Campus Politics

Best of Old Pub: Is College the Place for Activism?

By Bailey’s Original, April 2009

As an undergrad, Paco Del Martin Campo was a prominent member of the student activists group Lucha. He also played a role in the 2007 hunger strike, and worked with a Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification. After Paco penned an article in the Spectator on the importance of activism, the Cub Pub approached him for an interview on campus activism. 

say it again!

Oh! Uh! War, what is it good for?

Paco rapidly immersed himself in student activism in his freshman year at Columbia. In an interview, he described himself as an “energetic freshman who was providing a lot of passion and energy” to the 2007 hunger strike. This experience served as a primer for his activist career. “I’ve been active since then, collaborating with the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification … and Lucha [the activist Latin students group]”, said Paco. As we spoke, the two groups were preparing for a May 2nd rally intended to pressure Columbia to be “just” as it expands into Manhanttanville. (The rally’s Facebook event page urges “No displacement, no eminent domain”.) It’s clear that Paco has remained involved and committed to student activism.

However, while he remains passionate about the power of activism, Paco acknowledges that it has its limits when it comes to engaging the entire Columbia community. When asked about the failure of the hunger strike to gain traction among students, he didn’t deny the assessment. Instead, he insisted that movements are traditionally unpopular and radical. “You point me to one movement that had a majority … behind it, and I’ll concede the point”, he asserted. “[1968] didn’t have a majority. That’s ok. It’s unfortunate, it’s sad, but it’s the way it is. The idea that people at Columbia felt that they weren’t being represented is not a new idea.”

He even brought up the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was widely viewed as a radical disruption of the status quo, though people today tend to view him as a moderate. “I’m not trying to say that the hunger strike is on the same level as the civil rights movement. But … the idea that drastic action, whatever it entails, it necessary to institute a change of consciousness and a change in institutions, that’s an idea that carries on from that tradition.”

Paco doesn’t think that the failure of today’s activists to capture the support of the campus is due entirely to the unpopular nature of activism, though. He lays blame on an overall culture of complacency that has enveloped today’s students. He says that even though we’re not in 1968 anymore – a “context of global resistance, of revolution … a complete change in consciousness” – the problems that posed challenges then are still with us now, and there is no excuse not to confront them.

The problem becomes, how do activists confront them when people no longer feel the urgency to act out? “That’s something that worries me today, since people don’t have the sense of a need for change at a cultural, economic, political and institutional level, they no longer have that sense of being mired in it, then people think that’s it’s no longer necessary to have those kinds of movements. Like the problems are no longer there.” This makes activism harder, but Paco will not concede the fight simply because students are more concerned with personal success than justice. He was fervent in his belief that activists must act even without popular support. “You can’t legitimate their complacency”, he said.

This doesn’t mean that activism hasn’t evolved to adapt to today’s needs. Paco says that the declining influence of activism on campus has necessarily pushed the activist community outside of Columbia. “Generally speaking, I’ve noticed a strong drive to get off campus,” he said, citing a recent health fair that Lucha held for the communities of Harlem and Washington Heights and a boycott of Florida-grown produce picked by poorly compensated workers, which is organized by a former member of the Columbia University Democrats. The way he sees it, the activist community often deals with issues that don’t affect the Columbia community, so there is little reason to appeal to students here. “I think it’s important to raise awareness to get people to know about these issues on campus … [but] in terms of what we’re doing, there’s only so far you can get catering to people who aren’t that responsive to you.” He acknowledged that public perception is important, but that is of limited concern.

“Our goal isn’t to change [students’] minds; our goal is to change the predicaments and social situations of people who are completely ignored, completely invisible to us.” In addition, Paco believes that activists should not be too willing to compromise their values and goals for the sake of broad campus coalitions.

However, even if the situation on campus looks a little dim for activists today, Paco is still confident in the power of activism. “At some point you’ve got to make a loud scream of protest against this inability of people to seriously take a look at the situation of people who are oppressed,” he insisted. “We know we’re being set up to be marginalized and stigmatized and laughed at. But we do it, because it’s necessary. It’s not about us; it’s about the people we’re trying to help.”

He was even more insistent regarding the importance of campus activism. He said that action is important, “because when you have someone like Jim Gilchrist, or David Horowitz, who comes to Columbia, to let them speak without giving any sign of protest would be wrong. It would give a sense of indifference that is out of place anywhere, even in our modern complacent society.” Just because we are in the midst of an institution whose students and administration are not responsive to the call of activism doesn’t mean that activism isn’t important in itself.

“If there were no problems in our society, there would be no activists. Activists don’t exist to feel self-righteous. This is a general statement. The activists that I associate with [would] not exist if not for the issues that bring the need to resist. If it weren’t for ROTC, Israeli incursions into Gaza, or expansion or the fact right next door to Columbia there are communities that have the lowest quality healthcare in the city, [they would not exist]. Those are the issues that exist today. You just [got to] do something. You’ve got to get involved with what you’re passionate about and figure it out as you go along. There’s only so much you can do sitting around and contemplating … What I’m saying is, I think the overall philosophy of activists at Columbia is one that emphasizes action, with thought behind it.”

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