MARCH 12, 2003
Belles Lettres and Belligerence: PHS students stage walk-out as part of national protest against Iraq war


Thirty students huddled in front of the post office on Second and Callender, braced against the cold and the clouds. Signs reading “Children are not collateral damage” and “No blood for oil” snapped in the wind. There was a cacophony of noise, as cars honked and pedestrians cat-called, for and against the Park High School students. Across the street, one lone girl held a neon sign emblazoned with “Attack! Attack! Attack!,” mostly unnoticed by the people hurrying by. One unnamed donor gave $100 to Coffee Crossing to make sure the teens had something warm to drink during the hours they were out, and the students went in shifts to warm up and fill up on lattes and muffins.

High school students across the country took part in a massive walk-out during the middle of the school day last Wednesday. “Books Not Bombs” primarily raged against the money that is and could be spent on a war in the Persian Gulf instead of focusing on domestic concerns—like education.

It is ironic that a protest against war and in favor of education was the springboard for ditching class, but that was part of the point, according to Park High senior Jeff Doyle. “It is kind of a message to Park  High,” Doyle said. “They try to convince us not to be political in many ways. Education is politics.”

The pro-war protest against the anti-war protest has a similarly double-edged purpose. While expressing a nationally held political opinion, Katie McDonald, Park High junior, really wanted to get her message across to her fellow classmates. “They’re my peers, so (of course) I think of them,” McDonald said. “I respect what they’re doing. I’m trying to promote some sense in these people.”

And, in a way, even the school had a part to play in the protest even as it was an object of protest. One very unusual word was painted on the anti-war signs: jingoism. It’s a British word, meaning “boasting of patriotism; an aggressive, warlike foreign policy.” It’s not something commonly used—except in Brain Beitel’s history class. “Joey Johnson, the flag burning in Texas,” he brought up quickly. “We showed the video clip the day before in class.” Protest signs back then had flashed “jingoism” as a slogan against the repression of Johnson’s free speech.

“We don’t want to burn the flag,” asserted Sam Mascari, 17, “we want to wash it.” The event, no matter the audience, centered around the politics of invading Iraq. On either side, the real question was which was a pro-America position—deposing a dangerous dictator or fostering good-will among an increasingly pacifist world community.

“Everyone thinks we’re anti-American,” said Amanda Andrews, 17. “We’re supporting America because we’re trying to keep the rest of the world from hating us.”

“We don’t want Saddam Hussein in power,” Doyle clarified. “That’s what everyone supports, is regime change. It’s all about alternatives. In America, you have people who want to go to war. Then you have people like me, who feel war is not appropriate, no matter what. It’s not appropriate to kill anyone for any reason.”

While the organized protestors urged passerby to give peace a chance, the protest on the other side of the street, figuratively and literally, said peace had been given a chance—and Iraq itself was the country that had abandoned it. “It’s a problem that needs to be taken care of as quickly as possible,” stated McDonald. “We’ve tried negotiations, and I just don’t think there’s any other option at this point.”

“Students are aware” of the Iraq situation, Beitel said. “They feel strongly about the issue. In class, we have some good debates. As many students, I think, would have come out for a pro-war protest, if one had been organized. If they want to go out and exercise their First Amendment rights, I don’t have much of a problem with it,” Beitel added, mentioning that, while he wasn’t happy the kids had ditched class to protest, the overall attendance effect wasn’t that big. It was only two or three kids per class missing. “It was kinda like the flu going around for the day."