Shut Down Guantanamo!: The National Student Mobilization
Shut Down Guantanamo!

Anthony "Van" Jones recounts lessons from the National
Student Mobilization.

     Last year, the biggest student protest movement since
the South African "divestment" days swept U.S. campuses.
United across racial lines, students on 30 different
campuses pulled off hunger strikes, demonstrations, round-
the-clock vigils, guerrilla theater and letter-writing
     The goal was to make Bill Clinton close a prison camp
that George Bush had set up for HIV-positive Haitian
     And the students won.
     Now, if you didn't hear about any of this, don't feel
bad. I wouldn't have known about it either, except that I
was one of the organizers. The media -- always happy to
print stories about our generation's illiteracy, apathy and
violent propensities -- could spare no ink to cover our
first crusade.
     So, for the first time in print, this is our story: how
Generation X, dissed by the press as usual, waged a national
campaign that freed 267 refugees from a U.S. death camp.
     But first, some background. In September 1991, the
Haitian military deposed Haiti's first democratically
elected president, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Right-wing
thugs (Ton-ton Macoutes) went on the rampage, torturing and
killing Aristide's supporters. Nearly 30,000 Haitian men,
women and children fled in leaky, home-made boats. Many
drowned on the high seas.
     Rather than helping these Black activists get away,
Bush ordered the Coast Guard to stop all boats carrying the
fleeing Haitians. The refugees were taken against their will
to Guantanamo Bay (the U.S. naval base on Cuba). There, the
Immigration and Naturalization Service declared that most
were not really refugees, but "economic migrants" (who had
all suddenly decided to look for jobs in the U.S.) The U.S.
forcibly returned 20,000 people to the hands of the Haitian
     For those Haitians whom INS admitted were fleeing as
political activists, not job-seekers, Bush had another
trick. His immigration officials stuck needles in their arms
and tested them for HIV. (HIV screening is common for people
trying to settle in the U.S., but the INS had never before
tested people looking for temporary asylum.) Those who
tested positive were imprisoned behind barbed wire in a
vermin-infested camp.
     While running for office, Clinton denounced this policy
as inhumane and illegal. But after he won, he announced that
he planned to keep Haitians out, just as Bush had. Further,
he refused to close what had become the world's first prison
camp for HIV-positive people, "Camp Bulkeley" at Guantanamo.
Clinton planned to let the detainees waste and die there,
hidden from the eyes of the world.
     On January 29, 1993, the detainees -- having spent a
year and a half in bondage -- went on hunger strike. They
vowed not to eat again until they were free, and called on
the American people to join them. The media, which had
consistently ignored the existence of a U.S.-run HIV prison
camp, predictably refused to publicize the refugees' bold
     That's when I got involved. Other Yale Law School
students had been working on the refugee crisis for more
than a year, through a human rights law clinic. They had
helped file legal challenges to the "forced return" policy
and the HIV+ prison camp. Thus, they knew about the hunger
strike and spread the word: there would be a mass suicide at
Guantanamo unless Clinton let the refugees in.
     Hearing this, a handful of us who had not worked on the
legal cases hatched a plan: we would get as many Yalies as
possible to join in a solidarity fast. To dramatize the
Haitian's situation, we would erect a mock "prison camp" in
the law school's main foyer and keep a 24-hour vigil there.
And we would try to get students all around the country to
do the same.
     We planned to go without food for one week, and then
"pass the fast," like a baton, to another campus. There, a
new group of students would "take up the fast" (allowing us
to eat again, yet keeping the fast going). We would keep
this "relay" hunger strike rolling from campus to campus
until the media attention shamed Clinton into freeing the
     To begin, we called an "emergency" campus meeting,
where students on the legal team told of the miserable
conditions at Guantanamo. All 40 students who attended said
they would join the fast.
     Then we broke down into working groups. We bought
chicken wire for our mock "death camp," candles for our
vigil and red cloth for arm bands. We called a rally, faxed
out press releases, and prepared to look emaciated on
national television. (We figured, with students at the
President's alma mater "hunger striking" over his policies,
the national press would come running -- and, in the
process, break the news blockade on stories about
     On March 3, we had a noon rally to kick off the fast.
Hundreds of people came out, but no national media showed.
Days passed. Our bellies grew tighter, but only a few local
news sources were paying any attention. We made every
hunger-striker a "media contact," giving each one a major
news outlet to contact personally. Nothing worked.
     By our fifth day without food, our spirits began to
sag. We realized the press didn't care about the Haitians,
no matter who was protesting their abuse. If we wanted the
world to know about the injustice on Guantanamo, we would
have to spread the word ourselves.
     So we did. And with surprising ease.
     We realized that we knew people on campuses all across
the country: former class-mates, relatives, people we had
met at conferences. So we started calling them all, faxing
information packets and asking them to go on strike. We
shifted our energies from trying to contact the media to
trying to mobilize our peers. We wanted to generate an
avalanche of protests, phone calls and letters directly
pressuring Clinton. We dubbed our effort "Operation: Harriet
Tubman" (as in, "Let My People Go!").
     On March 10, Yale hunger strikers "passed" our fast on
to Harvard, handing over a symbolic "baton" (a tangle of
barbed wire). Harvard passed the strike to Brown University,
which then passed to the University of Michigan at Ann
Arbor, where nearly 200 students took part. On March 31,
Michigan passed off to four schools at once: Columbia, Penn
State, Georgetown and Howard University.
     Then we launched our "April Offensive": students at
George Washington University, Catholic University, NYU, the
University of Maine, UC Berkeley, San Francisco State,
Stanford, CUNY Grad School, and many other campuses erected
"Camp Clintons," tied on armbands and went without food.
     By May, thousands of students had taken part,
generating tens of thousands of letters, petitions and phone
calls to a bewildered administration (they couldn't figure
out how all of these people knew about the camp).
Nonetheless, classes ended and the hunger strike died with
the Haitians still stuck on Guantanamo.
     But then the student legal team's dogged persistence
paid off. On June 8, a federal judge ordered the HIV camp
closed. Everyone thought Clinton would appeal; instead, he
complied, brought the refugees to the U.S. and shut down the
camp. Observers gave a great deal of credit for Clinton's
about-face to the heat generated by the student movement.
     So in the end, our mad strategy had paid off.
     Looking back, we made some smart moves. First, we
initially put forward one simple demand ("Close the Camp;
Let Them In!"), that everyone could understand. Second, we
focused on a clear target: Bill Clinton, who could meet our
demand with the stroke of a pen. Third, we made intelligent
use of our resources; we exhausted hundreds of student
organizations' budget allocations for laserprinting,
photocopying, fax machine usage and WATS line access.
     We also demonstrated that the abuse of the refugees was
an attack on everybody. Queer organizations could see that
this might be a first step toward quarantining U.S. people
with AIDS. Women's groups were outraged to learn that female
refugees were being force-fed Depo-Provera for birth
control. Black groups saw the racism. Socialist groups saw
imperialism. Human rights groups dove in. We turned a
"wedge" issue on its head, making it into a "base" issue
that brought people together.
     Our campaign worked on campus after polarized campus
because we called for an "emergency mobilization," not a
"coalition." We didn't send someone around to different
group meetings, asking for a spot on the regular agenda and
then begging each group to sign "our" petition or send a
"representative" to "our" meeting to "discuss what to do."
     Instead, we publicized emergency meetings. Key people
made announcements in classrooms and cafeterias. We held
teach-ins that became work sessions. By filling large
numbers of students with an urgent sense of mission, we
created a groundswell that automatically pulled in the
student organizations.
     Lastly, we did not work in isolation on the campuses.
We collaborated with the refugees' legal team, which
constantly updated us on the refugees' wishes and their
ever-changing conditions. We allied ourselves with Haitian
activist groups and national AIDS organizations, who were
also fighting to free the Haitians.
     The most important lesson: militancy pays. When we
started out, most progressives still wanted to go easy on
the new Democratic president. As a result, they got stiff-
armed on "gays in the military," sand-bagged on Lani Guinier
and ultimately NAFTA'd.
     We took the opposite tact, lighting into Bubba just
weeks after he took office, naming "concentration camps"
after him and denouncing his flip-floppy cowardice at every
turn. Our spring uprising was a key factor in forcing
Clinton to make his first (and so far, only) policy reversal
that has favored progressives.
     Unfortunately, many of our campaign's strengths were
also its weaknesses. The hunger strike was a dramatic
gesture thatyoung people could immediately get off on. But
it left folks exhausted, feeling embarrassed and let down
when their flamboyant act of self-sacrifice produced no
immediate results.
     Also, because we built a campaign, not a national
coalition or organization, we left behind no lasting
structure. This is ironic, since the Haitian refugee crisis
points out so clearly the need for a big, permanent
organization to fight for what's right.
     Lastly, shutting down Guantanamo ultimately fixed very
little. U.S. policy is still to blame for Haiti's internal
chaos. And Clinton is maintaining Bush's pitiless policy of
refusing to let any more Haitians flee, keeping the Haitians
trapped on the killing fields of their homeland.
     Therefore, our task today is the same as it was a year
ago: to build a base of political power strong enough to
liberate the Haitians -- and all the rest of us as well.