Last April the Emory administration used police to forcibly remove seven student protestors from campus. A year later, the administration is actively pursuing criminal charges against the same students. This prosecution is unnecessary. Nothing in the events of last spring demand continued punitive action. The administration and the board of trustees should reconsider their actions and drop the criminal charges. Emory ought to be a place where non-violent protest is met in kind, and not with physical and legal force.
For those who were not on campus last year, the events in question occurred in the final weeks of the 2011 spring semester. Seven student protestors, including graduate students from the Philosophy Department and the Institute for Liberal Arts, were arrested on the Emory quad. These students, members of the group Students and Workers in Solidarity (SWS), had camped in front of the administration building in a proto-Occupy tent city for several days.
The aim was to coax the administration into addressing the poor labor practices of several university sub-contractors, the most visible being food service provider Sodexo. On the evening of April 25, the students were arrested and the protest dispersed. Much still needs to be done to address labor abuses on campus, but then as now, community attention quickly focused on the arrests themselves rather than the labor issues that led to the protest. The arrests sparked a discussion about the use of police on campus. Even those who believed the administration had acted within its rights had to question if arrest was the appropriate response. Many believed, myself included, that the use of police force was excessive.
Petitions from faculty, grads, and undergrads quickly circulated in the days that followed calling for action and accountability. Then summer came, and interest quickly dissipated.
A year later the whole ordeal is almost forgotten. The major encampments from Woodruff Park to Wall Street have made the Emory tents seem like old news. But this April just as thoughts of SWS are waning, we must revisit them. The issues at stake in this episode have only decreased in attention, but not in importance. While campus life has moved on, the administration has been pursuing legal punishment for the arrested students.
Emory has decided to criminally charge the arrested students. The arraignment proceedings will be held on April 12, with a trial date to be established soon after. The criminal charge will be for criminal trespassing and could result in prison time. Just like the initial arrest, Emory’s seeking of additional legal punishment is a disproportionate response towards the actions of their own students.
Why is Emory the kind of place where non-violent protest is met with the risk of prison? This is bizarrely severe. The kind of protest that these students were engaged in must be taken into account. They were neither violent nor destructive, only outspoken and obstinate. The administration can certainly throw their weight and their lawyers around if they want to, but the more admirable thing to do would be to drop the charges all together. To pursue this legal option a year later shows an unsettling commitment by the administration to punish these students, and one that need not occur.
Anyone who was concerned with how the administration conducted itself last spring should revisit those concerns. The same unnecessary force used on the quad is being transferred to the courtroom. While there are no sensational pictures in The Emory Wheel this spring, these events are no less startling. The administration has the ability to pursue criminal charges, but I hope it has the conscience to drop them.
Alex Robins is a second year PhD student in the Philosophy Department.