February 8, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 40°F


Season of protest

Photo illustration by Michelle Boulé

In a time of global unrest, Ithacans are standing up to protest economic, social and environmental issues.

Across the country and on a local level, students and citizens are up in arms against everything from fracking to student debt.

Earlier this year, revolutions erupted in countries across the Middle East, including Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. Protests decrying budget cuts, police brutality and economic disparity have reached a peak in London, Greece and Spain. And in the United States, Occupy Wall Street has spread from Boston to Seattle.

The trend of revolt has not missed Ithaca. Inspired by the widespread upsurge of civil disobedience, students at Ithaca College and inhabitants of the area have tacked themselves onto their own causes, marking a burgeoning season of protest.

Downtown, residents have stood in solidarity with their own Occupy Ithaca movement. On Saturday, Ithacans marched against big banks, like Bank of America. Ithaca residents have also traveled to Zuccotti Park and Washington, D.C., to show support for Occupy Wall Street and to form a chain around the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline.

Fred Wilcox, associate professor of writing, has worked at the college since 1987. He said he does not remember seeing demonstrations escalate to this level during his tenure on South Hill.

“I haven’t seen a time like this, but then again the times are changing so fast, the economy is terrible, global warming is presenting a real danger, a real hazard to the world,” he said. “So students are just beginning to see the threat to their own health and well being, to their family’s health and well being, and their future.”

Ehab Zahriyeh, an independent multimedia journalist who covered protests in Egypt and in New York City, said the global attitude toward protesting has experienced a distinct shift.

“People have a different mentality,” he said. “People aren’t going home. They’re saying ‘No, we’re going to stay here until our demands are met.’ That’s happening in the Middle East. They don’t leave the square, they continue to protest and it’s starting to happen here in the states, too.”

The rise in campus activism could be attributed to a new wave of student organizations — some of the most active groups this semester at the college have existed for less than a year.

Junior Rena Ostry, president of the Environmental Leadership Action Network, a group affiliated with Greenpeace, said the culture at the college encourages activism. When ELAN began last year, it campaigned against Facebook’s use of coal power at its facilities.

“We immediately saw a surge of activists come out and join our club,” she said. “There were people who had never before defined themselves as activists or organizers who were just looking to be plugged into something.”

This semester, ELAN is focused on changing the college’s policy for using post-consumer paper from 30 percent to 100 percent.

Kaela Bamberger, co-president of the anti-drilling group Frack Off, said the group refocused itself after surviving a slow beginning last year. She said Frack Off was finally able to transition from posters to protests when the organization staged a demonstration Sept. 30 to request a formal college ban on hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method of extracting natural gas from the ground.

Bamberger said the Occupy Wall Street movement was a major motivator to have an active campus presence.

“If these people could drop everything and do something, then we can too,” she said.

Ostry, who also helped organize Occupy Ithaca College, said the Occupy movement is an ideal example of student organizations collaborating. Leaders from campus groups have increasingly attended each other’s events and traded ideas, she said.

Junior Emily Shaw, co-president of Slow Food Ithaca College, a campus group petitioning for more local food in the dining halls, said organizing with other groups provides a better perspective of the activist community.

“You get to see new faces and you get to see new aspects of activism,” she said. “You get to see how everything is so interconnected and so linked.”

Last semester, the Labor Initiative in Promoting Solidarity, a campus organization that raises awareness about economic and social issues, won a living wage for dining hall employees of Sodexo, the corporation that runs the college’s dining services.

Jeff Cohen, associate professor of journalism and director of the Park Center for Independent Media, said there is no doubt students have been more active on campus in the last few months.

“This is the biggest thing in years,” he said. “My only hope is when this group of students graduates, they continue to fight.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, student activism swept across campuses, mirroring a global unrest that draws parallels to the present day protest climate.

In 1968, students and demonstrators marched outside classrooms on South Hill in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., in opposition to the Vietnam War and in an attempt to bring attention to other issues like abortion, legalization of marijuana and premarital sex.

It was reported in The Ithacan at the time that there were more spectators than protesters. “The Ithaca College Story,” an account of the college’s history by John B. Harcourt, a former college historian and English professor, called it the institution’s first “demonstration.”

Carl Sgrecci, vice president of finance and administration, was a student at the college in the late 1960s and became a professor in 1970. He said unrest relating to the Vietnam War at the college was mild compared to Cornell University.

“A student group took over Willard Straight Hall and literally was carrying machine guns,” he said.

But students at the college were not far behind Cornell with significant demonstrations.

“They stormed the president’s office, did some damage to some artwork and that type of thing,” Sgrecci said. “There was a hanging of an effigy out here someplace on the quad.”

Brian McAree, vice president of student affairs and campus life, said there were no major demonstrations after the 1970s until a student takeover of the admissions office in 2000. About 10 students from the Young Democratic Socialists group occupied the office to protest Sodexo Group investments in private prisons abroad and in the United States.

“I don’t view the activity that I see this year as being really unusual,” he said. “Each year there are students who pursue issues that are of interest to them.”

This year, the months of demonstrations throughout the Middle East led to monumental civil rights victories.

Zahriyeh said a distinct difference between the protests in Tahrir Square and Zuccotti Park is what the protesters want to change.

“In Egypt, it’s very, very clear,” he said. “We want to write our constitution, that’s very clear. We want to end emergency law, that’s very clear and they also have a clear way forward.”

However, Zahriyeh said, for people in New York who are protesting banks, frustrations are clear. It’s the solution, he said, that is foggy.

“We shouldn’t expect a huge milestone victory like they got in Egypt when the president was toppled because there’s no president to topple in this situation,” he said.

Cohen said if the student generation organizes and stays organized after graduation, there is hope for change.

“It’s easier to change things here than in Egypt,” he said. “We have free speech, the Internet doesn’t get suppressed — not yet — we have the ability to run in local elections. There’s just so much more ability to change things and change things fast. We have powerful enemies, like Egypt had the Mubarak dictatorship, we have the ‘corporatocracy,’ and it’s powerful.”