Students Join in Protest as GOP Convention Opens

By Sean Cavanagh — September 17, 2004 5 min read
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The first time Naomi Gordon-Loebl can remember taking to the streets, she wound up taking to the nearest tree. Accompanying her parents to a rally protesting the first Persian Gulf war 13 years ago, Naomi, then four years old, scooted up a suitable trunk in Washington’s Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House.

Audio Extras

• Highlighting President Bush’s prime-time speech, the presence of silent protesters, as well as some celebrity sightings, staff writer Michelle Davis files her final report from the GOP convention. (3:28) Windows Media format | MP3 format

•Staff writer Michelle Davis reports on Gov. Schwarzenegger’s appearance at a public elementary school in Harlem, and the upcoming address Thursday evening by President Bush. (2:30) Windows Media format | MP3 format

• Staff writer Sean Cavanagh reports on the convention addresses by Education Secretary Rod Paige and first lady Laura Bush. (3:03) Windows Media format | MP3 format

Education Week staff writer Michelle Davis reports on the education chatter, or lack thereof, at the convention. (2:21) Windows Media format | MP3 format

Education Week staff writer Sean Cavanagh files a report on the weekend buildup to the convention. (3:01) Windows Media format | MP3 format

Now 17 years old, Ms. Gordon-Loebl, a Manhattan public school student, is a more seasoned activist, but no less strong-willed. On Aug. 29, the day before the Republican National Convention opened, the high school senior-to-be joined tens of thousands of protesters in a march that took them through the heart of Manhattan past Madison Square Garden, the site of the GOP gathering. Crowd estimates from protest organizers and media outlets ranged from 100,000 to 500,000, but city officials declined to release an official number.

Many of the student-protestors vented anger over a provision in the No Child Left Behind Act, the sweeping federal education initiative Mr. Bush signed into law in 2002, that requires schools to give military recruiters greater access to students’ personal information and makes it more difficult for districts to bar the recruiters from high school campuses. Those policies, at a time when the United States is immersed in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, seemed to galvanize many of the activists.

“A school’s a place for knowledge, a place to learn, not necessarily what to think but how to think,” said Ms. Gordon-Loebl, wearing sunglasses over her close-cropped hair. “To have militaristic propaganda, to have the government recruiting for combat, for war, for violence, is wrong. ...A lot of people say well, it’s so easy to turn down a military recruiter. But a lot of people really don’t have other options. They’re recruiting people to go die for them. It’s not [students’] cause.”

The students who descended upon New York City over the weekend also said they saw the war in Iraq as draining the federal budget of money that could be better spent on education—in particular, student financial aid and the No Child Left Behind Act. Numerous students pointed out that the maximum Pell Grant award has remained stagnant under the Bush administration (at $4,050 a year), and they predicted that rising tuition costs will force them to take out more loans, work more off-campus jobs, and eventually graduate with larger debt.

Police prepare for protesters.

“The Bush administration has not been friendly to college students, and students in general,” said Ashwini Hardikar, 19, who attends the University of Michigan. “Higher education should be a right, not a privilege. Overwhelmingly, it’s the privileged classes that have access.”

The day before the march, Ms. Gordon-Loebl, Ms. Hardikar, and other student activists gathered at St. Mark’s Church in Manhattan’s East Village for an event titled “Books Not Bombs,” which featured several teenage and college-age speakers from around the country. Later, they moved to a nearby university center for tutorials on topics ranging from student loans and the Patriot Act to how to conduct themselves at the protest. City officials had made preparations of their own: The New York City police department has at least 10,000 officers assigned to security throughout the week.

Competing Viewpoints

The next day, shortly before noon, Ms. Gordon-Loebl worked her way to the corner of 7th Avenue and 18th Street, where student groups had assembled for the march.

Students prepare for the anti-war march.

Deeper into the student crowd, Anika Fischer, 16, and Netta Levran, 15, both students at Hunter College High School in Manhattan, were beginning their first protest. They cited many of the same issues in talking about what brought them there that day, most notably opposition to the war in Iraq.

For the two teenagers, taking part in the protest meant more than winding their way through Manhattan amid heavy security and big crowds. It meant convincing their parents that they would be safe.

“At first, they were like, ‘Be careful, don’t get arrested,’” said Ms. Fischer, wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt adorned with stickers. One read, “‘No’ to the Bush Agenda. “

“I’m supposed to call them every two hours,” she said.

Not all students in Manhattan that day were keen on the protesters’ message. Michael Garson, 16, caught a glimpse of the protestors not long after he and his family exited their train, having just arrived from Marlboro, N.J. He blamed the activists for taxing security forces that were already burdened with the week’s security concerns.

As the New Jersey student saw it, the protestors’ worries about education issues were overblown. Students still had every right to turn down military recruiters’ overtures, he said, despite what the activists claimed; and when it comes to paying for college, there was no reason the federal government’s obligations needed to grow.

Naomi Gordon-Loebl walks in the anti-war protest.

In recent months, Republican supporters of the president have noted that federal education spending has increased 40 percent since Mr. Bush took office. Spending on Title I, the federal program that serves schools with heavy percentages of students from low-income families, has increased, too. If the protesters were trying to build anti-Bush sentiment, their efforts would backfire, Mr. Garson predicted.

“It’ll drive more people away than it’ll bring in,” he said. The teenage Republican, attending his first convention as part of a youth organization, said the activists wouldn’t detract from his week. “I just want to be a part of it,” Mr. Garson said. “The whole country is watching us now. Every channel, every news station is here.”

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