Sunday, June 08, 2008

Backed Against the Wall

This is a photoblog from the student sit-in I visited at Evergreen State College.

Students for a Democratic Society at Evergreen has been suspended for not following guidelines set out by the school's administration in the wake of the February 14th Dead Prez "Valentine's Day Riot". That night the Olympia police attacked demonstrators and a police vehicle was subsequently overturned and its equipment stolen. Two Evergreen student groups, The Hip Hop Congress and Students for a Democratic Society (groups which brought Dead Prez to the school and were unfavorably linked to the riot), have since been under investigation by the Olympia Police Department.

When you walk to the floor where the sit-in is taking place, you are greeted with a sign that says "Welcome to People's University". Each night of the sit-in SDS has organized speakers, teachers, musicians, and other community organizers to speak on topics of interest: when I was present I listened to SDS students lead workshops on, for instance, the queer movement growing away from its radical roots from the Stonewall riots to its more whitewashed and complacent position in contemporary society; an eye-witness account of 'first-responder' anarchist street medics during post-Katrina New Orleans shortly after FEMA's fallout; and a discussion about the "Sanctuary City" project to make Olympia a sanctuary city for both GI war resisters and undocumented workers.

"People's University": a concept that invokes the openness of free education that the Evergreen SDS group is striving towards. Students here are listening to a supportive professor and long-time SDS member Pete Bohmer speak about the history of student sit-ins and strikes worldwide from 1968 to 2001. He also gave a concise history of activism at Evergreen.

The sit-in was called two weeks ago when SDS was notified of its suspension (until January 2009) from the college due its apparent non-compliance with Evergreen's new moratorium on concerts and other events that may benefit non-Evergreen organizations, musicians and speakers.

Since the SDS events were previously approved before the Dead Prez incident, and other Evergreen events which did not follow the new guidelines were allowed to happen, the SDS group decided this was hypocrisy and staged a "sit-in" in front the Office of the Vice President of Student Affairs, Art Constantino, and called for the group's status to be reinstated immediately.

At one point during my visit Prof. Pete Bohmer said something that made everyone chuckle. He mentioned an event that gave a bit of insight into the campus culture at Evergreen. In 1999 there was some controversy at the school regarding Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther and death row inmate who was charged with killing a police officer and now writes on crime and punishment in a police state. He was scheduled to speak at their graduation ceremony, and this was heavily protested by the Fraternal Order of Police and other organization. But he was, after all, voted in by the students to speak.

Around the nation police departments were outraged, and a number of police officers staged a protest outside the graduation ceremony itself. The message Mr. Abu-Jamal gave the students that day was: use your degree to become a revolutionary. Faculty members at one point asked somewhat humorously whether graduation ceremonies at Evergreen could ever just be exempt from the rest of the highly-politicized atmosphere on the campus during the academic year. In Washington D.C. on the same day of the graduation, a group of conservative activists marched the streets and protested the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. At the same time Mr. Abu-Jamal's speech was being broadcast from his penitentiary in Pennsylvania.

A student participating in the sit-in is pictured here doing her homework in front of Art Constantino's office. SDS and supportive students have slept in the halls and stairways of the administration's building for two weeks. Last Tuesday about 150 people crammed the fourth floor of the building to hear Kimya Dawson, an anti-folk singer and song-writer. Dozens of sleeping bags and books are spread out in the stairwell each night. Each day they commute to class and return to the sit-in for more congregation.

Evergreen SDS taped a list of demands and their meeting notes from each day on the door of Art Constantino's office. Their first demand is the only demand, to my knowledge, that is being negotiated with the administration. There are seven demands altogether.

I was told that one faculty member, Frank Fatseas, does not like SDS at all. He says they're a bunch of "Bolsheviks". His office is just down the hall from Art Constantino's, and the SDS students who see him everyday said there is no end to the sort of fun-and-games rivalry between him and the students.

One SDS student, Kelly Beckham, was fired from her job at campus security for being too close to the students participating in the sit-in. Here she is discussing with other SDS students the implications of the new negotiations and her position on the Evergreen security staff.

Jonathan Steiner was one of the students whose records were handed over by the college to the Olympia Police Department for investigation. He was severely beaten and hospitalized by Olympia PD at the start of the Dead Prez incident, but said he was still accused of overturning the police vehicles which happened significantly later. At that point he was laying in a hospital bed, he said, and couldn't have been involved.

One of SDS's contentions is that Evergreen had no reason to submit to a flawed subpoena demanding Jonathan's and other students' private information, and they demand that no more students' information be willfully handed over in such a manner. Another demand involves Kelly Beckham's status as an employee with campus Police Services.

Here is one of the many posters around the campus. This one condemns the police suppression of graffiti culture. One Evergreen student who was raped a few months ago began creating anti-rape graffiti and posters after the incident. A number of students believe the walls provide ample space for democratic dialogue and discussion. The police disagree.

This last week has been more hopeful for SDS, however. The Evergreen administration decided to talk with SDS members in private to discuss the group's possible reinstatement. According to the students involved the talks seem to be going well. There has been heavy media pressure, significant student support, and any of these factors might have contributed to the administration's willingness to discuss matters with the students.

The administration declined to speak with me about the suspension of SDS or the negotiations, however. At this point, they said, they don't want to jeopardize what progress is being made at the moment. I was not sure what this meant, exactly, since I have no idea what the administration means by progress. Ostensibly, this means ending the sit-in.

From what SDS at Evergreen has told me, the administration is only asking that SDS acknowledges their violation of Evergreen policies: the concert moratorium, the people's university, etc. If SDS acknowledges this, they may be reinstated. But it is unclear whether the college wants SDS to recognize these rules as legitimate or not, and unclear whether this requires an apology for breaking the rules.

At any rate, Friday was the last day of school at Evergreen, and many students will be leaving Olympia shortly. Naturally, a summertime sit-in might be unproductive. Where SDS is going from here the pictures cannot tell.

It appears as though SDS, which two weeks ago was back against the wall at Evergreen, is now gaining some of its student activities privileges back. Being a recognized part of campus is integral to a functioning student group, and at the same time integral to this student-based activist movement. Several students wondered whether they really needed to be a campus "student group" at Evergreen, but if they are not it means they cannot host any events or use Evergreen facilities for activism. Other students argued if their suppression ignored, it would have been a slippery slope towards further suppression of free speech at The Evergreen State College.

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