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Computers Join Campus Protests Over Apartheid

May 16, 1985|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA — Its billing on a giant marquee might read: "Student Protest Meets Modern Technology," or "The '80s Finally Get Together with the '60s."

At UC San Diego in La Jolla, and at schools and institutions worldwide, the home computer has added a new dimension to the protest over South Africa's policy of apartheid.

Since April 24, when 2,000 UCSD students marched on campus in protest of the April 16 arrest of 159 UC Berkeley students, campus protesters across the country have been linked by a vast computer network.

Information Exchange

The network operates under a secret code name, but is similar, students say, to CompuServe, or any commercial computer information service. It permits anyone holding an account (subscribing) to sign on (using a password), exchange messages and--most important of all--information.

"We use it mostly for tactical coordination," said Mark Phillips, 27, a UCSD bookstore employee and one of 20 organizers heading the protest here. Phillips' job is "outreach" to other campuses, hence his position: computer controller.

"It's a very creative use of modern technology," said Phillips, who isn't a student but a salesman at Groundwork Bookstore, specializing in underground literature from a stand near the UCSD Student Center. "One advantage it gives us is instant communication. We don't have to wait two days to find out what the opposition is doing. We also share lots of advice."

What kinds of advice? Well, when students at the University of Florida were getting their movement under way, they messaged "the net"--nickname for the network--and asked what could be done, if anything, to affect (some would say disrupt) graduation ceremonies. Phillips said students at UC Santa Cruz messaged back immediately. (Anyone using the system can, he said, see what one school says to another simultaneously. In other words, it's more like a giant conference call. It doesn't permit private, one-on-one exchanges.)

The advice from Santa Cruz to Florida: March in with a coffin, "The most fitting symbol of apartheid," Phillips said. Graduation exercises in Gainesville, Fla., did indeed feature students marching in with a coffin. Another school advised the Floridians to wear red ribbons on mortar boards. That, too, was done.

Far-Flung Participants

The University of Wisconsin at Madison--long a bastion of campus protest--is the unofficial headquarters of the "net." An unidentified, but generous, Wisconsin student is the holder of a network account currently being used, Phillips said, by students in almost every state.

"He is," Phillips said, "just a really nice guy"--a comment delivered with a smile. Lately the Wisconsinite has apparently made waves. Though the system operates at the rather low cost of $6 an hour, it has to be rough saddling one account--and one charge card--with the on-line expenses of schools as far-flung as Berkeley and Bowdoin.

"We plan to get our own account real soon," Phillips said. "And so do a lot of other schools. I'm afraid the guy will insist."

Some people, even at UCSD, seem to regard the net as fodder for Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury. Others see it more in terms of potential.

Phillips sees nothing wrong with use of the net as a vehicle of civil disobedience.

"The Pentagon has access to the same technology," he said, "and you can bet their intentions aren't noble. Not at all."

'Why Shouldn't We?'

In other words, maybe microchips are more powerful than Molotov cocktails.

"To my knowledge, it's the first time in history," he said, "that a protest movement such as ours has had access to the same information. I don't see that as bad. Law enforcement agencies have always had access to the same stuff. Why shouldn't we?"

It should be noted that the protest at UCSD--and many other schools--has been, if anything, law-abiding and civil. Some of the activists of days gone by have even criticized the protests, saying the student of the '80s is, for the most part, apathetic and ambitious.

Phillips, who graduated from Johnston College at the University of Redlands, bristles at such characterizations. He says the protester of the '80s is smarter than his '60s counterpart in "knowing how to use technology--to be effective, and win."

On the porch of a university building where 50 to 250 UCSD students have been sitting or sleeping every night since April 24, a television and videocassette recorder provide taped updates of news accounts from schools around the country--"Always a big morale booster, anytime we get on TV," Phillips said--and highlights of happenings from around the country.

Via the net, campus protesters have been considering renting satellite time to carry their views in a live TV broadcast that might offer, in Phillips' words, "the most devastating statement of all. Let's face it, TV has that kind of impact."

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