The Howard sit-in should serve as a warning for GW administrators

For 34 days, students at Howard University occupied the university’s Blackburn Student Center to protest unsafe building conditions and to demand student voting rights on the board of trustees. The take-over, organized by the Live Movement and HU’s chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, began Oct. 12 and ended on Nov. 15 after reaching an understanding with administrators.

The occupation follows a historic nationwide uptick of student protests regarding the increasingly undemocratic structure of university administration, the affordability concerns of rising tuition costs and poor housing conditions. What has been unique to Howard is the overwhelming degree of intellectual vitality, courage, organization and love that their activism has embodied. GW students who care to improve the conditions of our University should take notes on Howard’s student activism, and GW administrators should take heed – it is only a matter of time before students must organize for a more democratically led university.

Howard students are no strangers to setting extraordinary precedents for student mobilization. In 2018, Howard students protested for nine days and occupied the administration building at the university in favor of police demilitarization, shared governance and improved student services. After reaching a deal with the university, where seven out of nine of the student demands were met, the take-over ceased. But the university failed to adequately implement the demands that they agreed to and student frustration with administration continued to boil. This is why students in the past two months have been demanding student power in administrative decisions. As a result of the Blackburn take-over, HU granted students voting power on its board of trustees at the committee level in addition to the creation of other shared governance avenues.

Students at Howard recognized that their university had been notorious for failing to deliver student demands. If administrators at GW refuse to fulfill students’ needs, then students must take it upon themselves to implement change. This can mean a take-over or any other action that directly challenges university authority.

HU students have shown that they are attuned to engaging in the kinds of direct action that challenges authority. Occupations, take-overs and other forms of collective-based direct action have been highly effective, especially in the context of student movements, because they physically disrupt the processes that are needed for typical university operations. This makes them incredibly difficult to ignore, much more so than emails, petitions and letters. Though all of these other forms of protest have their own merits, they are not as effective at challenging power dynamics, demanding urgency or demanding attention as disruptions like sit-ins are.

The Blackburn take-over received national attention. Media attention on these types of protests can pressure university officials to end the disruption more quickly out of worry that the university will appear, especially to donors, disorganized and unable to manage its students.

Time is also a crucial element. Longer protests can communicate the degree of severity and urgency of student needs to officials. The longer these protests last, the longer they pose a threat to day-to-day university operations. Identifying university interests and determining how to strategically obstruct those interests is important in influencing how a protest should be carried out. In Howard’s case, the duration of the sit-in allowed the protest to garner national attention that pressured HU’s administration to cooperate with the student protestors.

GW has been notorious for faltering on student demands. In October, GW Protects Rapists, an organization for survivors of sexual misconduct who reported being unsupported or out-right ignored by the Title IX Office, organized a town hall for administrators to hear the grievances of the student community. Grievances included non-responsiveness by the office and not failure to bar assailants from campus. According to a post on instagram made by GW Protects Rapists, the University has made no statement on how corrective action on the Office’s failings will be taken following the town hall. Students are becoming increasingly frustrated with the University’s inaction and know that they wouldn’t have to ask the University to act if they already had a seat at the decision- making table. GW needs to give students that seat.

Graduate students at GW unionized with SEIU Local 500, a labor union representing workers across the DMV, to demand fairer working conditions including higher wages and more affordable health care. In a letter to the University in 2018, workers described how the University disengaged with the union on several key issues regarding the University’s operations, refusing to make contact or even recognize graduate students as workers. The manner in which the University has willfully chosen to ignore student demands reflects not just an unwillingness on part of administrators to take corrective action but an institutional opposition to student power.

On the climate front, student climate activists at GW including Sunrise GW have been calling on the University to cut ties or disaffiliate from the RSC, a research center at GW that receives millions of dollars from the fossil fuel industry and in turn produces research calling for fossil fuel deregulation. Students have argued that the University must close the center because it is perpetuating climate denial, in light of the fact that this research has then been used as an authoritative source by the government to implement these deregulations.  In response, the University has been hostile to the movement, doubling down on denying the clear relationship between fossil fuel money and the RSC. This dismissal of student interests reveals a simple fact about power distribution at the University: the University sees students as suggestion boxes, not equal players in decision making.

Students everywhere are organizing and since administrators have already chosen to ignore several fronts of student activism, from sexual assault to labor and more, it’s time that students start recognizing and feeling entitled to having administrative decision making power at GW. This is something that students across the country are beginning to see as a serious institutional flaw in higher education. Students should not have to beg for what is due to them, and so they should feel very much in their right to take it – whether that be a responsive Title IX office, better labor conditions or a Board of Trustees that is accountable to the University community. GW students deserve better and should begin to mobilize for it.

Karina Ochoa Berkley, a junior majoring in political science and philosophy, is an opinions columnist and the assistant copy editor.

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