Web Exclusives: Raising Kate
a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)

February 26, 2003:
Activism, Princeton-style

Social justice inside and outside FitzRandolph Gate

My friend Charlotte, a junior in the Woodrow Wilson School, has a way with words, particularly when it comes to describing what's wrong with Princeton students. "It's like they all think, so long as I have my Burberry scarf, who cares about anyone else?"

At a university where the phrase "social justice" is usually limited to the Bicker process — the Prince recently published a "Bicker Bill of Rights" to inform students that they are not obligated to join an eating club that forces its prospective members to play nude Pictionary — it may be unreasonable to expect students to rally against the impending war. Likewise, since apathy is the name of the game, you'd think it would be unreasonable to expect students to come out for the war, but that doesn't seem to be the case. The problem at Princeton is that the only people who are getting involved and making noise are those whom you wish wouldn't.

One group I've heard plenty from is PCAT, the Princeton Committee Against Terrorism. Referred to by its detractors as the Princeton Committee Against Arabs, PCAT's members are the kind of people who, if fate had placed them in different circumstances, would be plundering centers of classical civilization and extending Visigoth rule across the Danube. Happily, fate has allowed them to attend the best university in the nation, and has given them a mouthpiece in two campus periodicals, American Foreign Policy and the Princeton Tory, from which they can take on the real threats to American democracy: single mothers, Muslims, the rulings of the Warren Court, and any class offered by Princeton's African-American Studies program.

A weekend ago I took the train up to New York to visit my friend Nate, a film student at NYU. Nate's something of an activist mercenary, a man for all seasons as far as leftist causes are concerned. At various times, he's campaigned against the Sierra Leone diamond trade, Starbucks, Mayor Bloomburg's policies for New York public schools, the WTO, the IMF, the G8, and corporate media domination. In the last instance, he downed three bowls of oatmeal and a bottle of ipecac and vomited on the sidewalk in front of the NBC studios. In recent months, Nate has been arrested twice — once during the September anti-World Bank protests in Washington, D.C., and once at the United Nations, from which he has since been banned for life.

Nate lives in Brooklyn, in a small neighborhood just west of Bedford-Stuyvesant, with six like-minded friends from NYU. The housemates — all of them anarchists — are members of the Radical Arts Collective, a subset of the NYU Peace Coalition that encourages socially minded artists to network, brainstorm, and collaborate on projects. They call their apartment the RACHUA — for Radical Arts Collective House of Un-American Activities — and the closest thing to it on the Princeton campus is the Terrace taproom after initiations.

The housemates are a diverse lot, the kind of group you'd get if you took the Princeton kids in the vegetarian co-op and gave them a lot of marijuana. Corey, a wiry redhead with a pierced septum, went to Israel over the summer as part of an all-expenses-paid trip to acquaint Jewish youths with their heritage. Problem is, Corey's not Jewish, and is most definitely not a Zionist, a fact that became apparent when he tried to sneak away to help with relief efforts in the West Bank. Leah's from Seattle and is a philosophy major, which may explain why nothing she says makes any sense. "Last month I made a Christmas list to send to President Bush," Leah told me. "I asked him for an orca and a glass tank." Josh is a film student from Brooklyn. He's picky about peanut butter, and has harsh words for the housemates who, when their turn comes to buy groceries, cop out and bring back Peter Pan instead of the pricey organic stuff. "Bread, I don't care about so much. I'll eat cheap bread. But I'm not going to eat crappy peanut butter."

What the housemates will eat, though, are dumpster finds, like the three half-pound bags of shredded coconut that they rescued from the trash bin behind a health food store. When I first arrived at the house, Josh was bent over a laptop, scouring the Internet for recipes containing coconut — the housemates were organizing a brunch the next day, and the coconut was already a month stale, so they needed to get rid of it. The recipe hunt was made more difficult because four of the housemates are vegans, meaning they won't eat any sort of animal product; two of the housemates are vegetarians, and Nate's an opportunivore, meaning that he'll eat anything that's around.

The housemates are involved in a variety of projects, or "actions," as they're called in the parlance of the activist community. In addition to the almost-daily protests against the war, they're calling upon President Sexton to disclose the school's investments and reveal who NYU has been "bedding down with." The students are publicizing the event by handing out — what else? — prophylactics with a picture of President Sexton's face emblazoned on the wrapper. When they're not participating in actions, the housemates are planning new ones; it really is, as Nate puts its, non-stop revolution talk, even if it's the kind of discourse that's best described as Chomsky lite.

At some point, the inevitable question was bound to come up, and it did.

"Where do you go to school?" Leah asked me.

"New Jersey."


"No, Princeton."

My only defense in these kind of situations — Ralph Nader went to Princeton — is negated by the fact that Donald Rumsfield did, too.

There's a middle ground, I'd like to think, between being passive and apathetic and being ridiculously naive, between being a tool and being a fool. Eating soy products and going without showers is not going to fundamentally alter the current state of things; then again, neither will hiding from the world outside the Fitz-Randolph Gate.


You can reach Kate Swearengen at kswearen@princeton.edu