Hundreds of Georgetown University students signed a petition calling on the university to use its campus spaces as a sanctuary for protesters amid ongoing nationwide demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice.
Washington, D.C., has become a focal point of national unrest provoked by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer. Protests in the District entered their third week on Saturday as protesters sustain their push for drastic policing reforms and a broader reckoning about racial inequity in the United States. Black Lives Matter protesters have gathered in the Georgetown neighborhood over the past two weeks, but there have been no reports of protests on campus.
The Metropolitan Police Department and other law enforcement agencies operating in the District have used tear gas, batons and rubber bullets to disperse peacefully gathered crowds. In some cases, local residents have housed protesters being pursued by police officers.
The petition, which has garnered over 300 signatures as of June 18, demands the university utilize its campus spaces — downtown and on the Hilltop — to help shield demonstrators from police abuse.
“As an institution historically contributing to the brutality of slavery, in a city shaped by a large African-American population, and as the first Jesuit university in the nation, Georgetown should lead by example and become a sanctuary for those fighting for racial justice,” the petition reads. “We urge Georgetown to act and ethically establish its campus as a sanctuary—free from the real and anticipated violence of external police.”
Protesters have sought refuge on Georgetown’s campus in the past. On May 3, 1971, MPD officers made arrests and released tear gas after more than 3,000 protesters who were protesting the Vietnam War sought shelter on Georgetown’s campus. The university administration did not intervene. In response, then-GUSA President Roger Cochetti (SFS ’72) created Students of Georgetown Inc. to protect the rights of students and community members.
This petition, drafted by The Corp and the Georgetown University Student Association, follows student calls for the university to cut ties with the MPD and renewed demands for reform in the Georgetown University Police Department.
GUSA’s decision to sign on to the petition was influenced by the Vietnam War protests on campus, according to GUSA executive leadership.
“Georgetown, as an institution committed to social justice, must support today’s protesters just as we supported those protesting against injustice in the Vietnam War,” GUSA leadership wrote in a statement to The Hoya. “We recognize the work that Georgetown professors have done, and urge the administration to support those speaking out against the racist institutions that those professors have studied.”
University officials met with students, faculty and staff involved with the petition this week and plan to continue discussions on the matter in the future, according to a university spokesperson.
“Georgetown is committed to upholding its long-standing Speech and Expression Policy, and to promoting the free exchange of ideas and opinions as part of a safe and harassment-free university community,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hoya. “In addition, we work to provide care and support to all members of our community whether they are on or off campus.”
The university has an ethical obligation to support the protection of protesters on campus, according to AJ Williamson (COL ’21), the chair of the Georgetown University College Democrats, who signed the petition.
“If the university does not honor the demands in this petition, it will have chosen to side with systemic violence against the Black community and the repression of First Amendment rights,” Williamson wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Such a stance would be antithetical to the values of our organization, and would be antithetical to the professed values of our campus community.”
The GUSA Senate passed a resolution voicing support for the petition at its meeting June 14 in a 16-2-1 vote.
Efforts to protect students’ rights to free speech are grounded in the university’s commitment to Jesuit values, according to GUSA Senator Lucy Sonsalla (SFS ’23).
“The university would be well within its moral and legal rights to speak out against MPD, and as a Jesuit institution, Georgetown’s moral obligation is to protect those who seek sanctuary,” Sonsalla said during the meeting. “These historically Catholic values don’t have a legal foundation anymore. It’s our duty as an institution to uphold them to the threshold of legality and for many protesters, Georgetown’s their home. To remain silent to our constituents and fellow students and the Hoya family would be an attack.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that the GUSA Senate resolution supporting the petition was passed unanimously. The resolution was actually received 16 votes in favor, two against and one absentation. The article has been updated to reflect this information.