Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Since student government henchmen first destroyed dozens of Parrish club poster boards a few weeks ago, students had struck back by creating new ones. Some of these new boards were colorful, crafty, handmade; others were covered in photos – advertising welcoming, vibrant communities. Many were loud, unique, defiant. Most were beautiful.
All were torn down once again, unflinchingly.
They came at 5:30 a.m., before sunrise, dressed in dark colors to avoid detection. In their steady hands, they wielded staple removers, scissors, knives. Fifteen minutes after the first board fell, they had left, leaving a trail of destruction and misery in their wake.
They were 13 operatives in the enforcement wing of the Student Government Organization (or, as they refer to themselves, “SGO”), led by strongman and student governance ideologue Stephen “Bing Bong” Schooler ‘17. The group wore no masks and, according to witnesses, showed no signs of remorse or hesitation.
Bird Club co-president Sarah Liu ‘19 was among the first to see the carnage. She had come down from her dormitory to inspect her club’s board and make last-minute adjustments.
“I was so excited,” she recalled, smiling faintly at the memory. “The Bird Club board was really special—we had dozens of bird species, hand-drawn, all in color, meticulously cut out.” She trailed off, a tear forming in her eye. Looking closely at the tear, I saw—or thought I did—a faint imprint of what she had witnessed: torn paper strewn all over the floor, the silhouettes of the escaping SGO operatives, ringleader Bing Bong’s face, smugly taunting her from afar. I averted my eyes, unable to bear the image for much longer.
The SGO threat first came to the fore earlier this semester. Menacing emails started popping up in students’ inboxes, threatening vandalism if students failed to conform to the strict aesthetic requirements of SGO’s arcane ideology. (“General Readability,” is one of the board criteria in the group’s bizarre doctrine.) At first, students ignored the threats.
“We thought it was a total joke, I mean, this kind of tough talk happens here all the time,” Phoenix editor Robbie Houston ‘17 said, referring to the volatile rhetoric that came to dominate Swarthmore politics after the once-promising Spring of Discontent. “We never thought they’d actually do it, you know?”
And then they did. In a public, well-coordinated raid, SGO operatives removed “offending” posters and replaced them with flyers bearing their sinister logo. This marking is essential to their strategy, said Swarthmore poli-sci professor Henry Coulson.
“It announces their ownership over what was previously considered a public space,” Coulson explained.
But students resisted: Rather than give up and conform to these new guidelines, they got to work to try to resurrect the old poster culture in Parrish. Bird Club’s new poster was part of that effort.
“It wasn’t just about birds, it was about hope in the face of tyranny,” Liu said.
With the latest attack, which indiscriminately targeted posters both old and new, SGO showed who really calls the shots on the first floor of Parrish, from which college administrators have increasingly retreated to other floors or even other buildings. SGO, which maintains a sophisticated online presence to disseminate its doctrine and recruit new followers, officially took credit for the well-planned attack later that day.
“Boards which did not conform to guidelines were removed,” SGO’s tweet read. “Please refer to previous emails for these guidelines.”
Half an hour later, the post was still up. Twitter’s representatives could not be reached on why they had not yet deactivated SGO’s latest account. However, it is not clear that such deactivations harm SGO’s online reach.
“Blocking tweets won’t help, you have to cut off the head of the snake,” Coulson said. The professor added that, fearing SGO retribution for his public opposition to their increasingly suffocating policies, he has applied for a job at Haverford. If his application is denied, he and his family plan to smuggle themselves onto a Tri-Co shuttle and hope for the best.
“It’s a sad day for Swarthmore,” Coulson said. “But it’s our fault, too. We let this happen.”