TCNJ ACTIVISM RECAP: FALL ’09

BY GLENN EISENBERG

Last semester was an undeniably exciting one for activists at the College of New Jersey. We organized a panel on healthcare reform, took sixty students to Washington DC for a 200,000 person march for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) equality, hosted discussions on the War in Afghanistan, counter-demonstrated homophobic street preachers, and organized many other events.

However, some activists on campus have begun to feel cast aside by some of their more radical classmates—who have, intentionally or not, belittled the efforts of their peers.

This is best exemplified by a certain attitude towards TCNJ’s LGBT group, PRISM. A narrative has formed in a portion of the activist scene at TCNJ that PRISM does not involve itself with activism but is merely a “social group” or “safe-space for LGBT students”—which is “necessary” but inadequate. While it is true that PRISM does serve these functions, to suggest that they are not involved in activism is disingenuous.

Last semester, PRISM brought representatives from Garden State Equality, the primary organization fighting for marriage equality in New Jersey, to their meetings to discuss how to get involved. PRISM has hosted phone-banks to contact supporters, led legislative post-carding and letter writing efforts, educated members on LGBT rights issues at meetings, and worked with Students for Equality, the LGBT rights organizing group on campus.

Students for Equality is a necessary group in that PRISM cannot do everything, as Heather Lemley, PRISM President acknowledges. However, this does not mean that PRISM has not been involved in activism.

In addition to PRISM leading their own activism efforts with Garden State Equality, they have assisted Students for Equality—supporting Sherry Wolf’s lecture “Sexuality and Socialism,” advertising for the National Equality March, and including both events in their successful “Queer Awareness Month.” PRISM also, cautiously, endorsed the Rally for Marriage Equality on December 5th.

Additionally, the dichotomy of “social group” and activism is flawed. PRISM’s social aspect is inherently political. Many freshmen come to TCNJ closeted. PRISM can allow these students to feel comfortable coming out. This is an obvious benefit but it can also be considered activism.

PRISM’s events have, as Lemley says, “change[d] the climate at TCNJ to be more celebrative and accepting of its LGBT community.” In addition to legislative goals, a large part of activism is changing attitudes and social perceptions.

A lack of equal legal rights, a very worthwhile cause to fight for, is clearly a form of oppression. However, it would seem that even more damaging are social attitudes that make it uncomfortable for one to be oneself. Social change does not come from laws alone. PRISM events like the Coming Out Monologues open the eyes of many students and promote a more understanding culture.

As Lemley says, “Political movement can’t grow out of a community that doesn’t care or even know that these issues exist.” PRISM helps in allowing this to happen.

PRISM also hopes to expand its activism in the future. Their recent election included the new position of “Activism Chair.” Lemley says that, in the future, PRISM hopes to pursue gender neutral housing on campus, fight for marriage equality on a national level, send a group of students to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s “Creating Change” conference in Texas in February, and assist in LGBT rights activism in Pennsylvania—a state that does not have as progressive of discrimination laws as New Jersey.

In addition to PRISM, the College Democrats have also fallen under overt criticism from some of the radical activists on campus. College Democrats have been accused of lacking any real left-wing movement and lacking sensitivity to social issues. This criticism is baseless.

Additionally, some have claimed that there is a proverbial fissure dividing the College Democrats into real activists and Party loyalists that do nothing but campaign. This caricature is not representative of the actual club. The large majority of the members and executive board are involved in both issue-based activism and campaigning.

Say what you will about the Democratic Party but it is undeniable that the College Democrats have been involved in the vast majority of any left-wing political happenings on campus, since its resurrection two years ago.

Last semester alone, College Democrats hosted a panel discussion on health-care, brought Congressman Rush Holt to campus for a TCNJ town-hall meeting, led campaign efforts for the Corzine campaign, and helped in organizing for the National Equality March and Rally for Marriage Equality.

Whether or not campaigning for a candidate is a worthy form of activism is a topic for another article. However, the facts remain true that College Democrats have inspired classmates through their activism efforts.

College Democrats plan on continuing activism efforts this semester and hope to pursue getting a piece of legislation changed.

These criticisms are worth addressing because of their potential effect on the activism scene at TCNJ. They beg the question: What is activism?

Both Heather Lemley and Brian Block, President of College Democrats, feel as if this criticism comes largely from the perception that their activism is not the proper brand of activism, in the opinions of the radical activists on campus who have a demonstration centered activism strategy.

These narratives have caused a minute but noticeable drop in attendance in College Democrats. In the case of PRISM, Lemley, when discussing her group, said, “We have lost political activism we would otherwise have.”

This limits the diversity of activist strategies on campus—an element that is essential in any successful movement.

Comments

8 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Matt Hoke,

    I don’t know who these “radical students” being discussed are but it’s certainly wrong to cast all of them as dismissive of PRISM. I myself began last semester viewing PRISM primarily as a social group — yes necessary and yes not the entire picture, I don’t see what’s wrong with such a stance — and not an activist group, but beheld what was obviously a massive transformation over the course of the semester. PRISM used to stay away from politics and now it is clearly involved. It also still makes sense for there to be a division of labor, because not all LGBT people want to be in activist groups or be in groups that will be publicly associated with politics.

  2. Matt Hoke,

    Furthermore, when defending College Democrats, it is absolutely crucial to remember that many of the College Dems involvements other than electoral campaigns were often initiated by non-Democrats and were usually tolerated and followed rather than spearheaded by the College Dems leadership.

    That’s not radical students leaving people behind: that’s sticking with people even when they don’t share your label, even when you’re in the minority, putting forward ideas and collaborating with people.

    While not as intense and large as it used to be, this is still happening. Radicals and liberals are still collaborating where possible, usually on single issues. If anything has happened, many people — both liberals and radicals — have fallen out of the single-issue movements, usually because of discouraging defeats. This may give an appearance of fission but really it’s not.

    Also the above article willfully ignores what was the rather massive fissure in College Democrats known as the Corzine campaign. There was a definite visible divide, where the more activism-oriented progressives initiated the open disaffection with Corzine and the more traditional politicos had some criticisms but only acted on them after the rabble-rousers made their voices heard. And yes, when a chapter of a party cannot even support their own electoral candidate, that party is in crisis and it should not point fingers at the radicals who merely make a frank observation.

  3. Matt Hoke,

    Radical students are also making the mature step of defining politics as not simply protest but also as self-education. Past that, the only divides are:
    (1) Whether ALL progressive/radical activists belong in the Democratic Party and should not form separate, more radical organizations
    (2) whether getting out the vote for Democratic politicians should be a priority
    (3) whether lobbying is an effective tactic
    None of the above is addressed.

  4. Matt Hoke,

    Basically I think this whole article has the picture wrong. Yes, for whatever reason, a lot of people are burned out right now. A lot of it has to do with things that were relatively beyond our control.

    Basically this article criticizes radical criticisms which were correct at the time, and which pushed or pulled critiqued groups into more positive directions.

    However, it also ignores something huge: radical students did not just criticize College Democrats — they criticized Obama, Corzine, the national Democratic Party, campaigning for Dem politicians, and party toleration of the Blue Dogs — all of which are much harder to defend than the relatively much better organization known as TCNJ College Dems. The national organization is tied to money in a way that means that the national party will never resemble what exists here at TCNJ, which is far to the left of anything at the top of the Dems. Let’s face it: TCNJ Dems are basically shunned from the NJ political machines now that they did not endorse Corzine. I can’t speak for everyone but I have always held picking apart TCNJ Dems as secondary and even irrelevant compared to what the TCNJ Dems supports by choosing that label and those candidates.

    Though, sadly, the abstract idea of “getting a piece of legislation changed” shows bankruptcy of ideas and left-wing movement if anything. It demonstrates a lack of living connection with pressing national issues. A kicking left-wing group would probably be protesting/educating about Afghanistan or budget cuts or something. There’s plenty to contribute to now without having to invent more goals.

  5. Matt Hoke,

    Though it may have kicked off on a bad foot, I think this is a dialogue that has been long needed, and I wouldn’t mind some kind of joint strategy meeting between multiple left-leaning or activist groups. Dems, ISO, Prism, Action all seem like people to consult.

    However Glenn, in the future, if you’re going to write an “Activist Update,” please just make a list of events that have been going on. You didn’t even mention the Here for Haiti stuff which is massive, or the Tucker Max protest. What you wrote should be titled “Why Everything is the ISO’s Fault.” And that’s a fine thing to write; these discussions need to be had. God knows I’m all for partisanship and debate.

    Less sarcastically, it’s also true that what you wrote was not so much an update but a more long-term analysis and suggestion of strategy. After all of the back and forth, of course, something positive should be put forward. And that proposal shall be: we must educate ourselves on the issues we care about. Again I’m thinking Afghanistan and cuts to budgets and social services should be on our radar.

  6. Matt Hoke,

    Don’t forget Haiti, either. The longer the USA stays the more the public will begin to ask nosy questions.

  7. Matt Hoke,

    Oh…above all, I think the above kind of exchange is what the Perspective should be all about. This kind of thing is what I initially joined the magazine for. So for the next issue it might make sense to have a printed and counterposed “College Dems Strategy for Spring 2010” and “Jersey ISO Strategy for Spring 2010” next to each other. I don’t think my above comments should be used though. It’s something the branch would have to write collaboratively, and the Dems would have to write theirs as a club as well.

  8. Dan Enden,

    Honestly, I do feel a lot of this is based on emotion rather than fact. It’s no secret that the “radicals” — just come out and say the ISO — and members of other organizations have come to conflict over the past semester. But that’s the key: members. This article makes it seem as if one faction has gone out of their way to annihilate anyone on a remotely different field than us. Yet — and correct me if I’m wrong — as far as I can remember, every initiative taken by either the ISO or Students for Equality was put up to a vote…a vote that every single person on campus was welcome to take part in.

    Contrary to what you may believe, a LOT of discussion amongst the ISO is based around ally relationships; the last thing we want is to decrease activism. The fact of the matter is that it comes down a difference of opinion on strategy.

    None of us would argue that PRISM is a useless organization. No one would deny their involvement with the events you mentioned. No one would even consider saying that what they do is not a great help to the campus. What would have been said is that it wasn’t a politically based organization; it just isn’t. A certain group of “radical students” had certain desires and ideas when it came to the movement — desires and ideas that would not have come to fruition through PRISM. The fact is that PRISM has NOT historically been a politically based organization. I think it’s great that they’re taking all these new initiatives this semester, but that only proves a lacking of similar actions in the past. As such, did anyone call for a boycott of PRISM? Did anyone try to dissuade membership? Of course not. What was done was the formation of Students for Equality, so that those students who did want to focus STRICTLY on activism would have an outlet to. Realistically, regardless of the semantics of whether or not PRISM’s work is ‘activism’ or not is irrelevant; its membership is made up of people there for different reasons, many of which do not involve activism of any sort.

    Furthermore, no one has ever denied the amount of phonebanking done. It just happens to be the stance of the ISO and other activists on campus that phonebanking has been a bankrupt strategy so far. Parallel to that, no one would deny the work done with Garden State Equality. It just happens to be the stance of the ISO and other activists on campus that GSE has been an organization of bankrupt strategies, beurocracy, and — particularly after everything surrounding the demonstration — overall distasteful practices that we don’t want to be affiliated with. Sure, all that stuff is activism, fine. We just want our activism to be more active.

    What Hoke said needs to be reiterated. Our problems do not lie with the membership base of the College Democrats; they lie with the Democratic Party. Of course college dems have been involved in left-wing movement. That’s ’cause the Party’s membership is FAR more left-leaning than its leaders. As far as College Dems goes, the issue lies with the fact that in a crucial time for what the majority of activism on campus was based around (LGBT rights), many of the Dems were putting their focus on campaigning for a candidate that its own membership couldn’t even agree to support. So yeah, some were perturbed by an allied group’s lack of action, but realistically, that’s not an issue; College Dems are the group of the Democratic Party, so while we may have been frustrated, we can’t really blame them; all we can do is disagree.

    Overall, this article seems counterproductive in just as many ways as it is helpful. It brings up a lot of important points, the most important of which being the need for intercommunication among groups who want similar things; we’re fully with you on that. At the same time, it must be considered that if it’s valid to argue that the College Dems’ actions are concurrant with what their organization actually is, so is the ISO’s. We are an organization that, in its nature, is opposed to the Democratic Party and based heavily in frontline activism. While we always want things to be copacetic with our periphery, disagreements will inevitably arise. Furthermore, this article is complaining actions that supposedly divide the activist movement; it seems kind of contradictory to me to get at that point while at the same time condemning an entire group of students whose primary focuses and goals entirely revolve around activism.

    We know you’re not with us as an organization; you’ve made that clear throughout your persistent opposition to the ralley during its initial call meeting as well as the follow-up vote held during Students for Equality. You’re painting us as maddog maniacs refusing to help any group different than us, of course without mentioning all the efforts we’ve put forth without support from allied organizations. It’s a two(well, several)-way field; if you truly want unity amongst campus activists, make it happen…two wrongs don’t make a right.

Trackbacks

One Trackback

Add Your Comments

Disclaimer
Your email is never published nor shared.
Tips

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <ol> <ul> <li> <strong>

Ready?
Required
Required