Jeff Jardine

Stan State students pass their first Introduction to Protest quiz with relative ease

They held an anti-Trump rally at California State University, Stanislaus, on Wednesday. Or maybe it was an Introduction to Protest class.

The students there really don’t have much experience at this protest thing. In fact, the Turlock campus might be among the most sedate public colleges in the country. UC Berkeley, it is not. If you’re among those who grew up in the 1960s and beyond, you remember the Free Speech Movement, the Vietnam War protests, the sit-ins and other forms of expression, and college campuses were hotbeds for them. Some turned violent.

Here, Stanislaus State developed its reputation as a college that produced school teachers, not protesters.

When the Iraq War began in March 2003, some Stanislaus State students held a candlelight vigil by the fountain. Later that same year, Gov. Gray Davis faced recall (and was unseated by Arnold Schwarzenegger). Schools all over the state, including Modesto Junior College, tried without much enthusiasm to act politically enthused. When I went to gauge the activism at Stanislaus State, I found a student sitting alone on a wooden stage that no longer exists, near the so-called Free Speech Rock. She exercised her right to free studying.

“There’s not much enthusiasm here for politics,” the student told me.

Sure, folks got a bit riled up when controversial 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin spoke at an event on campus in the summer of 2010, but the event was in June, more than a month after graduation. While some of the protesters might have been students, many of them were not.

Otherwise, political activity at the college has involved elections for student body officers and not much else over the past couple of decades. Political protests? You’d be more likely to see one at the Dale Commons retirement facility than at Stanislaus State. OK, I’m only kidding – sort of.

Until Wednesday, anyway. This one followed the lead of the Donald Trump protest marches last week through downtown Modesto. It involved about 300 people, including those who drifted in and out during the first hour on the campus quad. Among them, I ran into Teri Lunt, who teaches in the communications and theater departments at the university. I’d interviewed her for a 2003 column on political apathy at the local colleges. She was an MJC student at the time, and listened as one speaker said he’d be voting for Schwarzenegger simply because “The Terminator” was “buffed and cool,” and he threatened to slap the heads of those who disagreed with him.

She was not impressed. Wednesday, however, Lunt was thrilled to see college students getting involved – albeit after the election – and making their opinions known, peacefully and informed.

“I’m really proud of our students,” she said. “This event is student inspired, student led and student driven. This is much better (than the MJC rally 13 years ago).”

Similarly, Erin Littlepage attended the 2003 Iraq War vigil as a Stanislaus State student. Like Lunt, she also now works at the university, but in its assessment office.

“I don’t know whether it’s because this has been a commuter school, but students here haven’t been as engaged,” Littlepage said. “So I’m glad to see this.”

It gave Rajvir Chohan, a 26-year-old pursuing her master’s degree in social work, a minor Berkeley flashback.

“I grew up in Livingston but did my undergrad work at Cal,” she said. “There was something (protested) there all the time. I fell in love with the Bay Area because it’s so accepting. It was a culture shock coming back, but this is good to see.”

Everyone I spoke with claimed they did, indeed, vote, including Jason Copple, a junior anthropology major who wore a black ball cap bearing Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.

“I voted for him,” he said. What did he think about the protest? “It’s America. They can do whatever they want. Everyone has an opinion and a right to show it.”

It’s just that they haven’t shown it very often in Turlock. It took Trump’s election to get them riled, and so peacefully that campus security officers left the riot gear in storage.

“This is our riot gear,” one said, pointing to her big smile.

You could say they passed their first Introduction to Protest quiz.