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While students around the world were walking out of classes on March 5 to protest for peace, Erin Durban stayed in school. But she's no war hawk. The nineteen-year-old political-science student at Metropolitan State College is one of the leaders of Anti-War Auraria, a coalition that has attracted hundreds of students to a series of rallies against the looming war in Iraq.
Some members of Durban's group joined the gathering in Civic Center Park, but for the most part, they refrained. They have too many of their own rallies planned for the next few weeks.
Nobody is surprised when students get out and protest at the University of Colorado at Boulder, but Auraria isn't exactly a hotbed of political activism. At least 80 percent of the students work -- many full-time -- and all commute to and from the campus, which has a reputation for emptying out after classes end. Even student government elections attract only 1 to 2 percent of the approximately 33,000 people who attend the three schools - Metro, the Community College of Denver, and the University of Colorado at Denver -- that make up the Auraria campus. But Durban and a band of fellow activists were determined to shake things up last fall.
"We sat down and said, 'We really want to do something on this campus,'" she says. "We put out fliers, and thirty people came to the next meeting. More people just kept coming and coming."
Eventually, thirty different student groups joined the coalition and helped plan a November rally that brought out more than 500 students and staff.
"We wanted to bring the war home to Auraria," says Durban, a Colorado native. "We got together and made twenty body bags. We wanted to show people what war looks like."
They stacked the body bags around the flagpole in the middle of campus to make their point.
"People really reacted to those," she says. "It gave a visual image of what could happen."
Durban started her political activism in high school, where she was president of the gay/straight alliance and worked for a program that helped gay teens. Her father was an anti-war activist during the Vietnam War, and her parents have been supportive of her efforts at Auraria. She is also involved with the Auraria Feminist Alliance and the Youth Activist Project.
Since its November debut, Anti-War Auraria has sponsored several other rallies, including a January march from the campus to the 17th Street offices of Halliburton Energy Services (a major oil field service company whose former CEO is Vice President Dick Cheney). The action garnered 150 participants, who chanted "No war for oil" while marching through the heart of Denver's financial district. Nineteen protesters were arrested after blocking the entrance to the Halliburton building.
The coalition also has a Web site, anti-warauraria.tripod.com, that offers a "leftist confessional" for a little soul-baring. "Did you eat at Taco Bell? Buy something made in China? Sleep with a Republican? Get it off your chest...confess!!!" the site implores.
And in the Tivoli Student Union, a coalition-sponsored "peace table" co-exists next to an Army recruiting booth. "The response from people involved in the military on campus has been split fifty-fifty," says Melissa Hedden, a 25-year-old Metro State sociology major who has been active in the anti-war effort. "A lot of them say, 'I don't personally agree with it, but that's my job.' Others say, 'I remember when my dad or my brother went, and when he came back, he was never the same.'"
Hedden says part of the reason so many students have turned out at the rallies is because they're worried about the poor economy and fear a drawn-out conflict could make it harder to find work. "Our campus has a lot of working people," she says. "People know the war won't help the economy. We have people getting laid off on this campus; we can't afford this."
Students in the coalition have varying reasons for opposing the war, but Durban is protesting because she thinks the Bush administration is dealing with the conflict in the wrong way.
"A lot of people don't agree with the way George Bush is approaching this. He's not listening to other people," she says. "We don't think it's appropriate to do a unilateral strike without the support of other major countries."
As might be expected, the group has encountered some hostility from conservative students. "We've had quite a few confrontations with people who said, 'You need to support our government and George Bush,'" Durban says. "A guy throwing snowballs at us told us to 'go join the Taliban; you're terrorists.' He was really pissed off."
But in general, Durban and others involved in Anti-War Auraria say the campus has had a positive reaction to the group. "The mainstream opinion on campus is not to go to war," says Erika Church, a 26-year-old Metro student. In fact, the student governments for all three Auraria schools passed resolutions opposing the war plans, much like Denver City Council did last month.
Durban has found the experience of organizing a protest movement thrilling, especially the firsthand knowledge of grassroots politics. It's something she could never get from her political-science textbooks.
"I am so lucky to be in political science and doing this," she says. "It's been incredible."