Blessed Peacemakers

They'd seem quaint if they weren't so eloquent: Meet the University of St. Thomas's loudest rabble-rousers

Uncle Sam hands some cash to a man in a business suit. The businessman gives a gun to a military commando. Uncle Sam and the businessman put blindfolds on and turn their backs as the soldier goes toward a nearby line of eight men and women. He shoots each of them. After they fall, Uncle Sam, the businessman, and the soldier pour fake blood from a nearby bucket over the dead, staining their white T-shirts. And then they walk away, blood on their hands.

It is a sunny, windy November afternoon on this lawn surrounded by imposing stone buildings--the lower quad of the University of St. Thomas's St. Paul campus. The Student Coalition for Social Justice is staging a reenactment of the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests and two women at San Salvador's University of Central America. The symbolic demonstration aims to raise awareness about the many killings carried out by graduates of the U.S. Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.

This is the second year the coalition has held the event. But today the world looks very different than it did at this time last year. Just weeks before, terrorists attacked New York and Washington, killing thousands and leaving Americans confused, saddened, and scared. The students are not sure how the protest will be received.

A small group of students and faculty stand off to the side of the quad, facing the murdered martyrs who lie motionless on the grass. Two people, strikingly dissimilar, stand at the front of the onlookers: a tall, slim man with a dollop of white hair and a petite woman, with long chestnut tresses and a tiny silver hoop in her nose. They trade off singing out the names of people who have been killed by terrorists. His voice is piercing and nasal, hers is lilting and sonorous. He is Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, a 50-year-old assistant professor of justice and peace studies at St. Thomas. She is Michel Clausen, a 23-year-old senior who heads the student coalition.

"Unknown child, six years old," Clausen sings. The group behind her responds with a murmur. "Presente."

"Unknown child, nine years old," she continues. "Presente." They call out names for 20 minutes, the words often swallowed up by blustery gusts.

Throughout the demonstration, few people stop at the coalition's adjacent information table. A handful of students pause for a moment to watch or read the signs posted along the paths. Some roll their eyes and mutter things like, "Fucking idiots." But mostly the students pay no attention to the presentation. They chatter on cell phones, make plans for dinner, or trade notes from science lab. And then they walk away.

After the protest, the students hastily collect rows of white crosses that border the lawn. Each cross bears the name of a person killed by terrorists, either in Latin America or in the September 11 attacks. As they pile stacks of the crosses on their information table, students in blue uniforms begin to mass across the quad. It's the ROTC, about to begin its own ceremony, a vigil honoring Veterans Day. All week long the cadets have entreated Clausen's group to be gone from the quad before their own ceremony began.

The soldiers bring out a boom box and play the "Star-Spangled Banner." They march in formation, salute the flag, then lower it. It is a commemoration of all the Americans who have become prisoners of war.

Clausen watches the ceremony for a moment. With its military pomp and circumstance, it is the opposite of the coalition's antiterrorism event. The guards present the folded U.S. flag to the president of the university. "You didn't see him at our thing," Clausen says sarcastically. But only slightly: She has long since accepted this reality about conservative, religious St. Thomas. Overall she seems pleased with the way the reenactments went, even though fewer people asked questions about it this year. That was something she had feared.

"You'd think people would be more positive because it's against terrorism of all kinds. But actually they're more negative," she muses. "Last year more people were open-minded. They asked about it at the table. This year people walk by with their heads down, or say something ignorant. Since September 11, there's more of a shutdown mode.

"The university didn't want us to do the reenactments, thinking the students were too on edge, too emotional," Clausen continues. "But terrorism is terrorism. We're trying to draw a connection and show how the [World] Trade Towers connect with this. If you really want to stop terrorism you've got to shut down the institutions that teach it."

 

To look at Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer's tiny office, you'd never know that he grew up more or less oblivious to social issues. The alcove is overflowing with books and papers, most of which raise uncomfortable questions about injustice, discrimination, and violence. The phrase "Blessed are the peacemakers" skips across his computer's idle screen. Yet when the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War were shaking the nation, Nelson-Pallmeyer was focused on his career as a high school sports star in Coon Rapids.

But when he went away to St. Olaf College in 1969, his naïve worldview was soon dismantled. There were teach-ins about Vietnam and political science coursework that brought him face to face with the poverty in urban areas. But the final catalyst was a five-month program that took him and 28 other students to Ethiopia, India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Japan. As the students tried to get to Sri Lanka, some of them were forced to make an overnight stop in Bombay. There were tensions between the United States and India at the time, and India wasn't anxious to host the students; they were whisked from the airport directly to a hotel and were to be taken straight back to the airport the next morning.

As the students' bus made its way through the streets of Bombay, people were huddled by open fires next to the roads. At one point, the bus stopped to let a religious procession go by. Nelson-Pallmeyer looked out his window. On the sidewalk a two-year-old girl was screaming, sitting next to her mother, who had just died. "I remember watching the terror on that child's face," he recalls. The bus started moving again, eventually pulling up to what turned out to be a luxury hotel. Armed guards ushered the students to a dining room where a string quartet played as they were served a five-course meal.

"I couldn't do that," Nelson-Pallmeyer whispers. "I left the hotel. I spent my night walking through the streets of Bombay.

"That experience I had just had was a microcosm of the world," he continues. "I didn't want to live in a world where armed guards protect the privileged few from the squalor of the many. People should neither live in luxury hotels, nor should anyone live among the rats and roaches on the streets of Bombay."

From that point on, Nelson-Pallmeyer dedicated himself to changing the world for the better. He taught poor students in the ghettos of Chicago. He attended the progressive Union Theological Seminary in New York City, focusing on the world food crisis and the political and economic causes of hunger. He went on to author numerous books on issues of peace, justice, and religion (he is Lutheran and active in the ecumenical group St. Martin's Community). In 1984, as civil wars raged throughout Central America, he and his wife, Sara, moved to Managua, Nicaragua, where they set up a school. "I saw firsthand the United States making a terrorist army, waging a terrorist war," he says. They returned home in 1986, and Nelson-Pallmeyer divided his life between teaching, writing, public speaking, organizing, and raising his three daughters.

Then, in the mid-1990s, he was approached about teaching a course at St. Thomas, where a new program of justice and peace studies was taking off. When he started teaching, he offered the program's introductory course only once a year; now it's taught three times a semester. "I could have never written a better job description than what I do at St. Thomas," he says. "This program allows me to teach students around the subjects that are my life."

It's a curious thing about St. Thomas that those subjects are officially endorsed even though they aren't always welcome--especially since September 11. Ten days after the terrorist attacks, for instance, Nelson-Pallmeyer was one of several panelists at an open forum where students, faculty, and staff were invited to participate in a discussion to try to make some small bit of sense out of the chaos. The panel was made up of professors of varying disciplines, none of whom echoed the patriotic and militaristic rhetoric that had blanketed the rest of the country. They talked about political science, philosophy, economics, religion, and their own personal experiences. And they denounced the American foreign policy that led to the attacks on the United States.

Nelson-Pallmeyer was particularly exercised. He took off his glasses and began to speak to the packed auditorium, his voice surprisingly forceful as he decried the great disparities between the world's economies and the injustices of U.S. foreign policy. "I see the signs that say, 'God Bless America,'" he noted. "Why not 'God Bless This World?'" The audience burst into applause. "When terror comes to us we weep," he continued. "But we should always weep for the rest of the world."

A few weeks later, the student newspaper, the Aquin, carried an entire op-ed column lambasting Nelson-Pallmeyer. "The forum seemed to be dominated by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer and his soundbite-worthy emotional denunciations of the United States," wrote opinions writer Dan Kaffine, a student. "Unfortunately, his comments were so far afield from the world known as 'reality' that I am forced to say something. This is not a personal attack on Nelson-Pallmeyer. I just disagreed with nearly every point he made, as they were so inaccurate and so fiery in their conviction as to make them laughable."

Nelson-Pallmeyer shakes off the criticism, but he does note that the newspaper's attacks on him and the student coalition he advises have escalated in recent months. "We're going to talk about the aftermath of September 11th and raise uncomfortable issues surrounding U.S. foreign policy," he explains. "To facilitate discussion is good, but these attacks polarize rather than open discussion."

 

Back in 1969 when Nelson-Pallmeyer was a freshman at St. Olaf, students across the country were the voices most vehemently critical of the war in Vietnam and the United States' role in it. Even at conservative colleges students protested and held teach-ins, scrutinizing the U.S. government in unprecedented ways. During those years of upheaval--war in Vietnam, violence in Cambodia, shootings at Kent State University--it was the students who took the lead, trying to figure out what the events meant, Nelson-Pallmeyer recalls.

"The war was ever-present," Nelson-Pallmeyer says. "The threat of the draft was very real. Every one of us knew someone from high school who was sent to Vietnam. It was very personal and overwhelming."

Despite the fact that it was disillusioning to learn about the U.S. role in the war, the prevailing atmosphere on campuses was questioning and critical. Even at St. Thomas-- back then a much smaller, all-male school--students agitated for an end to the war and encouraged strikes and marches.

Though Vietnam was certainly an essential element that forged the peace movement, it wasn't the only one, stresses Cecelia Lynch, an associate professor of political science at the University of California at Irvine. "Those who participated in the anti-Vietnam War movement saw it as the defining movement," says Lynch, who has researched the history of peace movements throughout the world. During the Eighties, she explains, the movement turned its energy toward Central America and the role of U.S. foreign policy in the wars there, as well as on protesting nuclear arms.

But social movements tend to run in cycles, Lynch explains. While the fear of nuclear arms encouraged activism in the Eighties, by the end of the decade the United States had reached something of a détente with the Soviet Union. Peace treaties were hammered out in Central America. The Berlin Wall fell. The Cold War ended. "The salience of a lot of this died down," Lynch says. Correspondingly, the urgency of activism also waned at colleges.

But at St. Thomas, even during this period of dwindling activism, a new course of study had begun to gather momentum. In 1987, the college formally launched a justice and peace studies program. The origins of the program lie within the Catholic Church. In the mid-Eighties, explains Father David Smith, a professor of theology at St. Thomas, the church issued a number of statements formalizing its commitment to work for social justice throughout the world. One 1983 letter, Smith continues, from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was penned by Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul. Roach encouraged Terrence Murphy, then president of St. Thomas, to uphold these Catholic beliefs and do something about the letter on the campus.

The result was a committee, launched in 1985, exploring the possibility of a new curriculum on peace and justice studies. "That was a time in the Eighties when the U.S. appeared to be expanding its nuclear forces in the U.S. and Europe," recalls Smith, who sat on the committee. "It appeared that the escalation was going up. There was a lot of fear, a lot of energy." By 1987, he continues, talks between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had relaxed the tension, but the fledgling justice and peace studies program was ready to offer a minor. Smith became the director of the program, a position he still holds today.

As an interdisciplinary program, requirements for the justice and peace minor could be filled with courses that were already being taught at St. Thomas in other departments. In addition, Smith designed two new courses specifically on justice and peace studies. Soon interest in the program grew, and by 1990 a few students had designed majors in the area through independent study plans with Smith. In December 1991 the university approved a major in the program--with, Smith happily points out, a unanimous vote of approval from the faculty.

But at the same time that the program was starting to flourish, the demise of the Cold War was sapping interest in activism and funding for peace studies programs in general. Because it was still small, St. Thomas's program had not yet grown reliant on the outside grants that were evaporating. "We were so new that it certainly wasn't a crippling effect," Smith says. But had it been a few years later, he muses, the program might have been deemed irrelevant before it ever got started.

By 1994 there were so many students interested in the program's courses (three more had been added when the major was adopted) that Smith hired adjunct professors to teach them. One was Marv Davidov, a well-known local activist and a leader of the Honeywell Project. Another was Nelson-Pallmeyer. He joined the department part-time in 1994, and later became the only full-time staff member of the justice and peace studies program.

Nelson-Pallmeyer, Smith says, has a teaching style and boundless energy that has been an immeasurable aid in attracting new students. "Jack is a father figure to the coalition, to justice and peace studies," says Clausen. "He cares immensely about his students. He gives his life to this place. He's so interested in getting kids to open their eyes."

 

The editorial page of the October 19 issue of the Aquin featured a cartoon depicting protest signs with such slogans as "USA is the devil," "Poverty=Peace," "Economic growth spawns hate," and "My bong is bigger than your bong." The caption read simply: "Macalester infiltrates UST."

The cartoon was a crude yet apt illustration of a prevailing contradiction at St. Thomas. Though the school's focus was once on the liberal arts education of a small number of undergraduates, in 1990 the school established a new structure with an undergraduate college and graduate schools and changed its name from "college" to "university." Since the Seventies it has more than quadrupled its student population, from 2,500 to more than 11,000. And more of them are enrolled as graduate students than undergrads. The Graduate School of Business alone has more than 3,000 students.

The perception of St. Thomas, accordingly, is one of business majors seeking the skills they need to succeed in the financial world. Of the many colleges in the Twin Cities, St. Thomas has one of the more conservative identities--the opposite end of the spectrum from its progressive St. Paul neighbor, Macalester. Yet it is at St. Thomas where this small but significant enclave of social justice activists has grown in number and influence. It has offered an academic and intellectual home for students who otherwise would not have been comfortable at St. Thomas.

Students like Michel Clausen.

Clausen transferred to St. Thomas in her sophomore year, eager to participate in the school's environmental studies program. Although she grew up in a conservative household where activism was hardly the norm, Clausen always had an interest in the environment. In high school in Hudson, Wisconsin, she volunteered with the Sierra Club and spent summers taking kids on canoe trips that emphasized education about nature. When she got to St. Thomas, her environmental concerns led her to the Student Coalition for Social Justice.

Her first contact with the group was on a trip to a Wisconsin home where a family had learned to live sustainably and below the poverty line--respecting the environment while eschewing materialism. "That, to me, was like, there's something I'm missing here. There are people choosing to live this way," Clausen recalls of the experience, a turning point for her. "As a student learning about the world, you're 19 and you're out of your parents' house for the first time and you're realizing the world isn't exactly what you'd thought."

As Clausen got involved in the coalition's environmental projects, she learned more about justice and peace studies at St. Thomas. Soon she was hooked, both by the program and the coalition. Today, the bright, confident senior is finishing her tenure as co-coordinator of the coalition, as well as wrapping up a triple major in justice and peace studies, environmental studies, and English with a focus on technical writing.

Clausen has often been frustrated at St. Thomas, both by the administration's conservative Catholic dogma and by the apathy of students. "You go to school and feel like you're walking around with people with blinders on," she says. "It's always treading water at St. Thomas. If it's not the administration somehow trying to debunk your group, it's people thinking you're just dirty, hippie kids. We're trying to make you think. If it weren't for the justice and peace community at St. Thomas, I wouldn't be at St. Thomas anymore."

She notes the irony that there is such a supportive pocket of activism at a university which has often been criticized for its lack of social awareness--particularly last spring when there were a number of well-publicized hate crimes targeting minority students. But the coalition is certainly thriving; when it started five years ago there were only a handful of members, and now there are more than 100 on the e-mail list and more than 70 regulars at the weekly Wednesday meetings.

Nonetheless Clausen has felt the scorn of criticism on campus, especially after she was quoted in an Aquin article about an October peace protest in Minneapolis. A subsequent Aquin editorial chastised the women who participated in the protest, implying that their wish for peace somehow supported the Taliban, notorious for mistreating women. "The young women who protested Monday surely must be against the injustices suffered by women in Afghanistan," the editorial read. "It would be contradictory if they were not. Those who protested Monday propose that we answer terror with government policy changes and peace talks."

Clausen was offended by the campus conservatives' misuse of the argument about women's rights. "We're saying, let's paint a picture up to 2001. Like the Seventies and Eighties in Afghanistan--how was America part of it?" she begins. "As for women in Afghanistan, we cared in 1998. They've been treated this way for seven or eight years by the Taliban," she says, her voice rising. "We wanted to educate the campus, with its ill-informed, uneducated opinions."

It's a Wednesday evening, a week after the demonstration on the quad, and the student coalition's weekly meeting is about to begin. First Clausen makes a few announcements about a bus trip to the School of the Americas protest in Georgia this weekend. (Although the School of the Americas closed last year, in January it reopened under a new name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Peace advocates insist that the only changes to the school's mission are cosmetic.) The bus will leave Friday at 7:00 a.m. sharp; the 20-hour ride will be a teach-in on active nonviolence. People should bring a blanket, a pillow, and food. "We're trying to get people to bring fruit so you don't have to eat only fast food--yuck," Clausen explains. "We're also encouraging people to bring their own food, so we don't support, you know, large corporations." She laughs and looks around the group with a self-deprecating smile that indicates an awareness that her last statement was all-too-stereotypically left.

As she talks, people come and go from the meeting through a sliding glass door. As they walk in or out, they pass a display case directly across the hall. It's decorated like a trophy case, draped with American flags and patriotic images and the words "God Bless America."

 

In recent weeks, in places where activism used to be tolerated, even appreciated, it's become harder than ever to be a vocal proponent for peace. The current atmosphere at St. Thomas simply mirrors that of the larger society, Nelson-Pallmeyer notes, describing the virulent anger of counterprotesters at a recent peace protest. "There is the degree of irrational hatred that I have felt by those who don't want any protest," he opines. "They're trying to rein in a growing citizen activism."

As he thinks back to the Vietnam years, he notes that those antiwar protests came on the heels of another major change in the United States: the Civil Rights movement. "There was a deep awakening that the mythology--the dominant ideals of our country--was being shattered," he says. "Now there's a manufacturing of consent that I find most frightening. There's almost not a critical murmur about the contradictions that are all over U.S. policy."

And the backlash against progressive thought seems to be on the rise. Last month, a conservative group called the American Council of Trustees and Alumni published a report chastising academia, arguing that its liberal bias has grown more dangerous since September 11. "While America's elected officials from both parties and media commentators from across the spectrum condemned the attacks and followed the President in calling evil by its rightful name, many faculty demurred," states the report, titled "Defending Civilization." "Some refused to make judgements. Many invoked tolerance and diversity as antidotes to evil. Some even pointed accusatory fingers, not at the terrorists, but at America itself." The report goes on to accuse universities of squelching dissenting voices, in this case those supporting the war against terrorism.

"I find that charge to be almost laughable," Nelson-Pallmeyer retorts. "To suggest that [universities] are bastions of radical thought in a sea of conservatism doesn't fit very well. It certainly doesn't fit St. Thomas well."

And that, according to Father David Smith, is partly because the essence of peace studies is asking questions that many people don't want to hear asked, particularly after such heinous attacks. "Any peace program is counterculture, counterintuitive," he explains. "It's an effort to answer the question, 'Why do people hate us this much?' When you try to answer that, people get upset. They want the answer to be, 'They're nuts.' They don't want to think that people dislike the United States, or U.S. foreign policy."

It's a struggle, says peace movement expert Cecelia Lynch, for activists to exist at all in the midst of what often feels like a monolithic national support of the war. "They're having a difficult time of it right now, trying to maintain legitimacy, given that the way to act legitimately right now is to be seen as patriotic," she says. It's unclear whether today's small pockets of dissent will mushroom into a larger movement, as happened during the Vietnam War era, she adds.

Even though the early protests during that war did raise important moral questions, she continues, that criticism did not become the prevailing opinion until the public learned more about the war and its casualties. "The antiwar movement rose and increased with the information about U.S. body bags," she says, stressing too that the level of dissent at home also depends on the perceived success of the military actions in faraway war zones: "There was a lot more criticism a month ago, before Kabul fell."

Which makes it all the more gratifying to Nelson-Pallmeyer that there are students who are devoting their lives to trying to make an unjust world more just--precisely what Michel Clausen plans to do.

"Activism is a daily choice. It takes millions of different forms," she says. "For me activism is life. It's an everyday challenge, it's excitement, it's fun. It's fun to be involved in your country. It's hard now, because people say wanting peace is anti-American. I love America. That's why I stay involved.

"I wish it didn't take a war to get people to be aware of what's happening in the world," she continues. "Maybe they won't stay in the movement. But maybe they'll leave with a different state of mind."

 

Listen, for a moment, to the message of peace protesters today. Is it any different than it was 40 years ago? Have the activists changed? Or the crusades? What keeps the movement alive?

"The world, in many ways, isn't any better from when I started out," Nelson-Pallmeyer says. "I, personally, feel a deepening sense of urgency." Today, he continues, the environment is in crisis, violence is endemic, and injustice is built into the global economy. "The richest 3 people have assets that are greater than the 48 poorest countries," he lectures. "It's very dangerous to have a country that's as powerful as the U.S.--militarily, economically, culturally. There are so many things that are fracturing the world and ripping apart communities.

"Part of what I want for my children is for them not to be overwhelmed by the world we live in--be involved in it," he says. The same holds true for his students, so he teaches them to immerse themselves in the world. That's something that is quite different from the early days of the peace movement.

"There's a different energy. My students are much better equipped. We study active nonviolence and take a comparative religious look at peace and violence," he explains. "These students are much better prepared than I was when the Vietnam War dropped out of the sky for me. There were no teachers or classes. We were learning by the seat of our pants."

The stronger theoretical foundation, Nelson-Pallmeyer believes, will encourage these young people to be lifelong activists. "What I saw around me when I was their age was that people operated out of intense anger more than out of deep, deep, deep concern," he says, adding that today student activists need to be more committed than ever. "There is a cultural avalanche telling them not to care, telling them to shop, telling them to hide from the world."

The peace movement of the future may indeed bear little resemblance to the romanticized memories of Vietnam-era protesters. It will likely continue to incorporate the ideas of the antiglobalization movement, questioning the economic disparities of the world. It will likely continue to question why it is that so many people have so little, while a few others have too much. It will likely have to reshape itself in order to be relevant in a post-September 11 world. And it's up to this next generation to rejuvenate and recreate the peace movement of the 21st Century.

"It's not sitting on your couch, smoking a joint, and talking about war," Clausen says decisively. "It's going out, talking with your congressmen, saying this is why I disagree. It's actively making change in a nonviolent way.

"Personally I think the peace movement never stopped. What stopped was the media coverage," she says. It's true that over the years, the specific causes and actions change, "But the overall goal is the same--to open the eyes of the world so you're not looking through this teeny, tiny hole."

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