Student Power and the Sit-in at Evergreen

written by SDSers and sit-in particpants Brendan Maslauskas Dunn, KTeeO Olejnik, Brooke Stepp, and Jamie Hellerman

May 30th marked the 10th day of the sit-in of Evergreen State College administrator Art Costantino’s hallway. Students are demanding the immediate reinstatement of Olympia SDS and have recently added the additional demands that Kelly Beckham, an SDSer be offered her job back as well as compensation for time lost, and a change in the process by which student groups lose their RSO (Registered Student Organization) status that is determined by those most affected, the students and members of these organizations.

The banning of SDS as a student group is an indication of the current political climate at The Evergreen State College, one that has been increasingly suppressing student dissent, which includes the aiding of law enforcement agents in the arresting of students, the handing over of student records to law enforcement agencies, punishing students for their political beliefs and activities. This includes the firing of Kelly Beckham and the firing of students who were allegedly involved in the events of February 14th, but who have not been convicted or even charged as well as the selective enforcement of a “concert moratorium. The Evergreen State College is also on a path of becoming increasingly more mainstream which is pushing the college in a direction contrary to its original mission statement. The students sitting-in want to see an end to all of this.

Olympia SDS, which formed in May 2006, was suspended as a student group following a series of events slated for March 7th. The first event was a panel discussion on the San Francisco 8 to discuss issues of torture, police and government repression, COINTELPRO, the Black Panther Party and political prisoners. The second event was a folk show with musical artists David Rovics, Danny Kelly and Mark Eckert to raise awareness about anti-war activist Carlos Arredondo whose twenty-year-old son Marine Lance Corporal Alexander Arredondo was killed in Iraq.

Just two days before the events were to take place, the administration decided to cancel both events using the moratorium on concerts (created after the Valentine’s Day rebellion) to cancel both the folk show and the panel discussion. Members of SDS consulted with the musicians, panelists, and community members who helped organize the events and decided to go through with them to honor the wishes of all involved and because SDSers felt their group was being targeted by the administration and this was a matter of free speech. In addition, members of SDS and many other students not in the group approached administrators Phyllis Lane and Les Purce to try and go through with these events. But the administrators did not listen.

The events were a success but the administration came down hard on SDS following March 7th. The group found itself suspended until 2009. This meant that SDS lost their several thousand dollar budget, access to school equipment, resources and facilities, and the ability to host events and meetings on campus. SDS went through the appeals process established through the school and had their punishment slightly lowered. The last appeal was held on March 21st and SDSers are still awaiting the final decision from this appeal.

A Free Speech Rally was also held on the day of the last appeal at Evergreen where 150 students and college workers (staff and faculty) gathered in Red Square for the rally. Speakers from SDS, MEChA, Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador and the Evergreen Animal Rights Network spoke about the free speech fight at Evergreen and made connections to political repression in the Green Scare, against MEChA in the Southwest and the FMLN in El Salvador.

When the rally ended students marched toward Vice President of Student Affairs Art Costantino’s office in the Sem 1 building. He was outside of the building instead of in his office. Students confronted him and chanted “Free Speech!” and “Reinstate SDS!”. Students attempted to have adiscussion with him, but Art refused and walked away. The students then decided to march up the stairs in the Sem 1 building and sit-in outside of his office. Around 60 students started the sit-in.

Since then, students have been taking shifts in the hallway, with numbers ranging from just a few to well over 20 at times. Banners and signs hang from the windows and walls that say “Student Power”, “Occupied by Students: Reinstate SDS!”, “Free Speech” and “Welcome to People’s University”. SDSers and other sit-in participants decided to use the sit-in tactic as a last resort because all other options have been exhausted. Costantino in particular was heavily involved with the decision to suspend SDS and has spearheaded this most recent crackdown on political activists, free speech and academic freedom.

The space that the sit-in participants are occupying has been transformed into what is being called “People’s University”. It’s a space where students have more control and wield more decision-making power over their education and their lives. Classes started on Memorial Day, which the police and administration wanted cancelled, and have continued throughout the week with a series of workshops, teach-ins and film screenings covering a variety of issues from radical queer history, radical labor history, post-Katrina New Orleans, lockboxes and prisoner support. Alumnae, college workers, community members, veterans and people from as far as Tacoma and Seattle have stopped by to show their support, including Ed Mead and Mark Cook, former political prisoners and members of the George Jackson Brigade.

Efforts like the People’s University that seek to increase student power are just part of the broader vision sit-in participants have begun to think about. Among one of the largest achievements so far is that this has become more than simply another SDS event. This is about all of us. The sit-in has proved to be a space where more and new people can get involved in fighting for social justice. It’s about more than just SDS. The vision of building student power at The Evergreen State College is a guide for our practice and for our action. Sit-in participants approach this vision with the realization that this task is complex and is going to take time and hard work. These aren’t things that are going to happen overnight, but will hopefully happen slowly, over time, and in a way that gets people’s needs met while also challenging the power structures that oppress us all and providing meaningful alternatives to these structures. This means we are building the world we want to see in the here and now, in ways that push boundaries and get to the root of the problems we see facing us. As students, we are see ourselves as part of this process and because of this, want to see a democratization of Evergreen with those who are most affected having the most say in the decisions that get made here.

Among other things, this vision also calls for a radical commitment to environmental sustainability, dismantling structures at the college that reinforce violence and racism, finding an alternative to the police at Evergreen, fighting for collective liberation and increasing the decision-making power of those who are most affected by decisions that are currently made at Evergreen. A broader Vision Statement is being crafted currently and will be released to the public soon.

The outcome of the sit-in is uncertain, but what is certain that the entire process of the sit-in has not only empowered people but has built some tangible level of student power at Evergreen, however small it has been thus far. The struggle is long and will take a lot of work, but SDSers and others at the sit-in are up to the task.