Aaron Kraus was on the second day of his vigil in front of the Annapolis State House yesterday, and already his body was taking on the authentic patina of protest -- chin scraggly with a new beard, jeans browned by park-bench grime, a slightly overripe odor released by the hot spring breeze.
It had been more than 30 hours since his last meal, and the 21-year-old student was determined to continue his hunger strike for as long as it took to draw attention to his cause, like so many young activists who have stormed the barricades for animal rights or drug-law changes or an end to war.
Except that Kraus was agitating for something a little more arcane: an override of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s veto of House Bill 1188, a measure to boost state funding of public universities while restraining tuition increases.
And it was no mere sense of mission that sent him down the path of protest. It was also, he figured, his job. As the newly elected president of the University of Maryland Student Government Association.
"I thought this would be a perfect metaphor for higher education in Maryland," Kraus said of his hunger strike. "We're trying to get legislators thinking about how this impacts our generation."
On most college campuses, the student government types are the straight arrows, the politicians in training, working through mainstream channels to make nice with the administration and the outside world. And so it generally was at Maryland.
But over the past year or so, student leaders on the College Park campus have taken an increasingly aggressive approach in their dealings with Annapolis, staging a series of highly theatrical protests against state budget cuts that have led to sharp tuition increases across Maryland.
First came the "funeral" in March 2003, in which a group of student politicos and the university's terrapin mascot, Testudo, played pallbearers for a coffin symbolizing "the death of higher education" in front of the State House.
Two months later, a former student government vice president, Eric Swalwell, donned a thick black wig and Hawaiian shirt and called himself "Bahama Bob" to mock the vacationing governor. Later that spring, then-student government President Tim Daly dragged a 1980 Ford Pinto to the governor's mansion and stood atop it with a bullhorn decrying a comment by Ehrlich (R) implying that the state could afford only a low-budget level of social services.
Daly returned that summer to stage a parody game show he called "Wheel of Misfortune," where students answered questions about tuition increases and layoffs. And so on through the year, culminating with Daly's intentionally outrageous Michael Moore-style documentary portraying his failed attempts to get Ehrlich's attention.
Kraus's hunger strike, which began Monday, paid off quickly in terms of attracting attention: The Baltimore Sun wrote about it before he started, and most of the region's TV news stations paid him a visit within hours of his last bagel.
The push toward such media-driven stunts has triggered a debate among student leaders. Ehrlich canceled a meeting with Daly, and a group of University of Maryland, Baltimore County students who had previously collaborated with Daly publicly split with him this spring, saying they found his tactics immature and unprofessional. Yesterday, Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said that "while the governor respects the commitment of university students, he questions how productive these stunts are."
"It's a nice way to bring media into the debate, but I don't think policymakers look at [such tactics] as a legitimate argument," said Dan Purcell, a senior at U-Md. who served last year as chairman of the council of student leaders that advises the state university system Board of Regents. "It's equivalent to a 5-year-old in a shopping mall telling his mother he's going to hold his breath."
But other student leaders say they believed they had to take an aggressive stand after perceiving that their traditional lobbying efforts were falling short. "It's hard to sit at a table with people who look at you like you're just a student," said Kelaine Conochan, who ran a bitter battle against Kraus for president but nonetheless applauds his hunger strike.
Kraus, meanwhile, was finally beginning to question his health. "I don't feel very good," he said somewhat giddily after weathering a sleepless night on the streets of Annapolis. "And I don't expect to feel any better in upcoming days."
How long would it go on? Kraus said he had no particular plan. Still, he added, "I think the [Associated Press] reporter put it pretty well. . . ."
And with that, Kraus pulled a few papers out of his backpack and scanned through the media clippings of the previous 24 hours. Then he answered the question by reading his own quote:
" 'When I start to pass out, it's time to call it quits.' "