Quiet at Kent State
By Jennifer Pangyanszki
Editor's note: As part of our coverage of the 2004 election season, CNN.com is sending correspondents to the colleges where they studied to report on issues affecting today's young voters. In this edition, Jennifer Pangyanszki returns to her alma mater, Kent State University.
KENT, Ohio (CNN) -- After a surge of activism at the beginning of the war in Iraq, war protests at Kent State University are mostly silent this semester.
It is a marked contrast from the early 1970s, when Kent State rose to national prominence after four students were fatally shot by the Ohio National Guard during a demonstration against the war in Vietnam. Nine others were wounded. The students even became a galvanizing force for the anti-war movement then gathering steam across the country.
This semester, despite the ongoing conflict in Iraq, the campus has been quiet of protests.
"My boyfriend is in the Army. I don't really want a war, just because he's in it," said Jessica Anderson, a freshman. Yet that isn't enough to get her protesting, she added.
"I would never get involved. I don't think it's safe, for one thing. I care, but I guess I don't care enough. There's a way to express yourself without getting arrested," said Anderson.
Despite the dearth of protests this semester, some students say the war is an issue that will influence their vote in the 2004 presidential election, among other issues they're grappling with, like the job market and paying for higher education. Still, it is just one of many issues out there.
"We certainly don't see a highly charged political atmosphere," said Tom Hensley, chairman of the university's political science department, who first came to Kent State during the heyday of the anti-war activism during the Vietnam War. "The war, while there's certainly controversy, is not something that has really generated any campus activities or protests for the entire fall."
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released last week found that nearly a third of all respondents between 18 and 29 said they do not follow politics. Respondents over 30 were more likely to participate in the political process.
"I know a few people who are very involved, but other students -- it seems they are very indifferent to anything right now," said Robert Park, a senior. "As a university, we're kind of in our own little world."
The Vietnam War and the war in Iraq are different situations, Hensley said, and it took many years before protests started taking hold during Vietnam.
The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that a majority of younger Americans believe the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over, but about 61 percent believe the U.S. should start withdrawing troops -- some or all of them. Even more, 88 percent of 18- to 30-year-olds, oppose a draft, which male students faced in the Vietnam era.
With the draft eliminated, Hensley said he doesn't expect the war in Iraq to generate much political activism among students.
"People of all ages respond to self-interest," he said. "And while there are a few students who are affected, it's still not that type of issue that directly affects most people."
In the spring, the Kent State Anti-War Committee held several protests, panels and a two-day hunger strike to raise awareness about the implications of going to war.
University spokesman Scott Rainone said the anti-war movement gained momentum leading up to the war and grew to about 150 participants at a demonstration the day after the war began. About the same number of counter-demonstrators turned out, he said.
Tony Cox, the president of the College Republicans at Kent State, said some members got involved in protests individually.
"As time wore on, individuals saw the need to speak up and speak out," Cox said. "It's fine to criticize your leaders, but during a time of crisis you've got to realize that the decisions were made, and whether you like it or not, there's not much you can do about it."
Sean Buchanan, president of the College Democrats at Kent State, said anti-war protests succeeded in raising doubts about the war but said the inevitability of the war was depressing.
"We could have had every single student in this country walk out of class on campus, and it wouldn't have changed the policy," he said. "I think students feel that way. 'Why should I get up early in the morning, risk getting arrested, risk losing my financial aid, if no one cares anyhow?'"
Anti-war protests culminated on May 4, the 33rd anniversary of the Kent State shootings, with an estimated turnout of about 300, Hensley said. An estimated 3,000 were at the 1970 demonstration.
A new approach
Students aren't less politically minded, said university spokesman Rainone; they're just facing other demands.
"Students are struggling with how to pay for college, juggling courseloads with a part-time job and don't have time to be as active as they'd like," he said. "It's not that they're apathetic, it's just different priorities."
Still, student political leaders would like to see greater involvement on the part of their peers. Regardless of their positions on the war, student political leaders agree that apathy is an issue that needs addressing. Both the College Democrats and the College Republicans are working on strategies to get their messages out during the upcoming campaign year.
Chris Wido, a sophomore and Air Force veteran, said he does not have time to express his strong political views in organizations because of his work schedule. But he did take time from class Monday to participate in the "Smackdown Your Vote!" forum and rally in the Student Center plaza, during which he questioned funding for the war.
People in his age group, he said, "are too caught up with what's going on in their own personal lives. People would rather read about what Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez are up to than [President] Bush."
Organizer Amber Samuelson, the student senator for governmental affairs, said the event, which included political leaders along with World Wrestling Entertainment stars, was a different approach to get people to vote and educate them about issues.
The non-partisan campaign aims to register 1 million more 18- to 30-year-old voters for the 2004 presidential election. So far, 500,000 young voters have been registered nationwide, the wrestler known as the Hurricane told the crowd. Organizers said 64 students registered during the Kent State event.
Hensley said the turnout related to the level of political activism on campus.
"From what I saw, it certainly wasn't very well attended. It was really pretty indicative of a relatively low political interest and awareness and concern."