the anti-war effort at Stanford University, the Stanford Coalition
for Peace and Justice is one of Stanford’s most pronounced
activist groups. Over a year ago on the eve of the war in Iraq,
the Stanford Coalition for Peace and Justice (SCPJ) organized a
group of Stanford students to conduct an anti-war protest in San
Francisco. A year later, one of the protestors is sharing his insight
on the effectiveness of the protest and what SCPJ actually accomplished.
Junior Harvir Singh joins us to shed some light on the protest.
Stephen: Harvir, before we get
into the issues here, I was hoping you could provide a context for
where your political views lie on the traditional ideological spectrum.
Harvir: Let me be clear. I oppose
Bush’s foreign policy in almost every way possible. I think
the war in Iraq was misguided, unjust, unnecessary, and for all
the wrong reasons. In fact, most of the opinions presented by the
Review I vehemently contest.
Stephen: So it’s safe to
say you’re not conservative per se. How did you get involved
in SCPJ’s protest?
Harvir: An avid anti-war supporter,
the day after Bush dropped bombs in Iraq I was whisked away with
a group of Stanford students to San Francisco intent on participating
in one of the largest anti-war protests in decades. Fueled by a
powerful desire to stop the war at any cost, I and a hundred fifty
Stanford students marched the city, blocking the major intersection
of 3rd and Folsom.
Stephen: That must have been an
interesting experience to say the least.
Harvir: My experience that day
was no less than spectacular. As I stood there in the middle of
the crosswalk and looked down the two streets of the intersection,
literally hundreds of cars were packed in for over a city block.
Cars upon cars piled up at the intersection and were blocked as
far as we could see behind. Honking, singing, chanting, yelling,
were all interspersed into one noise: “There ain’t no
power like the power of the people cause the power of the people
don’t stop! Say WHAT?”
Indeed, a group of students that
day had the power to halt the normal lives of thousands of people.
Combined with the rest of the populace that was protesting, we managed
to shut down hundreds of San Francisco businesses. But as I was
standing there that day, sometime between chanting furiously and
being dragged away by several police officers, a subtle but powerful
thought popped up in my mind. Then it came again, and again, and
again, until I was continuously plagued with the thought: “Will
what we do here today stop the war?” And repeatedly my mind
told me, to my dismay: “No, No, No!” Suddenly a tremendous
sense of uselessness overtook me as I came to this realization.
No amount of protesting we do here today will stop the bombs being
dropped over Baghdad.
As this feeling of uselessness
lingered, I started observing closely the cars we had jammed on
the road. Some individuals stood outside their cars, observing our
actions no doubt with anger. Some scowled at us, some sat patiently
in their cars. All were eager to get back to their jobs and tasks
for the day. A series of questions slipped into my thoughts. “What
if we’re preventing someone in the traffic from getting their
cancer therapy? What if some pregnant lady can’t get to the
hospital right now? What if that guy has a life changing job interview
or that lady urgently needs to make an appointment?”
Suddenly I realized that by standing
here in the middle of the intersection, preventing so many people
from going on with their daily lives (some of whom probably shared
our sentiments), we were probably doing a great deal more harm than
good.There’s an adage from South Asia that I often remind
myself of and try to live by: “If I can’t do anything
useful, at least I would like to do as little harm as possible.”
And here I was, sitting in the middle of one of the biggest intersections
in SF, being utterly useless, and doing a great deal of harm.
Stephen: So all in all, how do
you feel about the protest? How effective do you feel this protest
was in advancing SCPJ’s goal of stopping the war in Iraq?
Harvir: Looking back on that day,
I ask myself what we did manage to accomplish. One thing that comes
to mind is that we did totally disable the city’s public transportation
system. All the public buses were used to shuttle the thousands
of protesters from the streets to the police stations and city docks
(where the overflow went). But again, halting the activity of an
entire city for one day did nothing to stop the ongoing war in Iraq.
Stephen: Looking back, do you
have any critiques of your actions or of the protest group at large?
Harvir: One problem I think is
that most of us who participated in the protest that day, including
myself, got carried away by our emotions. Needless to say the crowd
was incredibly emotionally charged. The awe of the experience only
heightened our feelings. As I observed the hype and excitement I
started wondering why many of the students were here. Did they truly
understand the magnitude of the event? Did they truly oppose the
war? Or were some of them here simply to experience what it was
like to protest for the sake of protesting and causing mayhem? No
doubt many, including myself, believed in the cause. We wanted to
stop the war. But as I conversed with and observed the hype of the
other students, I felt many did not truly understand why they were
standing there on that day. Caught up in their emotions and excitement
they joined the bandwagon just for the sake of protesting.
Stephen: What effect did all that
charged emotion have on the group’s collective judgment and
decision making processes?
Harvir: A natural result of being
so emotionally charged is a loss of reason and judgment. In hindsight,
obviously, preventing people from going to their jobs and creating
traffic jams is not going to change the political situation. No
doubt, we could not realize this, since we were so caught up in
the hype and excitement. We simply did not think of what impact
this action would truly have. The civil disobedience of Gandhi succeeded
because he knew how and when to react to a situation, rationally
and reasonably. He also believed without hesitance in his cause
and was willing to die for it. Our civil disobedience failed not
only because we simply did not think rationally, but because many
of us did not even believe in the cause and were there simply for
the experience. Finally, how many of us were actually willing to
die for this? I certainly wasn’t.
Stephen: Many argue that most
college protestors believe less in their cause than in protest itself.
Where do you feel the impetus for this protest originated from?
Harvir: It seems to me this is
a symptom of a bigger issue. Students at college campuses all across
the nation have an ideal notion of the concept of civil disobedience.
Ever since our high school U.S. history class, we’ve revered
civil disobedience as the best vehicle for social change. As a result,
all of us at one point or another want to participate in a protest.
We want to experience first hand the methods that have created great
change. The problem is that we don’t truly understand how
to participate. Overcome by emotion, not really believing in a cause,
and protesting only for the sake of the experience, being useless
and ultimately causing only harm: this is not the way to social
Stephen: Any thoughts as to how
SCPJ and Stanford’s many other activist groups could advocate
or protest for their causes more effectively?
Harvir: So, how do we make protesting
more effective? I’m not really sure of the answer to that,
and I’m not really sure it’s possible with such an emotionally
charged group of students and individuals across the nation. The
only advice I would give protestors now is, as long as you’re
going to be useless, at least you can try to do as little harm as
Stephen: Thank you.