Student Protests, Hunger Strike Follow Phi Psi Sit-In

[Editor’s note: This article addresses events that happened in the Spring 2019 semester after our last regular issue of The Phoenix was published. Now that the school year and our coverage has resumed, we are covering these events now because they are significant and important to our community, as well as to be comprehensive in our coverage.]

On May 6th, five students stood on Parrish steps holding empty dining hall trays as they announced their decision to start a hunger strike to protest administrative response to sit-ins and student activism around fraternities. In a solemn speech that was divided among the five students, they thanked the activists who had come before them. The strike, which started among four students on Swarthmore’s campus and two abroad, grew to be as large as seven and went on for 103 hours. The strike ended only when administrators communicated that fraternities were permanently banned from Swarthmore. 

While the strike was not led by O4S or the Coalition to End Fraternity Violence, the group discussed the events of the protests led by O4S and the Coalition, and said that the administration had left them no choice but to put their bodies on the line. On April 18th, 2019, The Phoenix and Voices published documents from the leaked “Phi Psi Historical Archive” which contained references to violence, sexual assault, racist, sexist, and homophobic language. The files described fraternity brothers engaging in disturbing acts around campus and suggested evidence of hazing. After the documents were released, on April 27th at 4:00 p.m. members of the Coalition to End Fraternity Violence and Organizing for Survivors gained access to the Phi Psi house and staged a sit-in. Over 100 students took part in the sit-in, which lasted four days and gained national media attention. On day four of the sit-in, in response to the sit-in, both Phi Psi and Swarthmore’s other fraternity, Delta Upsilon, announced they had voted to disband at 8:00 p.m. that night in a Facebook post. 

The next day, O4S and the Coalition announced their plans to move the sit-in to President Smith’s office plans to move the sit-in in an attempt to urge the administration to permanently ban Greek life on campus. 

In a statement released on May 1st, the Coalition put forth their demands for the college:  “The fraternities can disband themselves now, but only the College can make this change permanent. We need the College to institutionalize this change in order to end fraternity violence for good. The leases must be formally terminated, and DU and Phi Psi must be banned.”

In their pursuit of administration confirmation that the fraternities would be formally banned, protesters moved into President Valerie Smith’s office in Parrish around noon on May 2nd. When initially entering President Smith’s office, protesters stated that they had a letter to give to President Smith, according to Dean of Inclusive Excellence and Community Development Shá Smith.

“The students in the President[’s] suite said they wanted the other students to come in to hold space and deliver a letter to President Smith,” she said.  

That afternoon, President Smith sent an email to the community stating that she was not in the office because she was caring for her mother at home. President Smith wrote that she offered to meet students at the rose garden, but that she would have to bring her mother. Smith also wrote in her email that the students reportedly had a letter to give to her but had not produced it. 

O4S said in a statement that they were not attempting to meet with President Smith, but were sitting in her office to remind the college of the needs and wishes of marginalized students. 

In their initial response to the President’s email, O4S did not dispute President Smith’s claim that the students entering her office supposedly had a letter to deliver. Instead, the organization released a statement about their intent of being in her office. 

“We have no need to speak with President Smith at this time, we did not request a meeting, and we very much respect her need to care for her mother. We have heard her decision to wait for the task force, and we are not protesting her absence in the office,” O4S said in a statement on May 2nd.

Tiffany Wang ’21, one of the students who sat in President Smith’s office and later participated in the hunger strike, reiterated that the protestors were not trying to meet with President Smith.

“I heard from a lot of people that the President’s first message about offering to bring her sick mother to the rose garden to meet with us really turned them off to what we were doing because it [made it seem] like we had no concern for her family and her mother’s health. The fact of the matter was that we needed to make it clear that we expected a decision on the fraternity leases and would be waiting for those to be released. That did not necessitate a meeting, and we certainly were not trying to force her to bring her mother out of the house,” wrote Wang.

The protests became even more contentious when a physical altercation occurred between a protester and a Public Safety officer inside the president’s office. O4S posted a video of this confrontation. In the video, while three or more students stand outside the office, attempting to push the door open to enter the office, a student inside grasps for the handle in an attempt to pull the door open. A Public Safety officer is between the student and the door. Director of Public Safety, Mike Hill and Dean Smith are seen standing behind the student. Hill is seen tugging on the student’s arm as the student yells, “let me go.” A Public Safety officer then appears to have a physical altercation with the student. Protestors and administrators disagree over the extent of the altercation. Administrators said that the student lost their balance, while protesters said the student was pushed by the Public Safety Officer.

Hill described the incident as an accident and said that students had been instructed not to open the door. 

“When a student tried to pull open a hallway door to allow more students, who were pushing on the other side of the door, to gain access to the President’s office, an officer intervened to keep the door closed,” Hill said. “We had already made very clear no one was allowed to open that door. From my perspective, the student fell backwards when he released his grip on the door handle. In the video, you can see and hear me trying to deescalate the situation.”

Dean of Students Jim Terhune witnessed the protest and described the conduct of the protesters as physically forceful.

“A handful of students have employed deceptive or physically forceful means to gain entrance to spaces where they knew they were not permitted. At all times, senior administrators, including President Smith, have been ready to engage in a productive exchange. We took every step we could yesterday to minimize safety hazards or situations where students could get themselves into trouble,” Terhune wrote in an email. 

The Coalition released a statement stating that it was the college administration that escalated the situation to violence.

“Despite our commitment to peaceful protest, we were met with violent and forceful attempts to end the sit-in, both enacted and directed by College officials.”

The Coalition also condemned the college’s decision to call the Swarthmore Borough police and have police officers in the President’s office with the protestors, a decision that was later investigated during the external investigation.

Dean Smith said that during the protest she encouraged the student protesters not to engage with Public Safety, because physical engagement can be construed as using force. 

“When we were in the office after I spoke to some of the students about the incident and said, ‘because this is a peaceful movement we cannot engage with public safety and the police in any way that can be misinterpreted or misconstrued as a sign of physical escalation,’” Dean Smith wrote. “My primary goal was to make sure everyone was safe.”

At the end of the business day, the bathroom in the President’s office was locked. Throughout the protest, the students who were in President Smith’s office were not allowed to have food or water brought up to them. The students were permitted to leave the protest; however, they would not be allowed to re-enter. Dean Smith brought multiple students medication after negotiating with Public Safety. 

“I connected with a few students delivered some medication to a student upstairs in the president’s office and in the hallway that leads up to a kitchen is a cabinet and next to it was all the water coolers to change out the water.  There were like ten of them so I grabbed one because evidently no one saw them sitting in there (it’s a bit dark in that little corner) and I took it to the office,” she wrote. 

O4S and the Coalition alleged that the restrictions on using the bathroom in President Smith’s office were an attempt by administrators to force them out of the space. 

“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,” the groups said in a statement to The Phoenix. 

The sit-in ended several hours after the student protesters in the president’s office were told that the college had obtained warrants for the arrest, at which point students immediately vacated the space. 

It is unknown whether or not such warrants existed.  In the external investigation conducted by an outside law firm, the external investigator found that the only references to arrests were comments a Pub Safe officer allegedly made at an on-campus party. The officer according to the report said that he believed that the college could obtain arrest warrants, but he hoped that the situation would not get that far. The report said that there was also a rumor that the Public Safety officer outside the door mentioned warrants, but that the officer in question denied this upon questioning. 

One of the protestors within the President’s office told The Phoenix that the protestors received a text from someone who was communicating with a lawyer who advised them to leave immediately. 

In a statement released at the end of the protest, the Coalition explained their decision to end the strike: 

“We are leaving both due to our belief that we have succeeded in our goals and our want for our movement to have time to heal from the pain of yesterday and return, stronger and with even more conviction. We will continue to keep the community updated.”

Three days after these events in the President’s office, the hunger strike was announced by a group of students independent of O4S and the Coalition. Kenny Mai ’21, one of the students involved in the strike, said that he was inspired to join because he wanted to take action after the sit-in in the President’s office.

“I think ultimately, I felt like I needed to do something. I really didn’t think that all of that could have been left unaddressed and both slowly hidden and narratively distorted by admin,” Mai said. 

Mai also noted that he wanted to address what happened before students went home for the summer.

“One of admin’s favorite tactics, which has been expressed by organizers on campus for a while now, is using the summer as buffer time to both prevent further action by students and to have some students forget what has happened. That and the fact that students are always leaving and coming in,” Mai wrote in an email.

Wang also felt that immediate action needed to be taken to protect students’ rights to protest.

“Throughout the fraternity protests and later the sit-in at the President’s office, the College showed us they were willing to go to all lengths to stop nonviolent protest, including calling the police on their own students, something that makes nonviolent direct action impossible for many. We do not want to be a school that only allows the most privileged students to protest,” wrote Wang in an email.

After striking for 79 hours, the participants met with senior administration including Chief of Staff, Ed Rowe and Dean Terhune in a meeting in which the strikers’ goals were discussed. According to the strikers, administrators informed them during the meeting that Greek life on Swarthmore’s campus would be banned and that there would be a reallocation committee formed in the 2019-2020 academic year to decide what to do the former fraternity houses.

Mai felt that the strikers’ two main goals were the reallocation of the former frat spaces and to prevent police involvement with student protestors. While administrators discussed these topics with the activists, Mai didn’t feel that the administrators were committed to working with the hunger strikers around their goals.

“One thing I would highlight is that admin only agreed to have a meeting with us after we had reached out to them after three or four days of striking,” Mai said. “At the first meeting, only Dean Terhune and Chief of Staff, Ed Rowe were the only admin in attendance, along with a few professors who had been supporting us throughout the strike. They were quite receptive to the goals we laid out at this meeting out of concern for our health … That’s why we felt comfortable to end the hunger strike.”

A week later, a follow-up meeting was held to try and make progress on the hunger strikers’ goals.

“We then had a follow-up meeting the week after with the original two admin and professors plus Provost Willie-Lebreton and Dean Smith and two external facilitators,” Mai wrote. “That meeting didn’t go as smoothly. It was a long, tiring meeting. Tempers were beginning to flare … There was a lot of disagreement from admin about the goals and language around what had happened — about why specifically queer and trans, Black, and Indigenous students should be centered in the reallocation process, about what constitutes violent protest, etc. The energy was a complete 180 from the first meeting we had. I think us not being on strike at that point might have lessened our negotiating power.”

Though proposals for reallocation of the frat houses were a focus of both of these conversations, it does not appear that administrators have reached any official decision on this issue yet.  

In an email to the whole school community on May 10th, President Smith said that there were no clear plans for the reallocation of the houses and said that she and others would take the summer to find a place for the houses in relation new dining hall construction: 

“Long-term plans for the use of the two former fraternity houses, which are now closed, are still to be decided. We will begin this summer to determine how those spaces might integrate with the plans for a re-imagined Sharples. We will then work with students and other community stakeholders to identify how we can best support students’ needs, including the future of those buildings.’

According to Mai, administrators told the protesters in August that the college would not meet their initial demands. “Earlier this summer we were emailed by President Smith saying that she can’t agree to any of the commitments [concerning the reallocation of the former fraternity houses] that were proposed [by the protestor] during the meetings,” Mai wrote. 

Ultimately, it remains to be seen if or how administrators will address concerns raised by the protesters. 

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