May 29-June 4, 2003
High SchoolStudent Ben Waxmen takes on the Death Penalty, Rick Santorum, and Ariel Sharon while fielding calls from CNN.
While most of his classmates are staring at the clock, waiting for the end-of-the-day bell to ring at Springfield Township High School in Montgomery County, 18-year-old Ben Waxman is already in his Center City office. A second-semester senior, the burly, floppy-haired Waxman is enrolled in only one course -- honors English. When the class lets out at 12:20 p.m., Waxman takes the train to his downtown office in the Friends Center at 15th and Cherry streets, where he works as a leader of Unite for Peace, a Philadelphia pacifist group that sprang up after 9/11.But balancing high-school responsibilities with the demands of being one of Philadelphias leading activists can be a challenge. When Waxman was organizing a pacifist event to mark the first anniversary of Sept. 11, he convinced his principal, Joe Roy, to make an exception to the schools cell phone policy, allowing Waxman to step out of class to take phone calls from media outlets like CNN. But not everyone in the school was on board. When Waxman answered a call from NBC 10 in the school library, one of the librarians started yelling at him. Waxman says he "quickly started walking away and covered up the phone" so the reporter couldnt hear the commotion. Once hed hung up, Waxman explained to the librarian that he had a special exemption to the cell phone rule from Principal Joe Roy himself.
"Do any of the school rules apply to you, Mr. Waxman?" asked the fuming librarian.
Waxman gets more respect at his office downtown at the Friends Center, which he modestly refers to as his "cubicle." This is technically correct in that the walls are not permanent, but Waxman's cubicle has a window (though not much of a view) and near-total privacy -- two things many of the older staffers lack. While Waxman's official job at the center is as a leader of Unite for Peace, he uses the space as a command post for all of his activist activities; the high schooler is involved in the peace movement, the campaign to end the death penalty and the struggle for an independent Palestinian state. He has already served alternately as a board member and employee of Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty, the commonwealth's leading anti-death penalty group. All the activist work keeps Waxman busy at meetings most nights of the week. (Because he lacks a car or driver's license, his mother picks him up at the Chestnut Hill train station around 10 p.m. each night.) Even when the protest is not specifically his, Waxman shows up to back fellow activists. In recent weeks, Waxman has attended a protest in support of affirmative action, another against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and a raucous rally against Sen. Rick Santorum's comments comparing homosexuality to incest and polygamy. Despite Waxman's impeccable attendance record at Philadelphia protests and podiums, he insists he does not want to be the star of the show. "People always hand me the friggin' bullhorn," he insists. To modify an old saying, apparently some men have the bullhorn thrust upon them.
RAINBOW COALITION: Waxman (second from left)
protests in front of the Israeli consulate with a diverse
group of Israelis, Palestinians and Americans.
In part, Waxman believes, people give him the megaphone -- and loads of responsibility -- because they don't realize he's just a high-school kid. "Most people assume that I'm a graduate student," he says. It's a logical assumption considering his scruffy face, nonchalant clothing and lumbering we-shall-not-be-moved-because-it-would-just-be-too-much-trouble physique. Waxman's sophisticated vocabulary also throws people off. How many high-school students would argue that Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham is "in a decidedly precarious position" because of her championing of the death penalty in a largely anti-death penalty city?
Even people who know Waxman sometimes forget his age. "I think Ben's 22 or 24," says protest photographer Harvey Finkel, before correcting himself. "Oh no, he's in high school but he has the maturity of someone who's a college graduate."
City Councilman Angel Ortiz, a noted progressive who subsequently lost the Democractic primary, figured Waxman was in college when he met with him and other civil liberties activists to plot legislative strategy for his resolution against the USA Patriot Act. "I thought he was a college student [until] somebody said to me, You know, he's in high school.' I said, Oh my God. I was going to offer him a job.'"
Although Waxmans parents say he was socially aware from the start (in separate interviews both cited how moved he was as a 5-year-old hearing about the plight of the homeless), Waxman says his political outlook was shaped by later events. The failure of his fathers glass business in Germantown, in part because Home Depot had just opened up a slew of competing big-box stores, clearly shook Waxman. "Theres an example of corporations coming and putting out a small community-based business. It employed people in the community. It was a union shop, good wages. And then Home Depot put them out of business. And sure theyre a great store [but] everyone works at minimum wage. All those jobs that used to exist are gone."
A good activist, he doesn't get mad, he gets even. "I secretly have a desire to someday lead a national campaign against Home Depot," he says, adding, "I'm just not sure what they've done yet."
After his father's store closed, the family's financial struggles made Waxman skeptical of the American myth that "if you work hard, then you're going to make lots of money," which Waxman calls "Reaganesque bullshit." "I cannot think of anyone who works harder than my mom," he says, "and still I'm going to be on Pell grants next year going to college."
After pausing to devote time to his breakfast of pancakes and sausage, he goes back to politics, lashing out at George W. Bush, who will face a protest organized by Waxman when he arrives in Philadelphia for the Fourth of July. Bush has had "everything he's gotten handed to him on a plate," Waxman says, "and he's the one who claims everyone can rise up by their bootstraps. But no, people have to work really really hard just to tread water."
Freshman year, when Waxman first got fired up about various causes, his mother, Barbara Buonocore (his parents have been divorced since Waxman was in kindergarten) was worried about what she refers to as her son's "adventures": going to far-flung protests and meetings and staying downtown till late at night. "I kind of thought it would burn out. I truly thought this was just a passing thing."
That year, Waxman joined Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty as a regular member but soon took on more responsibility. "It just kind of spiraled out of control from there," Waxman says. Since then, he has served as a board member and part-time employee.
At first, Buonocore, a nurse, tried to limit her son's activities. When Waxman was 14, an activist gave him the opportunity to ride with her down to Baltimore to meet Sister Helen Prejean, the anti-death penalty activist and author of the book Dead Man Walking. At first his mother put her foot down, having had scary visions of her son speeding down I-95 in someone else's car. "Then I said, No, don't be an idiot,'" and agreed. Waxman ended up having dinner with Prejean and the family ended up with a signed copy of Dead Man Walking.
But unlike most families with autographed copies of Dead Man Walking on their bookshelves, Waxman's parents are not aging '60s radicals or limousine liberals -- and the frequent assumption that they are irks Waxman. "There's an assumption automatically made about my background, that it's coming from a place with a lot of class privilege, which it doesn't. I think there is a stereotype that the movement is white and middle-class but I think that's ridiculous. I wish more white, middle-class people were antiwar because white middle-class communities keep on electing people to Congress who vote for the war," he says, proceeding to rattle off congressional voting records proving that representatives from largely minority districts were the most likely to oppose the Bush administration on Iraq.
As for being a red-diaper baby, Waxman says, "My dad was a Republican." Ben's father, Michael Waxman, now a Montgomery County realtor, says he only registered as a Republican to vote for former college roommate Congressman Joe Fox, who was running in the Republican primary, not out of political conviction. Regardless of the reasons for his father's Republican registration, Ben says, "I don't think my parents have ever gone to a demonstration. My family is not an activist family."
But his parents were always socially and politically aware. Playing up the role of conservative foil, Michael Waxman says he often argued with his children at the dinner table. "They think I'm a lot more conservative than I actually am, because I always used to argue with them. I argued that the death penalty is necessary, which I still think it is in some cases." Michael says he would tell Ben, his twin brother, Adam, and older sister, "Don't just tell me the Supreme Court says. Tell me which justice,' and a week later they would come back and tell me which justice."
Perhaps because he is white and male, Waxman uses youth as a litmus test to determine which organizations are truly open and democratic and which just pay lip service to making sure all voices are heard. "Ive always had a thing for Pennsylvania Abolitionists just because what kind of organization puts a 15-year-old on their board of directors?" he says with a chuckle. But seriously, he says, the group is "a cool one that has sort of a different view of how society ought to be structured." Not only do they have a space on their board for a young person, but their membership includes the friends and families of death-row inmates, who like the inmates themselves, tend to be poor and nonwhite. "Any movement, in order to be strong… needs to have a broader analysis about power within their own organization. You know, who gets to have a say." For Waxman, the category of youth is similar to race or gender, which have been used throughout history to silence people and keep them out of power.
When Waxman is frozen out because of his age, he is particularly frustrated. Recently a radio reporter with WHYY, the local NPR affiliate, was conducting a phone interview with Waxman. When he revealed that he was a high-school student, the reporter abruptly ended the interview, saying she would have to check with her producer since many of the people she was interviewing for the piece had Ph.D.s. "I told her, Well I can give you someone older than I am who will say the same thing I'll say, but they're older.'" She obliged, and he referred her to another Unite for Peace spokesperson.
But as Waxman concedes, it cuts both ways. A few minutes after hanging up on him, the public radio reporter called back and asked Waxman if he'd sit for a longer interview. Her producer wanted her to do a feature on the boy-wonder activist.
At school, Principal Joe Roy makes the decisions about what Waxman can and cannot do. But the principal has taken pains not to butt heads with Waxman. "Were looking for ways to have the senior year be more of a transition" by having the students complete internships outside of school, Roy says in his rolled-up shirt sleeves from the discomfort of his office, where the air conditioning isnt working on this warm spring morning. Waxman is "probably the person to most take advantage of it, to have the most beneficial, educational real-world experience," Roy says.
It doesn't even bother Roy that Waxman's attitude toward school is: "I understand that you've got to go through the motions to go to college."
Roy says, "He found this burning interest to be involved in these issues in the quote, real world, and I think the more he got into that, the less relevant traditional schoolwork seemed. But that happens with different people at different times. I pride myself on being flexible so kids can do different things to try to meet their interests."
Roy suspects that his flexibility caught Waxman off guard. In the principal's estimation, "because he wants to fight for his social causes, sometimes I feel like he's been disappointed that he hasn't gotten more resistance." When Waxman petitioned to take his junior-year tests early to attend an activist training program, Roy says, "I almost got the sense that he was a little disappointed that I was so willing to say, Yeah, great. We can work that out.' I think he was expecting a little more of an argument."
Roy has found that the easiest way to mollify Waxman is by not fighting with him. When their freewheeling political discussion in the main office turned to the Middle East, Waxman complained about the student-run Israeli Advocacy Group drumming him out over his pro-Palestinian sympathies. "The best advocacy for Israelis [would be to propose] a just settlement between Israelis and Palestinians," Waxman says. Roy nips the argument in the bud with two words: "I agree."
Roy also defused a situation with Waxman after the state legislature passed a law requiring school administrators to notify parents if their child did not stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Waxman, who refuses to stand on Quaker grounds and is on a first-name basis with the ACLU's top Pennsylvania attorney, was concerned. Roy says Waxman "just talked to me in the hall about that. He said, What are you going to do? How's the school going to handle that?' And I told him we would handle it on a case-by-case basis," Roy says with a devious smile. (At the conclusion of the interview, the principal revisited the subject of the Pledge of Allegiance, saying, "I want to be clear for your publication that we're going to do whatever the law requires.")
Jeff Garis, executive director of the Pennsylvania Abolitionists, has his own version of the Pledge flap. Speaking from the group's modest West Philadelphia headquarters (from which Garis lives upstairs), the director explains that Waxman took on his principal when the statehouse passed the Pledge of Allegiance law and ended up cutting a deal with him. Waxman agreed not to make a stink about the new Pledge policy (which the ACLU of Pennsylvania is challenging in court) if the principal would excuse him from many of his school responsibilities so he could pursue his activism from his downtown office. "The principal cut a deal to shut him up," Garis said. "They set up a kind of work-release program." With a smile, Garis described Waxman as "[Attorney General] John Ashcroft's worst nightmare -- a high-school student who knows his constitutional rights."
Waxman dismisses this story as a John Henry-esque tall tale in which he is cast as the baby born with a bullhorn in his hand. "That never happened. I think Jeff's making things up," Waxman said flatly.
In actuality, Waxman concedes, "my principal is pretty cool."
If Roy is not the antagonist Waxman wishes he would be, Peggy Zehner is. Zehner was Waxmans junior-year AP American history teacher and the two developed a friendly but combative rapport early on. Zehner knew Waxman from the Youth and Government Club; she was the faculty adviser while Waxman was the president. Though the two never saw eye to eye on politics -- Zehner is a conservative Republican -- they always got along.
"It was a small class of people I'd known forever," Waxman says of the history course. "And there was always this joke. She was teaching about a massacre. She was teaching us about a confrontation between colonizers or the settlers' and the indigenous populations of the United States and she listed how many of these colonizers or settlers' were killed. And I raised my hand -- this was the very beginning of the class, this was the first lesson about the Indians vs. the settlers -- and I raise my hand and say, How many Native Americans were killed in that confrontation?' And that sort of set the stage. It became a joke ongoing in the class every time I'd ask a question, What about the labor movement?' What about the fact that there was slavery?' It was always, Ms. Zehner, how many Indians were killed?'"
In school, Waxman plays the cocky gadfly character common to most senior classes. Jeremy Curtiss, a classmate who has worked with Waxman on some antiwar activities, says, "A lot of people take him very seriously, myself being one of them, [but] I do know people who are kind of like, Oh, great, he's bringing up issues again.'"
Like anyone who wears his politics on his sleeve, Waxman gets a reaction from his classmates. Those who agree with Waxman tend to like him and people who disagree with him tend to find him annoying. As Sarah Smith, a senior who has taken a number of classes with Waxman over the years, says, "Ben, he's just, I don't want to say he's opinionated because opinionated can have a negative connotation, but in some ways he is. Sometimes that goes over well and sometimes that doesn't depending on who the other person is hearing it."
Cindy Lowe, who founded the Israeli Advocacy Group, does not dislike Waxman, but she has had her run-ins with him over the years. Like the time Waxman sent a pro-Palestinian e-mail to the Israeli Advocacy Group's list. "One time we kind of got into a little mishap I guess. He sent a pro-Palestinian [e-mail] to my entire Israel club. I took him off my mailing list and I wrote him back explaining that I started this as a pro-Israel club and it's fine if he has different opinions but I'd prefer if he didn't send them to people who've identified themselves with my group."
With his school time now limited to two hours a day, many students who don't know Waxman well wonder what happened to him. According to his twin brother, Adam, many students think he doesn't go to school anymore.
But wherever Waxman's spending his time, he's a huge and at times difficult presence in his brother's life. Adam calls Ben "inspiring" but says it can sometimes be difficult to be his brother. "I feel like my needs are secondary to his when he needs to, like, use the phone."
According to Ben, his twin is "a normal high-school student. He goes to peace demonstrations but he's also going to the sock hop. Some sophomore asked him to the sock hop. He's like normal." Apparently, the sophomore was so eager to ask Adam to the sock hop that she endured the innumerable busy signals. As for Waxman and dating, he tries to dismiss questioning with a cryptic "I do all right," but later reveals he is seeing a 20-year-old Columbia University student originally from Mt. Airy.
As far as personal subjects go, Waxman is more open talking about his religion than his love life. As that quintessentially Philly combination, the Jewish Quaker -- his father is Jewish, his mother was raised Catholic but became Quaker before Ben was born -- Waxman says he draws at times on the deliberative approach of Judaism and at other times from the moral absolutism of Quakerism. For example, he is a pacifist, but not for the usual Quaker reasons. "I am a pacifist but not on moralistic grounds," Waxman says. "I believe that bullying and violence is not a very useful way of solving problems. Its more on a pragmatic ground in that in the course of human history, weve tried to use violence as a means to solve problems and its been a wholly ineffective way of building safety and security."
Unlike many dour activists, Waxman is only morally serious to a point. On eating meat: "I'm not entirely convinced it's ethical," he says as he gleefully pops another piece of sausage into his mouth at the greasy spoon near his office.
Principal-ed objection: Waxman argues with high
school principal Joe Roy in the main office.
Despite his generally amiable manner, not everyone in Philly activist circles is a Waxman fan. Because of his age and the small world that is Philadelphia activism, no one wanted to badmouth him on the record -- it would be like trying a juvenile as an adult. But some found him truly insufferable, claiming he was brought into meetings because of the novelty of his age rather than the depth of his understanding of the issues or of political strategy. While no one bats an eyelash at an activist who's a year or two older (just another college radical), graying '60s-movement people fawn over Waxman. Photographer Harvey Finkel says, "I'm an old-timer, so it's great to see an up-and-comer." While the sentiment is sweet, one could understand why it might make a 20-something activist who's toiling in obscurity somewhat nauseous.
According to the Pennsylvania Abolitionists Garis, an unabashed Waxman booster, while the young activist started out laughably naive, he is coming to understand how to apply political pressure in the real world. At Waxmans first Abolitionists meeting, when he was a freshman in high school, he showed up in a tie while other activists were wearing their usual ragged clothes. Garis says, "He was just so idealistic. He was pushing this idea -- hes going to kill me for telling you this story -- it was our first meeting and he said we should meet with politicians and assume that they want the death penalty to be abolished but theyre afraid [of a constituent backlash] and want some political cover. Lets ask them what we can do to make it easier for them to do this." The underlying assumption, that politicians all have their hearts in the right place, was absurd, as was the assumption that this tiny nonprofit had anything to give them. "Everyone just looked at him and burst out laughing."
Since then, Waxman's learned to dress down and become more realistic about Pennsylvania politicians, but Garis says, "Sometimes, just to give him a hard time, we say, Remember that first meeting when you came in wearing a tie and told us the politicians all want to do the right thing.'"
While Waxman is developing a more realistic political outlook, he still often finds himself the most idealistic person in the room. At a legislative strategy session in Councilman Ortiz's City Hall office, everyone at the meeting except for Waxman was unified in their belief that Ortiz would have to hold off on his resolution to repeal the civil liberties-busting USA Patriot Act until the Iraq situation had moved off the front pages. As Ortiz staffer Raymond Alvarez remembers, "Ben, of course, was very passionate about it. At all costs, he wanted to go forward, but politically it wouldn't be the right thing to do."
But Waxman appears to be in the early stages of learning how to use political leverage. After concluding his interview for this article, Principal Joe Roy ran into Waxman outside his office. Waxman quickly revisited his favorite argument with Roy -- the one over why he couldn't indiscriminately cover the hallways with posters for his out-of-school meetings and protests. The principal explained for the umpteenth time that he has designated two bulletin boards for non-school-sponsored groups and Waxman insisted for the umpteenth time that they are insufficient for getting his message out. (The principal points out that he has to balance free-speech considerations with favoring school-sponsored groups, explaining that allowing non-school groups to poster wherever they pleased would theoretically open up the school walls to groups like the KKK.) Seeing that he was yet again losing the argument, Waxman blurted out, "But we have press here." It didn't help.
But when it comes to public relations, Waxman is hardly tone-deaf. When a campaign staffer for Councilman Ortiz invited him to fundraiser at a bar, the underage Waxman declined. "I figured it was just another scandal that Ortiz didn't need." First driving without a license, then turning an 18-year-old loose on an open bar?
In the fall, Waxman will be an entering freshman at Juniata College in central Pennsylvania, where he is looking forward to designing his own course of study in international politics. Waxman applied to a number of non-traditional schools and got into the prestigious New School in Greenwich Village, but Juniata put together the best financial aid package. In addition to the full tuition, room and board and $1,000 stipend, Waxman recently won a $4,000 scholarship from the ACLUs national office in recognition of his anti-death penalty activism. According to the ACLU, the award is given to "students who demonstrate a strong commitment to civil liberties through a commitment to activism."
Sara Mullen, who heads the ACLU's Philadelphia chapter and nominated Waxman for the national award, says, "He's ridiculous. We have some good volunteers but he's just amazing. I think Ben could rule the world in the end if he wanted to. Though I couldn't see him working for a government."
Waxman balks at making predictions. "Obviously things change. Who knows what'll happen. I may become a Republican or something," he says with a grin. "I would say it's highly likely that I'll get back involved." Jeff Garis of the Pennsylvania Abolitionists is already giving him anti-death penalty contacts in Central Pennsylvania. "He's going to be in the state, so this summer when we phase out his [paid youth organizer] position, we'll put him back on the board," Garis says.
Philadelphia Arab-American Association president Marwan Kreidie speaks for many local activists when he says, "I'm just excited about where he's going to be in five years when he gets more experience. If he's doing this much at this age, watch out!"
On seeing Waxman in action, Councilman Ortiz says simply: "It restores hope."