UMass Student Movement
By Dickie Wallace
Something was upthat was the word around campus. Returning from winter break at the end of January, the talk was of some kind of student protest that would wake people up. At least one dean had warned his charges to be prepared for Teaching Assistant work stoppages as the Grad Employees Organization entered it ninth month without a contract. The Black Student Union and other ALANA organizations were increasingly frustrated by the administrations inattention to the issue of university accessibility to people of disadvantaged backgroundsa five-year-old ALANA (an umbrella organization for Africans, Latinos, <W0>A<D>sians, and Native Americans) agreement seemed forgotten. The Undergraduate Employees Organization was gearing up to fight privatization plans. The Graduate Student Senate was angered by systemic university discrimination against non-European international students. One student was making waves by protesting racial harassment at the campus store. Student parents were sick of fighting for adequate and affordable childcare programs. Various other factions all had their issues, but their efforts didnt seem to amount to more than a few drops in a bucket.
On Monday, March 3, the bucket was overturned. Using a small 10:00 AM ALANA rally as a diversionary tactic, groups of two or three "scouts" slowly trickled into the Goodell Administrative Building until they had flooded the universitys controllers office. The 150 plus students let it be known that they were intent on staying until their demands were met.
The occupation was not that of a small radical faction, but was comprised of a cross-section of students from all class, social, ethnic, and geographic backgrounds, spearheaded by ALANA. As word spread, people from groups all over campus entered the Goodell Building. Many joined the occupation on the spot. A number of Amherst College students came early and two would end up staying for the duration. Students from Mt. Holyoke, Hampshire, and Smith Colleges joined the throngs rallying outside Goodell.
After securing the Controllers Office, a pre-arranged call was made to a student ally working in the Deans Office who submitted the occupiers list of demands. Representatives from the Administration reluctantly came to the Goodell Building at 1:00 PM and organizers began a week-long process of negotiations.
Inside the Goodell Building, bosses told their workers to shut down their computers and stay at their desks. There was undeniable tension between the occupying students and Goodell workers. After all, many of the spur-of-the-moment joiners had little chance for forethought and few had any experience with civil disobedience. The workers were seeing their space invaded without warning. Some students had to be reminded that many of the workers knew what it was like to face discrimination and that some had children and salaries that were inadequate to pay for UMass childcare. First year student Monique DeLoaz said many of the Goodell staff were upset by the disruption, but "very many knew exactly where we were coming from." By the afternoon the number of occupying students had swelled to over 200, but some degree of mutual respect had been established before the workers went home in the late afternoon. The workers would not see their desks for a week. Students were in control.
Carlos Iturrios, a freshman microbiology major, wrote of his spontaneous participation that Monday afternoon: "I was on my way to class when I passed the Goodell building and saw what was happening. I knew what the protest was about and right there and then I decided to sacrifice my classes and the conveniences of home to be with my fellow students and protest the Administration and Whitmore. The negotiations had started and all hopes were high."
The number of students inside the building leveled off at somewhere between 175 and 200. Roughly two-thirds of these were ALANA-affiliated and the other third varied widely. Some were international students, others were born and raised in town, some were working-class first generation students, while some came from privileged upper-class backgrounds, but with a social conscious.
Tuesday was a day of organizing within the building as the students built solidarity and affirmed their resolve to stay, however long it took. A few waverers left, fearing that they could not afford to miss exams. Most, however, became more committed. Police were controlling entrances; students leaving could not come back.
Chances for outside contact were decreasing as the Administration cut off most telephones. Student demands had to be made public, food had to be brought in, support groups had to be coordinated in the larger scheme of things, while at the individual level, people queued for short calls at a pay phone to ask a roommate or partner to bring notebooks, pillows, and to get extensions on papers and excuses for tests.
Outside, students were putting up signs in support. By 4:30 PM a large rally was under way and the manager of the campus radio station was broadcasting via cell phone from inside. Students, faculty, campus workers, and community members were delivering food, and campus organizations were passing the hat to buy bedding for the occupiers, as word spread in the community. Some students were buying blankets and pillows in a local store when the cashier asked what they needed all these things for. When they told her, she began scanning with a little less care and many items never made it on the register tape.
Some occupying students reported that the initial euphoria was wearing off. The police took up more strategic positions and the building was sealed off. A number of police vans appeared and many feared arrests were coming. Negotiations were long and difficult.
Students outside helped insiders through the day by appearing in numbers beyond anyones expectations. A smaller morning rally ended up filling the plaza, until the central walkway became standing room only. As classes let out, hordes of students swept through academic buildings exhorting the complacent to come to the rally and "really learn something about life." Occupiers saw more than 1,500 students demonstrating in support at peak times during the day. Fresh injections of support came periodically as other students in the Five College area arrived by bus and van. At the microphone, some explained what was going on in detail, others sang; some led cheers, others jeered the chancellor who was vacationing in Cancun; some read lists of classes that were being cancelled.
At midnight, the Goodell Building still blazed with activity as the students continued to strategize and talked of the implications of their actions. Many have since cited these times as the most educative thus far in their academic careers. Biology major Lenny Kaledzi wrote about the occupation: "Even though it has not been easy, I can honestly say that this experience has educated me in so many ways about myself, others, and about life itself."
Support was growing and the story had become national news. Because ALANA students comprised the majority of the occupiers, the mass media treated the story as being completely a "minority student protest," to the chagrin of many participants, but the fact that the story was getting out was heartening. UMass administrators were not looking good and they knew it. The Administrations negotiators were slow to come back to negotiations, not returning to Goodell until that evening. Anthropology major Njeri Thelwell, part of the negotiating team, said, "It was a slow realization that we had what we were going to get, the university was coming to our terms It was then a matter of teaching them our language, of making them realize they were with us, that was the struggle."
Carlos Iturrios wrote: "We are winning the battle but the war isnt over. We still have strong support and the administration is breaking down. They now have realized that we are serious and will not be fucked with. We are at peace with the cops and everything has gone peacefully. Everybody has gotten together in close unity."
Monique DeLoaz recounts that she was coming down with a bad cold. The police, while restricting access to the building, were helping the students in small ways, for example, bringing Monique cough medicine. One supporter joked, "If the cops are this sympathetic to the cause, the administration must be in deep shit."
The weather was wild with sun, wind, and snow squalls alternating intermittently. Mostly it was cold. Nonetheless, student support equaled Wednesdays rallies and massive "campus tours" began. The first march invaded Whitmore, the main administrative building of campus. Again the Administration was taken by surprise and was unable lock the building as 1,000 voices shouted and sang through its hallways. Even though the chancellor was still in Mexico (one cynic said he was joining the Zapatistas), his staff managed to lock his doors, so a 1,000 person sit-in was not to be.
Community support continued to grow, with restaurants and grocery stores donating more food than the occupiers could eat. Some food deliveries were redirected to the students sleeping in the more than two dozen tents outside the building while other donations were diverted to a local food pantry.
Most occupiers were involved in all-night long small group processes in which negotiators tried to explain what they perceived as gains in the negotiations to the rest of the group. Heated, emotional debates raged on about the meaning of administrative double-speak, what came to be called "bureau-bonics."
An Administration representative in the UMass News office said that they were 95 percent in agreement and apparently lied to the press, saying that the students would come out that morning. Local media reported this and a number of organizations cancelled plans for a noon rally.
Administrative intrigue or not, agreement was close at hand. Students were beginning to imagine what it would feel like to take a shower again. Some tried to concentrate on their studies, but it was difficult to concentrate. Some took the time to write testimonies to explain why they had given up their freedom for five days and were still resolved to stay as long as necessary. Senior Anthropology major, Jennifer Doe, wrote: "I am here for my dad. My mother is an alcoholic and addict who I have not have not spoken with in ten years. Yet her family is proud, for her family has never seen one of its own graduate high school. My father has only recently come home from a federal prison; April 15 will be the fifth anniversary of his homecoming. He has six children, the rest younger than me, who will graduate high school. My father is trying hard to make up to us the lost time. He works 60-80 hours a week to support us, and barely has the time to see us. Yet he is proud of me. I am supporting myself through this college and am also trying to send money home to my family so that they can have the nice things that I did not have when I was young and my father was in prison. I work 40-60 hours a week to keep fed and housed. In the summer I work 100 hours a week, three jobs, to pay for my education. I had to sell my grandmothers engagement ring and her mothers necklace to pay for school. It is frustrating to look around and see people in the same situation as I, struggling to get out of this poverty. I want to see my brothers and sister go through school and learn and climb. I am scared that they will have to struggle as I have and not have that jewelry to sell. But they have me now to fight for them. The people in here are fighting for them, as I am fighting for the people in here."
Believing their occupation was close to winning, sophomore English major, Khernchrist Lacoste, reflected: "I sit here and ponder with thoughts of frustration and devastation, politically and mentally. I am the son of a single mother, the brother of two aspiring young Haitian-Americans, and the bastard son of a boy in a mans body. I constantly have thought of my mother through this whole ordeal, and she [has been] the only positive thing that kept me pushing and fighting the bureaucracy."
Administration negotiators again came late in the day with many of the negotiated agreements written. The student negotiating team and the Administration had reached amicable agreements and these included an amnesty agreement for the occupiers such that they would not be prosecuted or discriminated against for their participation in the takeover.
The next task was to find consensus with around 175 tired and irritable students. The negotiating committee began presenting their agreement to the rest of the students at about 11:00 PM. Some of the negotiating team argued that they would risk arrest if they held out much longer and risked losing their hard-fought gains. Other students were dissatisfied and felt more could be won by holding out against the Administrations threats of arrest because the obviously swelling movement outside was strengthening their position as occupiers. However, the majority were reasonably satisfied.
At 10:00 AM the negotiating team was checking some agreements for wording and going to the table for another attempt to secure something besides another useless administrative "task force" on childcare issues. While word had gotten out that the students were to walk out at 11 and a crowd gathered outside the building to greet them, the controversy regarding childcare demands held things up. Many of the occupiers demands reflected those currently on the table between the administration and the Grad Employees Organization (GEO) and the Administration had said it was illegal to bargain in this forum for that reason (of course, later GEO would be told by the duplicitous Administration that it could not bargain for childcare because the Goodell occupiers had been negotiating for it). Dissent split the ranks, as some were angered by this "mistake," others were angered by what was perceived as a fold on childcare issues.
Still, a remarkable display of unity greeted returning administration negotiators. While the Goodell occupation did not mark a momentous victory for advocates of affordable childcare, the show of solidarity behind the issue proved that the occupation was only a beginning in the fight.
Because of the delays and the general fatigue, the students did not leave the building until 2:30 PM. Most had spent 125 hours inside, but they emerged to a joyous crowd outside. Some occupiers were dancing, some raising their fists in the air, some hugging everyone in sight, while others were crying or blinking like theyd been lost in a cave for the past few days.
Since the Goodell occupation, many have found the UMass, Amherst campus to be a more enlightened and purposeful place. Alliances forged over the week have remained and solidified. The Administration had made an agreement with a much smaller group of ALANA protesters in 1992 and that was allowed to slip. In 1997, with almost every student group that ever gave a thought to social justice in the Five College area involved, the movement has taken on a life of its own. Activism has become infectious, as students found that they have sustaining power in themselves and in each other. ALANA students and their myriad of allies are determined that 1997 agreements will be implemented.
A sign greeting students as they have come back to school after spring break read, "The Goodell occupation is over, but we still occupy this campus!"
Dickie Wallace is a graduate student and graduate employee in the Anthropology Department at UMass, Amherst.