Statement on the Sit-in in President Valerie Smith’s Office

Photo by Grace Dumdaw ‘21

Photo by Grace Dumdaw ‘21

SPEAKING TO WHY WE’RE HERE

We entered President Smith’s office at Swarthmore College yesterday morning, continuing our 5 day sit-in from Phi Psi, to say that voluntary disbandment is not enough to end fraternity violence. We began our peaceful sit in to reaffirm the following: we need the organizations Delta Upsilon and Phi Psi permanently banned from campus, we need the leases formally terminated, and we need a formal process of reallocation promised such that both the re-envisioning and the reallocation of the houses are led by and for queer and trans community members of color, in particular Black and Indigenous students — the students historically most marginalized by this institution. We see the reallocation of the houses as a necessary and timely form of reparation, in line with practices of Restorative and Transformative Justice.

As members of O4S and the Coalition, we deeply respect President Smith’s need to care for her mother. President Smith’s love and care for her mother do not exist in opposition to students’ right to peacefully sit-in. In fact, our very act of protest symbolically reaffirms the love and care that we have for our community and the love and care we expect from our community. We had no intentions of demanding she speak with us and are not protesting her absence. We decided to sit in because we believe there is no other way to hold Swarthmore College accountable for its decisions. Students have collectively engaged in years of private meetings with administrators, which have largely resulted in the creation of broad and ineffectual bureaucratic measures, such as committees, with few meaningful institutional protections for survivors or marginalized students more broadly. In the face of gross administrative negligence and dismissiveness last week, students decided to sit in the fraternity houses in order to compel members of the administration to take action to end fraternity violence. Ultimately, it was this student protest that resulted in the disbandment of the fraternities, with still no evidence of meaningful administrative support for survivors.

We are continuing to sit in in because President Smith has consistently emphasized that she, and she alone, is the one with the ultimate decision-making power to close the fraternities. We appreciate her call to collectively engage in a process of “self-reflection, growth, and healing.” But as an organization rooted in the principles of Transformative Justice, we know that true healing and growth cannot come without institutional accountability for historical neglect of survivors, and neglect of marginalized students in particular. Furthermore, we acknowledge that even banning these fraternities from campus and re-allocating their former houses - while an important step - is not the end of the road. Rather, we must continue to be vigilant about all the ways in which the institution marginalizes and fails to protect and support students of color, queer and trans students, and those with other intersecting marginalized identities. In fact, just yesterday, in the bathroom of McCabe library, a student was subjected to a racial slur, we believe in connection with their participation in recent acts of protest. As President Smith makes her decision regarding the future of these organizations and their former houses, we will continue to communicate the necessity of making lasting and systemic change by permanently terminating the leases, banning Phi Psi and DU from our campus, and reallocating the houses using a framework of reparations. At the same time, we know that this is only one step in making our campus safer and more accessible for marginalized students, and we defend the continuous right of students and other community members to peacefully protest injustice on our campus.

We also want to take the time to acknowledge and thank the Black student activists who sat in at the admissions office, in this same hallway, in 1969 in the fight to get more Black students admitted to Swarthmore. 50 years ago, these students faced similar scare tactics and “bad faith” attacks. It is because of them and their legacy that we are able to do this today.

SPEAKING TO COMMENTS OF “BAD FAITH”

We have been made aware that Swarthmore administrators have been attacking our actions as dealing in “bad faith.” However, we have been clear about our motivations. We did not have a letter that we were planning on delivering, but we did have a statement and a message, which was read as the sit-in was announced. We believe this was initially miscommunicated to the President; this was neither deliberate nor malicious, and we apologize for any initial confusion. Again, we had no intention to demand that President Smith speak with us, especially at the expense of her familial obligations. We decided to sit-in for the same reasons that we have been consistently and honestly presenting throughout this process: to call the institution to meet the needs of survivors of sexual violence, including and especially students with marginalized identities, by terminating the fraternity leases and reallocating the houses to historically marginalized community members.

We have been meeting with Swarthmore administrators, in good faith, and begging for change, for years, to no effect. On the other hand, administrators have repeatedly engaged in bad faith attacks on our protest, characterizing desperate pleas for the protection of students as bullying, and denigrating our criticism of the structures of fraternity violence as “gross generalizations about student groups.” We find it appalling that the response we have received from administrators to our calls for the end of such historically violent institutions has consistently been that we are not protesting politely enough.

SPEAKING TO WHAT HAPPENED AND HOW WE’VE BEEN TREATED

When we left the fraternity building this morning, the police were called immediately. The couple of students who remained in the fraternity were threatened with arrest, so they left, and the police barred students from retrieving their belongings, including their IDs and phones.

Just before noon on Thursday, May 2nd, we began a sit-in in the office of President Smith. Public Safety Officers were immediately called and began physically barring students from joining the sit-in and barring those already there from free exit and re-entry. One student attempted to open the door to allow others into the office to join our peaceful demonstration. Director of Public Safety Michael Hill grabbed this student, tried to pull him off the door, and then watched as Officer Borak shoved this student to the ground. A video of this incident can be found on the O4S twitter page. Shortly after, the Swarthmore police were called, and they remained until we left the office. In her campus-wide email late last night, President Smith said that “a student who was waiting in the hallway pushed an office staff member out of the way to let others in.” We would like to clarify that we do not recall any incident of this kind.

At this time, students were not allowed to freely exit and re-enter the office space. When one student requested to leave for his 1:15 class, Michael Hill told him he would not be allowed to do so. This bar was eventually lifted, but even after this happened, officers refused to allow students outside to give food or water to those inside, and a pile of food and water accumulated on the other side of the door. Most disturbing, after Provost Willie-LeBreton, Dean Terhune, and Dean Shá left at around 4:30pm, the bathroom in the hallway which was previously accessible was locked, under the justification that it was “closed for the night.” Dean Shá returned to the office around 5:15pm to give us water and bring medicine to a student after this student was initially denied their medication by Public Safety. Unlocking the bathroom and allowing food to be passed to protesters was, of course, fully within the power of the Public Safety officers. A student asked Public Safety, “can you open the bathroom?” To which the officer replied, “yes.” The student followed up by asking, “will you open the bathroom?” And the officer said, “no.”

We find it in bad faith that Swarthmore College is using the police tactic of manipulating our bodily needs to try to break up our peaceful protest. We reject the idea that Swarthmore Public Safety and the police should have power over our bodies in this way, in an attempt to intimidate student activists and discourage peaceful student protest. In her campus-wide email, President Smith wrote, “Let me be clear: students were always free to leave and had access to every public restroom and resource in Parrish except those in the secure area around the President’s office.” Let us be clear: the locking of the bathroom and refusal to bring food to us was a deliberate tactic to force us out of the space. While we were told many times we could leave to use the restroom, it was also confirmed to us that we would not be allowed to return. We find it in bad faith that President Smith would say that she respects and affirms the rights of students to demonstrate peacefully while forcing us to choose between exercising these rights and our basic human dignity. For that reason, we had decided to leave on our own terms. As we presented a message on Facebook Live preceding our exit, we were informed by members sitting outside that a Public Safety officer offsite told a student they were in the process of acquiring arrest warrants. When this was passed on to a lawyer who was present, we were urged to leave immediately. We cannot corroborate the accuracy of the initial interaction, but if true, it is shameful for a Public Safety officer to lie about the possible arrest of student protesters.

This level of retaliation and cruelty is unprecedented. Just last year, we held a peaceful sit in in a Parrish office like this one for 9 days. The police were never called, and these appalling and dangerous anti-protest tactics were not used. Even as President Smith defended the existence of "dissent" in her all-campus email on April 29th, it is evident that the College is escalating its use of repressive tactics to quell peaceful student protest. This is a clear attempt to evade institutional accountability to address survivors' concerns. We know that our protests are working, that we are not allowing Swarthmore’s negligence to continue.

We condemn the College’s attempt to force students to sacrifice more of their physical wellbeing in the fight for a safer and more just campus community. Our exit did not reflect that we, in any way, accept the way students were treated upon our entry into this space. One of us was pushed to the ground; another was threatened and shoved. Administrators stood by while these incidents happened. Swarthmore College should be protecting us from this type of force, not enabling it. This behavior perfectly represents the years of violent neglect that have persisted at this College. We chose to exit the office as a rejection of abusive and unjust behavior towards survivors and their allies. We wholeheartedly condemn the tactics that Public Safety and the Swarthmore college administration used to force us to leave. We are grateful for our classmates and faculty members who held the space outside President Smith’s office and who attempted to bring us food and advocate for our needs. Our exit is a show of our collective strength, and a condemnation of the way Swarthmore College has decided to treat its students.

We continue our sit-in today to once again reiterate our demands and to hold the President accountable when making her decision on the fraternities and their former houses. We understand that the President is committed to wait until she receives the Task Force’s recommendations, which she will receive today, before making her own decision. To that end, we affirm that we will remain in this space until the end of the business day today, so that you, President Valerie Smith, will remember us and the harm that was done to us and the community yesterday, and every day that the fraternities were not closed after consistent evidence that they were nexuses of harm, as you consider your decision.

With yesterday’s events, you have betrayed the Swarthmore community and violated Swarthmore College’s Quaker values of nonviolence and peaceful settlement of disputes. We arrived in your office yesterday for a peaceful sit-in, yet were met with physical retaliation from Public Safety officers and the escalation of calling in the police, an institution of state violence specifically targeted at Black and brown people of color. There can be no constructive dialogue when an administrator’s first instinct is to call Public Safety and Public Safety’s first instinct is to call the police. When we call for the reallocation of the houses that are led by and for queer and trans community members of color, in particular Black and Indigenous students, it is to protect them from systems of harm like the ones relied on by the institution. With that in mind, this statement today is not only to condemn the College’s actions and to reiterate our demands to the President, but also to call on the rest of the Swarthmore community to come together to reimagine a world where a peaceful sit-in will not be met with state violence. Swarthmore College, you have lost our trust, but the experience of seeing faculty and students supporting the 11 students inside President Smith’s office reminds us that we don’t need administration to take down these systems of harm. The action to end fraternity violence started with us, the students, and will continue, regardless of what the President decides.