Activism changes from Vietnam

How social media has altered the way we protest

Serena Keenan, Editor

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After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Feb., student activism has been quickly on the rise, especially with high school survivors leading the charge. The last time that a student movement of this size has been seen was in the 1960s and 1970s in the wake of the Vietnam War; however, one immediately noticeable difference is the use of social media.

Nowadays, protests are largely organized through social media. Logistics of demonstrations were passed on exclusively through screenshots on Instagram stories or in Snapchats as to reach as many people as possible. This seems almost necessary now, especially with the increasing ubiquity of phones, but Vietnam is a clear indicator that activism can exist and thrive without the technology we have today.

In the 1970s, protests and similar demonstrations for the anti-war movement were organized by handing out leaflets or putting up posters. “There was a lot of organizing and it was easy to get involved,” Jim Hansen, an ardent student organizer and activist against the Vietnam War, said. “It was all very public, so if you wanted to spend your time helping to end the war, you could join a committee. If there was going to be a demonstration or a protest march we’d be up passing out leaflets, doing press releases, maybe making a press release to radio too, getting the word out and putting up posters, big posters, little posters.”

It wasn’t just if you happened to care, because pretty much everybody cared…everybody pretty much took a position,”

— Jim Hansen

Information about protests also passed in everyday conversation. “There was a lot of word of mouth,” Hansen said. “It was all on everyone’s minds. It wasn’t just if you happened to care, because pretty much everybody cared… everybody pretty much took a position.”

The Vietnam War also spawned the type of resistance that we have only started to see very recently in the gun control movement. “Back then, there were people who resisted the draft and either went to Canada or jail,” Hansen said. “People did civil disobedience, chained themselves to the gate of army bases and that sort of thing, kind of like blocking the oil trains.”

While there have been similar events in the past few months, they occur with much less frequency and danger as they did in the Vietnam days. For instance, some students were arrested earlier this week for having a sit-in outside of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office. However, there have been no especially hazardous events like those that were witnessed in the heyday of the anti-war movement. During the “Oct. 3 demonstration”, protesters blocked the freeway. “People spontaneously just walked down what’s now Billy Frank Jr. St. to the to the State St. freeway entrance and blocked the freeway for a couple hours or so,” he said, “until they brought the SWAT squad and people just got up and left.”

One other method that was used to spread information about demonstrations was by means of campus newspapers. “Things were publicized in the Western Front, the university newspaper,” Hansen said. At the time, he was attending Western Washington University. “We had freedom of the press for the Western Front, and then also there was something called the Northwest Passage, which started about ‘72 or so, that was a biweekly that would publicize things.”

Social media has essentially taken the place of all of these things: posters and leaflets are much more costly to produce than a simple picture and caption detailing necessary information. There are also restrictions on how students (particularly high school students) are able to use student publications. As decided by the Tinker standard, students maintain their First Amendment rights in schools but the school is allowed to step in if school activities or property is going to be disrupted or disturbed. However, the Tinker v. Des Moines landmark wasn’t decided until 1969, only six years before the war ended.

Despite the differences in methods of activism, there are still similarities emerging from the gun control movement and the anti-war movement. “I’m hopeful that there might be some parallels developing and it isn’t something that’s years away,” Hansen said. “I’m impressed that students are organizing on their own and not just taking BS lines on why they should or shouldn’t bother, but it takes a lot of perseverance to make the movement bigger and more effective and to build coalitions, and experienced people are hopefully helping the students figure out how to do that.”