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UCF Activists Overcome Historic Apathy

by Mike Blakley, Contributing Writer
February 18, 2003

A group of students from a loosely organized and unofficial club at the University of Central Florida were perhaps the most unlikely group of people to join the ranks of hundreds of thousands of activists who gathered in the streets of New York City on Saturday in protest of a war with Iraq.

Led by a core of committed student organizers from Campus Peace Action, 46 students spent their Valentine's Day weekend heading toward a rally to show their love for freedom and for peace.

At the same time, cities across the globe were holding their own rallies, bringing together millions of people. New York City granted a request for a crowd to assemble on First Avenue near the United Nations building, but they denied anyone the right to march. New York Police officers blocked off streets, preventing thousands from reaching the rally's main stage. Upset crowds, unable to move east toward the rally's epicenter, began marching north and south, eventually taking over several streets and temporarily shutting down traffic throughout Manhattan's Upper East Side.

UCF students dispersed amongst the crowd all around the city collectively witnessed the largest protest in the U.S. since the Vietnam War.

On Third Ave, UCF student Robert Coffman felt the business end of an NYPD club when an officer jabbed him in the side for not moving out of the way fast enough. In front of the New York Central Library, another student, Monica Ortiz, sat with protesters in the street until police began loading paddy wagons full of people arrested for civil disobedience. Yet another student, Meggan Jordan, marched with crowds on Third Avenue. She said she saw mothers marching with one hand pushing a baby carriage and the other holding a peace sign.

"You see these people in their SUVs and in the supermarket," she said. "You don't see them in this context at all."

Soccer moms marching with protesters have an eery similarity with activists at UCF. Both are unlikely participants, perhaps existing as a testament to the idea that anything is possible.

Photo by Kevin Deutsch

Two anti-war protests have happened in all of UCF's history and both occurred just weeks ago. At about the same time, 21 year-old Jonathan Leto participated in organized activism for the first time.

"I've been looking for a constructive outlet for years," he said. "I don't think this is just a phase."

If it is just a phase he sure takes it seriously. He has jumped into a position as a spokesman for Campus Peace Action, and for his behavior at both anti-war rallies at UCF he quickly gained a reputation for being as voluable as he is incendiary. He has also abandoned his television, turned off his radio and cast aside his car keys. He said he rides his bike to school, a trip that takes him 40 minutes, because he only wants to drive his car when absolutely necessary.

A lot of UCF students look at Leto in the

same way hippies look at soap: as something they would rather not be bothered with. To say Leto is an outsider would be unfair. He just runs with a different crowd, a small but growing crowd that can surrender its weekend to spend 50 hours on a bus, driving through snowstorms without a heater and through Florida sunshine without air conditioning, just to spend one afternoon in New York City.

They are people like Elizabeth Fernandez, a biology major, who lugged around an extra heavy backpack, weighed down by the books she needed to prepare for the two exams awaiting her on Monday, and Allison Berkowitz, who celebrated her 18th birthday with the busload of students heading north on I-95.

Bringing this group together were people like Coffman and Ortiz, who put a lot of time and energy into creating opportunities for students to do things like protest in New York. It also includes people like UCF Progressive Council's co-chair Emily Ruff and student government Senator Josh Edmundson who, after exhausting every approach to gain funding for the New York trip, convinced student body President Marco Peña to hand over more then $4,000 from his own discretionary account so they could rent a charter bus. They are also students like Theresa McGovern who take care of any last-minute business.

Photo by Matt De Vlieger

These students add flavor to a very vanilla campus life by actually doing what others just talk about. At a time when activism is unfashionable, they speak out.

"It's an uphill battle, and one of the biggest battles we are fighting is battling the clichés around activism and protesting," Coffman said.

They get called hippies and un-American. People say they have nothing better to do with their time. Most common of all are the comparisons they get to civil rights activists and Vietnam protesters. Ironically this group feels the connection is a stretch. They have an argument against every stereotype forced upon them. Compare Leto to a Vietnam protester and he will tell you he lacks the kind of patience to begin protesting a war only after it has been going on for years.

"In Vietnam they protested the war and the soldiers," he added. "That's not the case with us; we respect the soldiers. We're just against them dying in an unnecessary war."

Compare Coffman to the activists of the 60's and he will point out the differences.

"They started the dream in a way, but they didn't finish it," he said. "There exists a hardcore edge to this movement that doesn't take failure for an option."

These students braved facing police in riot gear on horseback to speak their minds. They spent days on a bus that got hot enough to make them nauseated, and cold enough to let them chip ice from the insides of the windows.

The entire group may not embody the hardcore edge Coffman talks about, but they certainly showed they have the endurance to eliminate failure as an option.

Jonathan Leto - jonathan at leto dot net

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