietnam,” he said. “[The Vietnam War] was a civil war, and there was no domino element. Later on, [former Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara came around to our view in his writings and says he’s really ‘sorry’ for it.”
Hirschbein says the present administration is much more supportive of peace efforts and tolerant of dissent.
With the war over, the ‘80s ushered in a new generation, and Shover recognized the change in culture. The children of the hippie generation felt they knew better and rebelled themselves into a “straight-laced adulthood.”
“There was a sense that you don’t do things that draw attention from authority,” she said. Liberals on campus felt intimidated by the rise of the Young Republicans, and Shover remembers “frivolous students envious of previous generations because they had nothing important to engage in” during the ‘90s.
Even 9/11 didn’t cause a groundswell initially—"most of the students seemed rather indifferent,” said Hirschbein, whose interest is war and peace studies. “You’d hear a lot of ‘war sucks—so what, whatever’ just a couple years ago.”
An election that promises to bring change already has done that. “There is more intense interest in this election than any I can remember,” said Shover, a local historian who retired from teaching in 2005. “There has been seven years of disaster in every way you can name that is not only in a way offensive but has changed people’s lives.”
National polls show interest in this election has more than doubled since President Bush got elected (2000) and re-elected (2004). Not surprisingly, the Student Democratic Club also doubled in size last year.
Aaron Skaggs, the club’s president, who also heads Chico State Students for Obama, began following politics in 2000, motivated by the Florida voting scandal. Now 21, Skaggs spent the summer volunteering downtown at Butte County Democratic Headquarters. He’s helped Jeff Morris’ congressional campaign and plans to support Andy Holcombe and Ann Schwab in their re-election bids for Chico City Council.
He’ll miss the first week of Quinn’s Public Opinion and Propaganda class to be at the Democratic National Convention. He had hoped to be there as a delegate, running for the spot in April, but lost to fellow Obama supporter and Chico State student Ryan McElhinney.
Joining Skaggs and McElhinney in Denver will be Eric Kilcollins and Eric Chisler, diehard Obamaniacs and founders of Butte College Students for Obama.
While their presence will be felt and seen around campus—they plan to man a table table Mondays through Wednesdays the first few weeks of school—the Dems aren’t the only students getting involved. Hoopingarner and the Green Party have made it their sole goal to target the sustainability crowd, which is playing an ever-more-important role on campus, for party registration.
Hoopingarner doesn’t just want to register the green-minded, he wants to challenge the whole Democratic Party. In fact, he’s calling for a debate with Butte County Democratic Party Chairman Justin Meyers, who at 23 also represents the new era of young-adult involvement. Meyers is running for Paradise School Board.
Among those in Hoopingarner’s target demographic is Shannon York, who’s involved with the Chico State Green Campus Program. A Redding native, York says she’s always been interested in environmental issues. She found like-minded peers in the campus group and finds the work she does for it rewarding.
“For me, it’s nice to actually see the results, and also there are so many job opportunities that will be available after graduation,” she said. The Green Campus Program has worked with the school to implement power management software in its computer labs, and also gives out compact fluorescent light bulbs to students who trade in their incandescent bulbs.
As far as Republicans go, they had a strong presence on campus four years ago, but there hasn’t been much action lately. (The Chico State club did not respond to attempts at contact the CN&R made this summer.)
Individually, though, one Republican student is trying to make a splash locally. Joe Valente, a 26-year-old construction management major, is running for Chico City Council. “We need to get our city back on track with a balanced budget that is structured properly for growth,” he said. “Chico’s growth is inevitable, and to resist it is suicide.”
Students like these are doing what Hirschbein recommends aspiring activists do: “Think locally and act locally.” He met his wife through Community Action Volunteers in Education (CAVE) and urges others to volunteer through the student organization.
Quinn reiterated Hirschbein’s call for community-centered activism, as he believes in the trickle-up effect.
“If people take action at local levels, it transcends to the state and federal levels over time,” Quinn said. “The wealthy and powerful have created an enormous gap over those without money and power, and corruption worldwide is our biggest challenge.”