Hofstra debate spurs celebration of politics, history

Preparations continue for the presidential debate at Mack Preparations continue for the presidential debate at Mack Arena at Hofstra University in Hempstead, where on Oct. 16 President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney will square off during the second of three debates. (Oct. 14, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Hofstra University junior Kieran Doyle was on his way to meet his study group when he passed Theodore Roosevelt -- an actor seemingly transported from 1912 -- who urged him to cast his vote for the progressive Bull Moose Party.

"This is different," Doyle, 20, a commuter student from Garden City, said Monday. "I got off the shuttle not thinking anything and here I am in the middle of all this."

Indeed it was a different day on campus. Depending on the location, one might catch a re-enactment of history or history-in-the-making.

The campus is in both a celebratory mode and political frenzy as President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney arrive Tuesday for the second presidential debate. Hofstra said Monday that, of 1,000 people in the audience, about 300 will be students.

Nearly 2,000 people participated in Expressions of Democracy, an all-day festival of student and professional performers acting out pivotal moments in American history.

Out on Hempstead Turnpike, a real-life demonstration was under way. In front of a north campus gate, two dozen people -- half of them schoolchildren -- carried signs hoping to get on the political radar. Their statement: Gun violence and mass incarceration are among the most ignored issues of the 2012 election.

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"This is not what's talked about at all," said the Rev. Johnny Youngblood of Mount Pisgah Baptist Church of Brooklyn, one of the protesters. "Our communities are deteriorating from the inside."

The group, United We Stand USA, believes more discussion is needed on gun violence -- as seen with the deadly movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., in July -- and on a growing prison population it said includes too many young blacks and Latinos jailed for minor offenses.

"What an opportunity to really make some noise," said Jen Brunjes, 21, a senior from Massachusetts majoring in photography.

"This is really making politics fun. Imagine that."

Students, mostly eighth- and ninth-graders from 18 local schools, rotated through six performance spaces on campus, where they heard dramatic and true historical accounts of the founding of the NAACP and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Greenwich Village in 1911. That fire became a rallying cry for the labor movement.

"I wanted people to see all the events that led up to this political moment," said Lisa Merrill, creative director and professor of performance and rhetoric at Hofstra.

The performances "bring a lot of light to today's issues," said Molly Sternin, 21, a senior from Mount Laurel, N.J., majoring in history and secondary education, who watched the shows with great interest.

Sternin took the opportunity to talk about the election of 1912 with Teddy Roosevelt.

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"One hundred years later and these themes are recurring," she said.

Classes were in session Monday and there were some quiet, leafy pockets on campus where a student or two curled up on a bench with a textbook or an iPhone.

But even there, campus life was a bit unusual. Students in jeans and hooded sweatshirts skateboarded past television news reporters in suits. Blue barricades lined Hempstead Turnpike, and the faint drone of helicopters buzzed over the campus.

Lisa Napolitano, 45, a graduate student in creative writing from Morristown, N.J., read over an academic paper yards away from where a member of the campus Republican group denounced "Obamacare" for MTV News cameras.

"I actually thought it was going to be a lot wilder than this," Napolitano joked.

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