Debate Night Reignites Activism at Hofstra


     HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (CN) — Overshadowed by student protest at the University of California and Kent State, Hofstra University had its fair share of Vietnam War-era iconic moments as well.
     In one apocryphal tale — a fitting tribute to the alma mater of “Born on the Fourth of July” writer Ron Kovic — student revolutionaries pointed broomstick handles like mock rifles at Richard Nixon’s helicopters traveling to a campaign event at the Nassau Coliseum.
     Hofstra has calmed down considerably since the heady days of hosting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at one commencement, but its manicured lawns will transform Monday night as the suburban Long Island campus hosts this year’s premiere 2016 Presidential Debate.
     This election season’s slate of candidates might have sent students from Hofstra’s halcyon days of protest storming the barricades of the approximately 1,000-seat Debate Hall.
     Polls of young people — or as the media calls them, millennials — consistently show that dissatisfaction with Democrat Hillary Clinton is rivaled only by their greater contempt for Republican Donald Trump.
     For many on campus, Hillary Clinton offers four more years of the most powerful political dynasty in the United States since the Kennedys. While the Kennedys are remembered for the rhetoric of peace, progress and public service, however, the campus-left here associates the Clintons with militarism, incrementalism and triangulation.
     The problem has gotten so bad that even the leader of Hofstra’s Campus Feminist Collective said she does not know if she will cast her ballot for the woman who would bust the presidential glass ceiling.
     “I feel like at this point in 2016, a first female president is so overdue,” Natasha Rappazzo, 20, said in an interview. “It’s about damn time.”
     In addition to her double-major in history and political science, Rappazzo serves as program director for the Long Island Alliance for Peaceful Alternatives.
     Along with many activists in her circle, she finds Clinton’s record as a “hawk” troubling. Rappazzo voted for Clinton’s insurgent challenger, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, in the Democratic primary, and she is now giving a closer look to the Green Party’s Jill Stein, who has been shut out of the debate.
     “It’s a whole political system that doesn’t represent what we want,” Rappazzo said.
     Through her anti-war group, Rappazzo and her professors have prepared daylong events, including protests, teach-ins, art displays, and of course, a debate-watch. She said these offerings would give students a reprieve from what she called the “war room” of the Debate Hall.
     The head of Hofstra’s Black Student Union, on the other hand, has high enthusiasm for Hillary.
     Clinton “understands economic and racial equality and wants to implement laws to fix the problem,” said Jasmine Spaulding, a 21-year-old business major. “She supports other women in the climb for equality. She understands the criminal-justice system is broken and wants to give those [affected by it] a fair chance.”
     That system, Spaulding says, has been on the minds of many black students who have been watching a cascade of videos showing police officers shooting and killing unarmed people like them across the nation, the most recent of which have brought hundreds into the streets of Charlotte, North Carolina, for nearly a week.
     From the moment Trump announced his candidacy by insulting Mexicans, Spaulding said, she knew that a man who calls “a race of people rapists, and is irrational in his thinking in general, should not be president of the United States.”
     Calling for the candidates to address systemic racism, Hofstra’s Black Student Union is also organizing a demonstration for debate night on Monday, but Spaulding did not disclose the details except to say it will be peaceful.
     “You’ll see tomorrow,” she said.
     With a black student body population of just 8 percent — half the percentage of the surrounding town of Hempstead — Hofstra has yet to fulfill the vision of Dr. King, who delivered a 1965 commencement speech on racism next to the university’s white president, approximately three months after his historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
     Two years later, around the time that King delivered his “Beyond Vietnam” speech in New York City, Hofstra’s students demonstrated against mandatory ROTC credit on campus.
     But the G.I. Bill gave a financial leg up to one of Hofstra’s most famous countercultural icons: Ron Kovic, the author of the anti-war classic “Born on the Fourth of July,” a novel that Oliver Stone adapted into an Academy Award-winning move.
     The archives of the Hostra Chronicle, the student newspaper, reflect that era with drawings of a Black Power fist clenched in the air and a group of long-haired hippies next to the word “Revolution,” in 1971, a year before Nixon’s visit.
     The greeting Nixon received from Hofstra’s welcome wagon provides dramatic fodder for playwright Isaac Rathbone’s “Undeclared History,” which was commissioned by the university and profiled by The New York Times in 2011.
     Rathbone rummaged through Hofstra’s Oral History Project and University Archive Department for his research, but the play’s most arresting image came from an anecdote he heard from a former student who was a freshman at the time.
     “As his story goes, a group was in [a dormitory common area] and went out on a balcony with broomsticks, pretending to shoot down Nixon’s helicopter as it passed by on the way to Nassau Coliseum,” Rathbone said. “He claimed that one of the escort helicopters peeled off and headed toward the tower, but then circled back when it realized it was just a bunch of stoners.”
     The tale is scarcely documented in the coverage of Nixon’s Oct. 23, 1972, speech at the Nassau Coliseum, just a four-minute drive from campus.
     Whether the protest occurred or not, the episode symbolizes the end of an era.
     Two weeks after Nixon’s campaign speech, Tricky Dick trounced his pacifist opponent, Democrat George McGovern, in a landslide, a seismic event in party politics that marginalized the left for decades.
     Democrat Party elites came to the conclusion that the only way to slow the Republican juggernaut was to pivot center, an idea President Bill Clinton adopted in his “Third Way” strategy.
     This playbook, still in place through President Barack Obama’s administration, has been credited with alienating much of the Democrat’s traditional base of unions, activists and the poor. It was seen as the only alternative, however, until movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and the Sanders “political revolution” showed for many that the left could no longer be ignored.
     As a concession to her former rival, Clinton adopted one of the key facets of the Sanders platform — making tuition-free college available to all on top of her plan to tackle student debt.
     This policy is a great relief to Spaulding, the student activist who says she has been working since she was 12.
     “I’m tired, but I’m trying to push through,” Spaulding said Sunday, reached by phone on her way to work.
     Politics has been unavoidable on the Hofstra campus in the lead-up to debate night. Networks like CNN, MSNBC and Fox News have set up tents a few blocks away from the cafeteria, and students have been gathering in front of the them to appear on the live broadcasts.
     The Commission on Presidential Debates, the Washington-based nonprofit group behind these match-ups, works with the Secret Service to clear members of the press, and buzz is already circulating around campus among students surprised to see snipers on the rooftops of familiar buildings.
     “I think the campus is politically engaged, especially right now,” said Rappazzo, the anti-war feminist. “It is hard not to be engaged in politics when there is a sign on every building shouting ‘DEBATE 2016.’ The campus is very excited and has been excited since the first day of the semester. I think this feeling is going to stay with us until the election is over. We all feel like we are involved in the election in a special way because of the debate.”
     Hofstra has seen this kind of excitement before when it hosted a 2008 debate and 2012 town hall, but observers are predicting this year’s bout between a former secretary of state and a reality TV star will be the most-watched ever.
     Fittingly, it is scheduled to occur on the 56th anniversary of the first televised debate, between Nixon and Kennedy.

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