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Kolodner helped organize IMF and World Bank teach-ins scheduled to take place last week on 14 college campuses and community centers throughout New York City. Most were either canceled or morphed into peace vigils. At Columbia University last Wednesday evening, Laura Durkey, a 19-year-old sophomore from Baltimore, said she'd been scrambling since the start of the semester to get the word out about the teach-in. But when five or six campus progressive groups met the night of the attack, they decided a vigil for the dead and missing would be more appropriate.
Since the World Trade Center attack, there is a lot of pressure, activists say, to avoid criticizing the U.S. government or the global financial institutions it supports. Some argue that now is not the time to protest structural adjustment programs. Rather, it's the time to urge the president not to wage war on innocent people.
"It's important to remember that our movement is a movement against violence," says Durkey. "We don't want the U.S. government to exploit this situation by increasing military spending and cracking down on our movement because they think we're terrorists or something. I don't want to be paranoid, but I want to take this seriously."
As the daylight dimmed and the acrid fumes from downtown roused coughs from throats of onlookers, more than 100 students gathered around the sundial in the center of Columbia's campus. Some stood alert; others slouched against its steps. Durkey climbed up onto the center of the dial and invited each person to speak about ways to move forward with the movement or about their feelings after the attack.
Many of the students were terrified about the prospect of war and about further loss of innocent lifesome defined themselves as activists, others did not. Someone called for forgiveness and peace rather than retaliation ("There are ways to bring people to justice without violence. We have an international court and we can use it"). Others debated the meaning of freedom: "People want to live as free human beings, but I don't hear that in the rhetoric of 'hunt and destroy.' " Another student countered that American freedom has always been secured by force: "We have our freedom because a certain amount of necessary violence has taken place. The Revolutionary War was not about tea."
An Arab American activist recalled living through the 1979 Iran-hostage crisis in New York, when she was three years old: "Our car was vandalized and I cried to my mother to put the car in a garage. Today my cousin was attacked with pepper spray in his grocery store. We fear we may never be able to stand up for justice in the American streets because we are the enemy."
A balding man stepped forward and announced that he'd protested the Vietnam War at that very sundial 30 years ago. He warned the students to learn from his generation's mistakes: "Stop trying to find the enemy. Assert pride in being American, but offer a different definition of being American. Recognize that there's been progress. You live better than your grandparents."
Issues surrounding the IMF and World Bank retreated from the conversation, which seemed appropriate for the moment. Nonetheless, activists realize that the "attack on America" was also an attack on global capitalism in the most symbolic and literal ways, with the wealth represented by jumbo jets slicing through the towers that hosted hundreds of international trade companies, from Morgan Stanley to Cantor Fitzgerald. Not one activist argued that this act was justified, but there was a sense among them that American arrogance and hubris had come home to roost.
"Nobody deserves this type of violence," says Carlson, "but it didn't happen in a vacuum. There is a lot of history that led up to this moment. This is an attack on U.S. foreign policy and to see it any other way is myopic. Violence begets violence and we need to find a peaceable solution."