[Excerpted from _Guide to Uncovering the Right on Campus_, edited by Dalya Massachi and Rich Cowan. ISBN 0-945210-03-05. This article maybe photocopied or distributed electronically at no charge provided that the article and this notice are included in their entirety. Copyright 1994 University Conversion Project.]

"Break the Isolation on Campus"

Overcoming the 1980s legacy of right-wing student repression
Interview With Doug C. by Jeremy Smith

[Doug C. edits SCAR News, a publication of the D.C. Student Coalition against Apartheid and Racism, and helps organize D.C. SCAR's campus chapter network. During the mid'80s, he was a founder of the Student Central American Network of New England and the national student organizer for the Committee in Solidarity of the People of El Salvador (CISPES).

Jeremy Smith co-chairs the Freedom Coalition at the University of Florida, and is an editor of Prairie Fire Progressive Student News-Journal. He also serves on the board of directors of the Civic Media Center in Gainesville, Florida, a cooperative institution created to promote alternative media.]

Jeremy: During the 1980s, how did the right establish itself on campus?

Doug: One of Reagan's agendas was to crush the radical left in this country. One of his first actions when he took office was Executive Order #12333, a decree granting the FBI and CIA powers to spy and actively repress social organizing in this country. He legalized much of what had been criticized in the COINTELPRO [FBI counterintelligence] program in the 1960s and 1970s. There was an emphasis on destroying what was left of the radical underground in this country, and also a mass projection of the conservative Reagan revolution onto campuses. That began when he took office with attempts to tour administration officials on college campuses, such as Al Haig, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and Henry Kissinger. All of them were chased off almost every campus they went to because of the unpopularity of the Reagan program. So they switched strategies.

The year following the invasion of Grenada, they decided to have a mass projection of pro-interventionism on campuses, to crystallize the idea that campuses are conservative now. They designed a very slick campaign of having pro- intervention rallies, flying in students who were supposedly rescued from the university that they were attending in Grenada to campuses around the US. holding pro-intervention rallies, and then having all of them converge on the White House for a press conference with Reagan just before the election. A few days before the Grenada solidarity rallies were to occur, the plans were leaked. After the U.S. Student Association, the Democratic Socialists of America, and CISPES received those plans, there were about 50 pro-intervention rallies and about 95 anti-intervention rallies. At each campus where there was a pro-intervention rally, they were outnumbered by about 10 to 1 by anti-intervention forces, and literally run off several campuses. That pretty much busted their whole idea. So they again adapted their strategies.

First they beefed up the private intelligence gathering networks such as the College Republicans, Students for a Better America, and Young Americans for Freedom, whose agenda was to disrupt and defund the left on campus, as well as to build a conservative cadre on campuses. They began funding conservative papers and had a massive media campaign starting in '85 and '86 about how conservative and apathetic students were. That was in direct retaliation to the massive activism on campuses around South Africa. The divestment campaigns in 1985 involved literally thousands of students. Over 3000 students were arrested in 1985

Jeremy: What kinds of repression and harassment did you see at that time?

Doug: It's interesting to note that in 1985, the National Association for College and University Attorneys organized a conference entitled "Universities and South Africa: Divestment and Campus Disruption," and it was attended by several hundred attorneys as well as by representatives from major U. S.. corporations, the State Department and the South African embassy. The focus was on how to disrupt and discourage campus protest around South Africa. Out of that starting in the spring of '86, and especially in the fall of '86 and '87, there was a major restructuring of the penal codes regarding protesters on campuses around the country. Part of the restructuring included providing for disciplinary and academic punishments along with strictly legal punishments. Also, they began using video recorders and stepped up surveillance and general harassment.

The college right wing embraced that whole concept and began using some very sophisticated means of disruption. For example, their numbers might be much smaller than the numbers of divestment protesters or anti-CIA protesters, but each one of them might have a huge sign, so in the media it would look like there were equal numbers. Once at the University of Massachusetts, the Radical Student Union initiated a takeover of the administration building regarding Reagan's policies, and at the same time as that was going on the College Republicans took over the office of the Radical Student Union.

Jeremy: I've got to give it to them, that's brilliant. I want to focus for a minute on the specifics of the funding apparatus for the right-wing papers and organizations on campus.

Doug: The emphasis that the Reagan and Bush administrations put on campus organizing was massive. Certainly, there were legal aspects like at the conference I just described, but the budget given to, for example, the College Republicans, was at $120,000 in 1980. In 1985, that was increased to $750,000. They were sponsoring trainings of thousands of conservative activists to go hack to their campuses and disrupt the left. In 1985, the Institute for Educational Affairs (now the Madison Center) invested $400,000 to support 60 alternative campus papers covering most of the nation's leading schools. While some of them were projecting a more or less legitimate conservative viewpoint, most of them were rabidly right-wing, and dedicated to trashing CISPES and peace and justice organizations.

Many in the rabid campus right of the mid-eighties went on to serve the Reagan and Bush administrations, the CIA, Accuracy in Academia (AIA), et cetera. Rob Jennings was a Young Republican at UMass, and he's working at the AIA now, and making lots of money. There's a lot of support for youth on the right, while on the left, you have generational splits, and a very strong lack of recognition of the possibilities and the role that students play. You take any national demonstration and it's very clear - invariably students are a third to two thirds of the people present and yet they're totally unrecognized. If they're organized and preparing for that, such as in '85 at a South African/Central American demonstration, we were able to get a student speaker, who was literally the last person to speak. We were able to organize ourselves into a student contingent so we could march together, but way back in the march, and that happens all the time. Whereas on the right, there is a very conscious grooming of younger activists: financially, politically, personally.

Jeremy: On the left, I think it goes both ways. I think there's also a lot of antagonism on the part of younger activists toward older people who know more, and an indifference to radical history in the United States. One thing we've tried to do in Gainesville to correct that is to have older activists consciously mentor the student leadership, and as a result there's a lot of cooperation and respect between the older activists and young people.

Doug: That's essential, because a people without any history are doomed to repeat it. I think that the situation on campus, where the turnover of students is so high, has exacerbated this dislocation, along with the whole concept of, "You go to school, you're an activist, and then you graduate and get a life." That's being countered also in places like Tuskegee right now, where some activists in the mid-eighties started an alumni association which asked alumni not to leave the south, and to actively support and mentor activists. It is also a more fundamental criticism of the left in this country, that it is chronically ahistorical, and that there is very little comparison beyond the rhetoric.
You don't go into a coffee shop anywhere and find people debating the tactics, strategies, strengths, weaknesses of, for example, the anti-nuclear movement or the Black Panthers. When the Nicaragua solidarity movement in this country collapsed, no one wanted to talk about it. There's very little discussion of what happened in the '80s at all in terms of progressive events, let alone any acknowledgment that there was any campus activism, period. You can't find that kind of stuff, and that's why it's essential for people who have been involved and continue to be involved now to really go out of their way and make sure that the history is preserved.

Jeremy: Well, we're lucky. We have older activists here, veterans from the struggles of the 60s and 70s, who talk an awful lot about that, they drill it into our little brains, that we need to learn about what they did, the mistakes they made, and that we really need to take steps to preserve that history as much as possible and to communicate amongst ourselves, and make sure to keep records, so that we and the people who come after us can learn. It seems to me that this knowledge is the best weapon to use against government repression and right-wing harassment.

Doug: I would travel around the country going to campuses and I would hear the same set of stories all over the place, and yet people were totally isolated and felt like their school was conservative and that the right-wingers were either very strong and organized or were a marginal set of loonies that just unfortunately disrupted their work sometimes. But if there was a network in place that was looking specifically at those kind of incidents, then they would have known that what they were dealing with was pretty much uniform. This knowledge would have enabled them to organize more effectively against the disruptions, while looking at new trends emerging. The way you uncover campaigns by the right-wing or by the government, particularly the government, is to have people share their stories and their experiences. That's the only way. You're certainly not going to get them through Freedom of Information or by calling up the FBI or the CIA or the campus administration and saying, "Hey, how are you trying to undermine us?" The only way is to create networks to make people aware that these things are going on.