Seven students, including four Emory graduate students, two students from Georgia State University and one student from Georgia Tech, were arrested on grounds of trespassing on Monday, April 25 after remaining in what became known as “Tent City” for roughly five days. The students had been camping out on the Quad in protest of Emory’s relationship with Sodexo, the University’s subcontracted and primary food service provider, based on allegations of labor and workers’ rights abuses.
The incidence has resulted in mixed reactions — some members of the community have argued that the arrests were justified, while others have expressed anger that the administration resorted to such extremes. We feel that the administration both could and should have responded in a different manner. Admittedly, the administration acted within its rights when it ordered the arrest of the protestors. However, the technicalities of the issue still do not mean that arresting students was the right decision to make. We believe that the arrests were a fundamental mistake and demonstrated a lack of judgement and imaginative problem-solving on the part of the administration; the arrests should have been an absolute last resort after all other approaches failed.
But it seems that few other measures were explored. First, the protesters were not given adequate information concerning the consequences that could follow their decision to remain on the Quad. During the course of the five days, the administration issued no demands for the students vacate the Quad, nor did they provide warnings about the possibility of arrests until the day of the arrests. During the less-publicized sit-in protest on April 20 in the administration building, SWS protesters were given consistent and fair warning throughout the protest as to what remaining in the building after hours would entail. In the case of the camp-out protest, however, students were only given abrupt, short-notice warning that they would be arrested if they did not leave their tents shortly before the actual arrests took place.
In letters addressed to the Emory community, the administration has held that it became necessary for the protestors to vacate the Quad in order for staff to set up for commencement on May 9. Given that commencement was still nearly two weeks away on the evening that the students were arrested, we doubt that the availability of the section of the Quad occupied by protestors was truly an overwhelming necessity at the time. Given the information at hand, we do not believe that this reason can serve as adequate justification for the arrests.
Furthermore, why the administration chose to resort to the arrest of its own students instead of using other possible solutions comes under further question based on video-documented communication between the two sides. One video shows Roger Sikes, a student who was arrested, attempting to negotiate with Gary Hauk, vice president of the University, by explaining that he and the remaining protesters would leave the Quad if the administration would commit itself to open dialogue with the Emory and local communities on the Sodexo controversy and workers rights at Emory. This is not an unreasonable request — and if it were, the administration would not have since organized its May 11 open meeting with interested students and faculty.
In an email sent to the entire Emory community, University President James Wagner stated what was at stake was “the right of members of our academic community to hear from each other, determine the validity of what they hear, and then respond in a way that guarantees that their own response will be respected. That right to come to a conclusion and live by it, even when differences cannot be fully resolved, is violated when one side in an argument insists that only its perspective is correct, and that it is worth disrupting the life of the community in an attempt for its perspective to win out.”
We agree with this statement fully. We find, however, that this message is somewhat hypocritical coming from administrators who ended the discussion when they ordered the arrest of peaceful protestors. Individuals who are protesting, regardless of whether others identify with their cause or not, are not participating in an illegitimate form of expression. However, by treating the protest as such, the administration does simply appear as if it is shirking responsibility and avoiding the issue at hand.
While we criticize the arrest of the students, we do understand why the administration might have felt that it had no other option, if it believed that SWS was presenting only extreme, unrealistic demands. Students are aware that SWS has not been the most unified organization. In fact, it has no executive board or leadership, leading to the existence of too many factions with various objectives within SWS.
Some think the group’s main issue is cutting the contract with Sodexo altogether, some feel it is putting Sodexo under close University control, others complain about Sodexo management and still others feel the main issue is workers’ health care and wages. Beneath all of the emotionally-charged demands that come from these groups within SWS, the main message of SWS becomes incoherent.
Even SWS’s response to the arrests lacked a unified message. Some within SWS blamed the police, others the administration, while others did not know who to blame; as a result, they seemed to blame everyone. The mass emails that undoubtedly many in the Emory community received from members of SWS following the arrests demonstrate this: Multiple emails were sent, several were pages long and each resembled statements already made in previous emails from other members.
While we certainly do not condone what the administration did in response to the protest on the Quad, we understand how a history of muddled communication between the administration and SWS may have prevented the administration from hearing the more moderate and feasible proposals SWS presented. The University seems to believe that SWS would only accept radical concessions, while SWS states that it is willing to compromise — better communication may have prevented this entire ordeal.
This does not mean SWS and the administration should be compared on the same level. Ultimately, administrators should be held to a higher degree of responsibility as representatives of the University and members of a team meant to serve students. While some administrators and staff members involved remained silent and seemed displeased with the arrests, others acted disrespectfully toward students. In one video, when asked why signs created by SWS had been torn down, Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life John Ford repeatedly states, “I don’t care what you heard,” before declaring, “this conversation is over” and walking away. We do not charge all administrators with these types of responses, but we believe this demeanor is insulting to students and injurious to the ideals of open dialogue and communication that should be promoted on this campus.
Perhaps the best party in all of this is the faculty. Members of the faculty are circulating a petition stating that what the administration did was wrong, that it should drop the charges against the students and that it should commit to an open dialogue. This is the most unified message we have heard throughout this entire process, and we hope that faculty members who have yet to sign, as well as the administration, seriously consider the proposals stated in the petition as a starting point for moving forward in the future.
The above staff editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s editorial board.