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 campaigns. The goal was to make Bill Clinton close a prison camp that George Bush had set up for HIV-positive Haitian refugees. 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. BLOODY COUP 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 military. 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 stance. YALE STUDENTS JOIN IN 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 refugees. 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 Guantanamo.) 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. "WEDGE" ISSUE TO "BASE" ISSUE 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. PULL NO PUNCHES 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 that young 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.