The Students' Victory: A Narrative of the Phi Psi Sit In

“Which side are you on now? Which side are you on?” The singing lilt of this inquiry from the students of Organizing for Survivors (O4S) and the Coalition to End Fraternity Violence and their allies rang throughout the now-former Phi Psi house for four days as they occupied it in an attempt to push the College to terminate the leases of the fraternities Phi Psi and Delta Upsilon. “Does it weigh on you at all?” they asked while keeping their pace with claps, the questions directed at the College administration. Over one hundred students wanted to know the answer not just to this, but to many questions following the creation of the Tumblr page “Why Swarthmore’s Fraternities Must Go” on April 3rd and the 117-page leak of the “Phi Psi Historical Archive” published and reported on by Voices and the Phoenix on April 18th. These concerns have added to the plethora of those already raised long before the now infamous spring of 2013, colloquially referred to as the  Spring of Discontent.

Entering Phi Psi

In the face of egregious misconduct and callous displays of violence allegedly enacted by members of both campus fraternities with little to no public consequence, members of the Coalition and O4S decided to take matters into their own hands on April 27th, 2019. At approximately 3:45 PM, Public Safety arrived to the former Phi Psi house to respond to a call of a student, Sarah Leonard ’21, who requested entry in order to retrieve an item lost during a weekend party. The officer who arrived, Corporal Joe Theveny, met Leonard at the door leading into the basement and, after briefly conferring, opened the door to let her inside of the house. Leonard was waiting with Liz Conca ‘21 and Emma Miller ‘22 for Public Safety to arrive. Having walked a few steps up from the doors, Leonard texted Olivia Robbins ‘21, who was waiting with nine other students at Olde Club, and as soon as they received the message, they joined her in taking the space.

Upon realizing that there were more students standing by awaiting entry into the space, Theveny attempted to bar access to the house by forcibly closing the door. Jordan Reyes ’19, a member of the Coalition, fearing the potential for the small window of opportunity they had to enter the house close before their eyes, seized the moment and wedged himself in between Officer Theveney, the door, and another student struggling to keep it open.

Reyes remembered, “It all happened so quickly... I remember just knowing that if we missed this one opportunity to get into the fraternity that we would be back at square one and all the hours of work and planning and really thorough weighing of pros and cons and consequences would all be for nothing.”

Olivia Smith ’21, a core member of O4S and a member of the Coalition to End Fraternity Violence, was present during the operation and remembered the moment of struggle for the door as being fraught. “From what I saw from the exchange between Pub Safe and people who were trying to get in was that Pub Safe was trying to close the door and keep himself [Theveney] in front of the door and others were trying to keep the door open and get through it. It wasn’t their bodies interacting with each other as much as their bodies interacting with the door.”

Reyes, whose book bag was caught between the officer and the door, was grunting and screaming through the blur of the action. “I kind of went into this mode of ‘get in and do this.’”

The air was tense as the scuffle ensued and phones were drawn from pockets with haste to document the altercation to ensure proper representation of what was occuring. Minutes passed before the door suddenly gave way and the battle was seemingly over: the students were inside.

Not missing a beat, Reyes remembered his mission and immediately ran upstairs to open the side and front doors to allow other students into the house. The stagnant air of the house became electrified with a wave of energy, but students were still feeling a mix of emotions. “When I got in, I was just in this wave of emotion of wanting to break down into tears, but also laugh, scream and cry”, Smith recalled.

Once inside, the first order of business was for students to recover and comfort one another: rounds of “Are you okay?”, “How’d you get in?” and “How are you feeling?” rolled off the students’ tongues with well-intentioned ease. Reyes reminisced fondly on their character and the nature of their response. “It was just this incredible sense of community of people who have been harmed by the fraternity for taking these risks to transform them. The tone was scared but optimistic. Scared but happy. Scared, but loving.”

Jenny Xu ‘22, recounted the situation of trying to enter after the initial ten students: “I thought the situation would be calm, but I saw Morgin [Goldberg ‘19] running in front of me suddenly, so I was running. Morgin got in through the front door, but when I got there after her the door was locked, and through the window, I saw a PubSafe officer blocking it. Someone yelled go to the back, so we all ran to the back, and got in through the back door.”

The cautious celebration would only last fifteen minutes before students were notified that Public Safety called Swarthmore Borough Police. For the large number of students of color, international students and others who were most vulnerable to the risk of arrest, this was worrisome. The historical understanding of state violence asserted against Black bodies in the United States and the threat of revocation of student visas drove a large group of these students out of the house.

Xu commented on how she and other students experienced the oncoming presence of police at this moment. “Not long after we got in, the Swarthmore Police arrived, and as an international student, I knew I can't be arrested so I was pretty scared and ran. It was sad, because of the presence of the police, all the Black, brown, and international students had to sit on the lawn,” she said. Many sought refuge in the nearby Women’s Resource Center. Hearing that a call was made to the police that had the potential to endanger students, Leonard became upset these students would inevitably have to leave for their own safety because, in her words, “it made our group less representative of all the people on campus who agree the fraternities cause harm.” With their numbers decreased, the remaining thirty students opted to stay in the house so as to secure their position, and took a stance of non-engagement with the police.

During the Sit-In

Throughout the afternoon, Swarthmore Borough Police and Public Safety maintained a presence outside of the former Phi Psi house. Members of the fraternity arrived on the scene twenty minutes after the initial call to police, where they proceeded to converse with the officers. Within the hour, over a dozen Phi Psi members were present at the site, walking freely in and around the occupied house. While outside, some of the fraternity members were both vaping and drinking in the presence of police forces. None of the Public Safety or Swarthmore Police officers attempted seriously to verify their ages, despite socializing with the brothers.

While inside, some Phi Psi members antagonized occupants of the house with verbal taunts, to which they did not respond. Because of the tangible fear of arrest or consequence for the students of color and international students present at the sit-in, many chose not to re-enter the house but to create an encampment on the lawn, which they were told would not result in arrest.

At 7:33 PM, President Valerie Smith sent a campus wide email, relaying the active situation and suspending all activities of the fraternities following the results of an investigation into the documents published in campus publications twelve days prior.  Smith acknowledged the presence of police, writing that they were called by Public Safety and that “We [the College administration] are grateful for their presence.” Shortly thereafter, Dean of Students and Vice President Jim Terhune, as well as Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton and Vice President of Finance, Greg Brown, arrived at the sit-in to speak with the student protesters. Maya Henry ‘20, a member of O4S Core and one of the assigned press and administration liaisons for the sit-in, went outside with other members of O4S leadership to speak with them, where they essentially reiterated the contents of the email sent by President Smith: that fraternity activity would be suspended pending the outside investigation.

“I asked to clarify ‘what is fraternity activity?’” they said, trying to ensure that it also meant individual fraternity members would also be prohibited from hosting parties wherever, not just within the house. “I don’t know where their plans are to actually enforce that...I feel like that’s a gray area.” Henry added that Greg Brown didn’t say anything at that time, and they were a bit confused as to why he was in attendance. But that, “I think now that the leases have been released, it’s kinda clear why he showed up, because his signature is… on the lease.” In terms of Dean Terhune’s comment, Henry was particularly disturbed. “The first thing he said after the provost sent that message was ‘so, does this change your guys’ plans? What are you guys going to do now? Are you going to end the sit-in?’... And we were like ‘well we’ll see. Probably not. We’re still going to be here ‘cause you need to commit to ending the leases. The College needs to say, ‘no more fraternities. No leases.’ not just the students.” They added that a lot of Terhune’s concerns were around the possible “damage” the protestors might be causing inside the Phi Psi house as opposed to concerns around protestors’ and survivors’ safety.

The night did not end without Swarthmore borough police being called to the scene two more times, both times by members of Phi Psi. The house, leased to John J. Purdy, an “Alumni Council Member” of Phi Psi as reported by Voices, is considered private property and thus, the right to request police presence in defense of this property, a form of institutional power, is legally wielded by the fraternity. At 8:00 PM, the single member who lived inside of the house requested that he be allowed back inside to retrieve his belongings, though he was purportedly afraid to do so, in fear that protestors would retaliate against him. Those who were inside the house were told that the police were called and hurriedly grabbed their belongings, waiting on the lawn, the zone safe from risk of arrest. Police directed the ten remaining students inside of the building - those willing to risk arrest - to wait in the basement while the Phi Psi member entered the bedroom upstairs. Following his exit, the police left the premises.

The 100 students who were waiting on the lawn of the former Phi Psi house promptly resumed their sit in and entered the space once more. However, seeing the house reoccupied and expressing anger, members of Phi Psi called the police a second time, much to the frustration and concern of Coalition and O4S members. Shortly after, Dean Shá and Provost Willie-LeBreton arrived to converse with the student protesters. After negotiating with police officers, the administrators informed the students that the number of students allowed inside the house could amount to no more than six, and that by 7:00 AM the next morning, they would need to clear the premises or risk arrest. Dozens of students chose to sleep outside of the house in solidarity with the six who maintained their position inside the house: tents and sleepings bags cropped up, resembling a small encampment, mere feet from the fraternity house’s front door.  Swarthmore borough police remained on site well into the night. A Public Safety car was parked nearby during the entire six-day sit-in, with officers taking turns patrolling.

As the 7:00 AM deadline rolled ever closer on the morning of April 28th, nerves began to run high. Over twenty students who were willing to risk arrest decided in the morning to enter the house and wait for their arrest. Reyes was one of over twenty students who had occupied the house early that morning, fully expecting to be arrested. He shared his initial concerns with risking arrest, saying, “It was a hard decision to come to, but I couldn’t stand by and let my fellow peers involved in this go down for this alone. I think it would’ve been a bad look on the College if we actually did get arrested, because it would’ve been Swarthmore students protesting for a cause they believe so firmly in that they’re willing to get arrested because the administration chooses to do nothing,” he said. Public Safety walked through the house at 7:45 AM to inquire as to whether the students would, in fact, be remaining in the space, but no one was forced to leave.

From then on, Quincy Ponvert ’22, one of the group’s Public Safety liaisons, wrote in a statement to Voices, the coordinated efforts typical of any household took place: the securing of bedding, food, and water, as well as general maintenance of the space. That morning, at approximately 11:30 AM, breakfast was brought to the protesters by seven students carrying Sharples take out containers, including including eggs and Phoenix sandwiches, fruits, vegetables, bacon, and donuts.

By Monday, April 29th, the sit-in had garnered national media attention from the likes of the New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC, Fox News, Teen Vogue and Buzzfeed. Internationally, the sit-in had also caught the attention of the BBC. A number of faculty attended the sit-in on this day as well, including Mark Wallace and Edwin Mayorga. Lee Smithey held his class, a research seminar titled the Global Nonviolent Action Database, on the lawn outside. The class spoke to Daria Mateescu ’20, an organizer with the Coalition to End Fraternity Violence, on the arc of their campaign up to that point.

Mayorga, an Assistant Professor of Educational Studies, visited the sit-in in solidarity with the students. In a written statement to Voices, Mayorga touched upon his thoughts about the role of faculty in student movements. “I think of two things. First we, like students, are participants in this institution (I think we use the word “community” too loosely) so I think it is important that we remain engaged in the life of the campus and not just our classrooms. The line between the classroom and the campus life is much blurrier than I think we faculty care to acknowledge. As such we should be well informed and use our voice to help build community and move the institution toward becoming a more just place. Second, I think we have an important role in being keepers of institutional memory. Students have a relatively short window when they are part of this institution, whereas faculty and staff, if they have tenure or some other form of job security, are potentially here for much longer. As such, I think we can play an important function in remembering previous movements and policy issues and passing on what we remember to students and newer faculty.”

On the morning of Tuesday, April 30th, Professor Daniel Laurison also visited the sit in. He referred Voices to his Tweets about the sit-in, stating in a Tweet posted on April 28th, “I will say here I don't have a strong position on the sit-in as such at the moment - I respect the students' dedication and passion, and I also appreciate (up to a point) the fact that it is administrators' job, and Quaker/Swarthmore culture, to be deliberative and seek consensus.” He later added, “I DO feel very strongly that no students should face expulsion or be kept from graduating for engaging in peaceful/non-violent (even if disorderly or unlawful) protest that is clearly intended to make the campus better for everyone.”

Transforming the Space

Fouad Dakwar ’21, who had been planning the release of his first album, Monarchs in the Riverbed, and student band Underboob (featuring Clay Conley ’20 and Lauren Savo ’20), set to open for Dakwar, decided to perform in different location than previously planned: the former Phi Psi house. They performed for the students at the sit-in on April 28th, also featuring Samantha Ortiz-Clark ‘22, as an opener for Dakwar’s set. Originally, as Dakwar wrote to Voices, the album drop concert was supposed to take place outside of the Map Room behind LPAC. However, when he walked into the house when the sit-in began the day prior, Dakwar had the thought of performing there, in line with the vision of transforming the space. With the forecast predicting rain the next day, and the album drop concert scheduled to be outdoors, one of the dancers and a choreographer of a piece to be performed at the concert, Gwenyth Fletcher ’22, suggested to Dakwar that they perform in the house itself.  The concert took place in the former Phi Psi house at 4:00 PM that afternoon.

Dakwar, himself a member of O4S, had been working on his album since September. The title “Monarchs in the Riverbed”, he detailed in a written statement to Voices, is a “call to revolution” as per the hook of its final song, “Throw your monarchs in riverbeds / Today’s the day to turn and say, ‘off again with all your heads.’” Dakwar asserts that the album is very heavily centered on love, something also present at the sit-in. “I personally believe every great revolution has love at its heart. For those of us privileged enough not to have been victims of fraternity violence, we join this movement out of love for our friends, and perhaps for a love of this campus in believing it can be better. I fight for Palestinian liberation because I love my country in spite of its current deeply troubled state. This album had always been a chance for me to experiment musically and to explore the act of protest further. As proven throughout history, art holds a particular influence in regards to social change and I want my work to reaffirm that legacy.”

Underboob opened for Dakwar, an affirmative nod to a prior event where he had opened their show. When they first got there, Conley and Savo surmised that morale amongst the students was low, as folks were tired and doing homework, a reminder that their academic responsibilities still existed despite the circumstances of the protest. However, after receiving a pep talk from Priya Dieterich ’18, a recent alum who herself was a part of O4S core in the Spring of 2018 and was a key organizer of the 9-day Parrish sit-in, the duo decided it would be best for them to perform as they normally would, a creation that Savo lovingly calls, “queer noise.”  

As she recounted the performance, Savo remembered the feeling of releasing her fear, both from the anxiety of the history of the house and from the nature of sit-in. “Letting that fear go away with the first song we did, I could just picture in my mind people smiling, people swaying and moving their heads, and even singing to our lyrics in that space. It was amazing to see. It actually changed my view of it and showed me not what this place can be, but what it will be.”

Conley echoed that sentiment of transformation, adding, “For a second I was like ‘This isn’t a bad venue, I’d do another show here’.” Conley started off the event with a solo song they wrote titled “For Him”, which they explain that “the premise of the song is that heterosexuality puts you into this rut of complacency and being who your man wants you to be. I thought it was kind of right to play it in that space and be like “he is bad”, because I feel like we’ve spent so many years being like “he’s not too bad”. But, “he” as in the greater he, as in them [fraternity culture]. They are bad.”

Savo offered this inspirational musing about the potential for creation that the space now holds. “The violence of this place has been traced. We are attempting to disrupt the violence. But we’re not forgetting about the third part, which is such an important part, which is the creation that you get from disruption. And that was the beginning, in my mind, of me actually seeing that, participating in it, helping to create it. Any opportunity to do that, which the sit in has brought, had made everything worth it.”

The next day, the team behind the VISIBILITY zine, the Intercultural Center art magazine which seeks to highlight the art of marginalized students, hosted a preview party on the Phi Psi lawn on April 29th beginning at 6 pm. Attendees enjoyed a cake provided by Haverford student allies to the sit-in, and fifty copies of the zine were given out. Members of the team took photos of contributors posed behind their open pages in the zine.

Later on the evening of the 30th, Leonard expressed the desire to organize the kitchen, to which dozens of people offered to help. Little did she know, these cleaning efforts would be rewarded with news of the fraternities disbanding that night, first in a statement from DU, followed by a statement from Phi Psi less than an hour later. She wrote in a statement to Voices, “Once we started cleaning the space and realizing all the potential it had, I was excited. I felt like we were cleaning away the ghosts and harm that had occurred and physically transforming the place into a house for everyone to live in. We started cleaning the main room, the stairs, and the basement too, playing music, helping each other, enjoying ourselves and reimagining the space as a communal place. Everyone was sharing all their food and blankets, it was an amazing community to be a part of. Tuesday evening, I really had the sense that the space was ours, that Phi Psi wouldn't come back and revert it to what it had been. For both of the frats to disband that day seemed crazy until it happened.”

Other students continued to use the space and make it more comfortable for themselves. Xu reflects on having moments of joy and fun during the sit-in: “After staying here for several days and cleaning and decorating the house itself, I feel like this house has become our community space for us to hang out and do homework. We would blow bubbles in the yard in front of the wishing tree, and it would really feel like a community space.”

Indeed, the transformation of the space was initialized by the students themselves, leading to the first sight of color on the floor of the former Phi Psi house in what must have been years. After mopping, a striped pattern of green, orange, blue and brown emerged on the floor of the Phi Psi kitchen. Students also mopped, scrubbed down and wiped all of the hard surfaces in the building, lifting layers of grime that had been sitting, seemingly forgotten.  

While the Phi Psi sit-in and the ultimate disbanding of the fraternities was a major positive in the eyes of the protestors, there is still more work being done around fraternities. Before the sit-in even began, Xu was talking to a few of her friends about how even at parties hosted by IC and BCC, groups not in the former fraternity houses, members of the fraternity often take up space and “behave very disrespectfully with an entitlement to the space, in regards to how they shove students around to get to the stage, how they would randomly and disruptively yell, sing lyrics that contain slurs, etc.” She also believes that Swat Team members -- who are hired to check-in students and promote safety at wet parties on campus -- should be more empowered to “intervene in situations of conflict at parties” to promote safety and comfort in the face of entitled, violent behaviors. These are just a few of the considerations organizers are still keeping in mind.

Mayorga offered this as his final thought, on the work to heal and move forward, “I hope that as new solidarities emerge that we do not lose sight of the importance of healing, generation and regeneration. Moments like these teach us about where institutions/communities are in fact fractured, how power operates in these spaces, and how cared (or not cared) for people are within these contexts.  We should take what we learn from these moments and go about holding ourselves accountable for how our actions have shaped larger dynamics, as well as making space for healing ourselves and generating or regenerating relationships across the fractures that exist now and in the past.”

Further Actions since the Phi Psi Sit-In

Since the conclusion of the Phi Psi Sit-In, which ended in a small celebration on the lawn of the now former Phi Psi house, the Coalition to End Fraternity Violence has taken further actions towards their demands: ban DU and Phi Psi as organizations from ever coming back to campus, terminate their leases, and reallocate the houses. Further coverage on the fraternities disbanding, as well as leaked minutes from DU a few years ago, can be found here. Immediately after concluding the sit-in, students went to sit-in in President Smith’s office and the second floor hallway. Voices has covered the aftermath of that here, and the eleven students were able to make it into the office released their statement on the violence and police tactics used to attempt to force them out. After continuing to face violence and police intervention from the administration, students concluded their Parrish sit-in and have further escalated to a hunger strike.

On the morning of Friday, May 10th, President Smith sent an email releasing her decisions on fraternities, among other things. In the statement, she announced the permanent banning of all fraternities and sororities on campus, with the exception of the sorority Kappa Alpha Theta, which would be allowed to operate until the spring of 2022 but must stop recruiting new members. President Smith also announced that, as of May 1st, both the leases of the Phi Psi and DU houses have been terminated, and steps will be taken to determine the reallocation of the land. In a statement published on Facebook, O4S wrote, “We still need, in this moment, the full reallocation of the houses to students most marginalized by the 100+ years of fraternity existence. The particular decision of what the buildings will become must be led by and for queer and trans students of color, especially Black and Indigenous students. We will keep pushing the College to fully commit to this necessary step, in the name of Restorative and Transformative Justice.”