From advocating for wage increases for the Department of Public Safety officers to protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this year has been marked by a surge of student activism on campus, with many choosing to hold public rallies or demonstrations to draw attention to their causes.
According to James Reardon-Anderson, senior associate dean and director of undergraduate programs in the School of Foreign Service, peaceful protest and the ensuing dialogue is a large part of being a student at a university.
“When students care enough to get active about something, generally speaking, it’s a good sign. Sometimes it gets a little bit excessive, but that is just the way people are. This is a democracy and you have to allow for a certain amount of give and take,” Reardon-Anderson said.
One particularly highly public demonstration was the protest organized by Plan A: Students for Reproductive Justice during one of the Georgetown Admissions Ambassador Program Open House Weekend in March. Supporters chained themselves to the statue of John Carroll in Healy Circle, shouted chants and passed out fliers to current members of the Georgetown community as well as many prospective students. While some prospective families said they did not support the protest, many said they viewed it as a sign that Georgetown students are active on campus.
“It gives a perspective to a potential student as to how their voices will be heard, given that there is an opportunity to protest. It feels good that groups are comfortable expressing themselves to the administration,” prospective parent Lesli Adams of Anaheim, Calif., said to THE HOYA on March 27.
Bryan Woll (COL ’12), president of Georgetown University College Democrats, agreed. He said that the expression of a diversity of opinions is integral to a democratic society and an academic community.
“There seems to be the general aversion to all things [similar to] public disturbance, things not common place, people making their voices heard in a loud way. The fact that people are uncomfortable about that is something we should get beyond,” Woll said.
The student activism may indicate that Georgetown students, in particular, have a heightened awareness of issues within the community.
“Georgetown students have a very strong sense of social responsibility. That’s part of what we work to imbed in our students. That is something we find to be a very attractive quality,” Scott Fleming, associate vice president for federal relations, said.
But there are many who believe that there is a careful line between productive discussion and disrespect. According to Reardon-Anderson, protest goes too far if there is ever violence or the threat of violence. Others believe that activism takes an adverse form when it infringes on others’ right to free speech.
“Students are not only allowed to express their views but also encouraged to do so,” Will Downes (COL ’11) said. “As a general rule, you have the right of freedom of expression and protest, but not at the expense of others’ right to free speech.”
Those who protested at Gen. David Petraeus’ address in Gaston Hall on Jan. 21 were criticized along these lines by many members of the Georgetown community.
A groups of students, led by Jon Askonas (SFS ’13), organized to form Students for Respectful Dialogue and co-hosted a counterprotest in reaction to the anti-war protests.
“Our issue wasn’t with their message. Our message to them was, You are hurting yourself if you are attacking someone else’s free speech to promote your own,” Askonas said. “It makes yourself look bad.”
Chessa Gross (SFS ’10), a participant in the counterprotest, ultimately deemed the demonstration
successful because they were able to effectively convey their message.
“I think the issue with the negative reaction to the Petraeus protests was the assumption that this speech was intended to be dialogue. Petraeus’ `strategic engagement’ speech to promote the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan was not planned as a dialogue,” Gross said. “This was planned as a propaganda event with canned responses to audience questions – by no means is that a `dialogue.'”
any of the protests this year, including the call for a wage raise for DPS officers to improve student safety and Georgetown Divest!, a coalition seeking to persuade the university to divest from companies that violate human rights in Israel and Palestine, demanded response and action from the university administration.
“The university supports the right of everyone in our community to make their views known in a dignified manner,” Director of Media Relations Andy Pino said. “To that end, we offer numerous avenues where our students and members of our faculty and staff can provide insight and input on decisions that affect nearly every aspect of university life.”
In that sense, many of the campaigns have been successful. Plan A was granted a meeting with administrators and continues to engage in productive discussion with the university. And while a compromise has not been reached, LaMarr Billups, assistant vice president for business policy planning, has responded to the concerns of the Divest! coalition.
“To a certain degree, a campus has to tolerate some space there,” Reardon-Anderson said. “[A university] can certainly impose its rules and so forth, but it doesn’t want to be too draconian,” he said.
The push for a DPS wage raise also had real, tangible results. According to Gross, a member of Georgetown Solidarity Committee, new officers were being paid about $15 per hour – lower than any other university safety officer in the District, who largely receive about $18 or $19 per hour. When their contract came up for negotiation, the university offered them a raise of 40 cents.
“They came to us because they were in a bind,” Gross said. “They were under a university gag order against publicly advocating for themselves. In the end, it was students and officers fighting together that made a wage raise possible.”
After writing to the administration, hosting a rally on campus, and engaging in a silent protest during negotiations, the supporters were able to publicize their opinions. In the end, the officers were ultimately granted a raise of $2.50.
While the lasting impact of these campaigns and the future of this trend of student activism is uncertain, the demonstrations have captured the attention of the Georgetown community, fulfilling the ultimate goal of the student participants.
“I am actually attracted to protest,” Reardon-Anderson said, “just to see what students think about and are concerned about.”