Recently there has been several instances of direct action at Evergreen involving the interruption of planned school events, including the protest at convocation, the opening of Purce hall, and more recently the welcome reception Evergreen’s new police chief. AR Rushet and Lawrence Walker III are two queer and trans disabled/nonable normative, femmes of color, who are involved in direct action in response to the school’s handling of issues of diversity and equity for students. There is a consensus among many minority students that the school is great at issuing statements and creating task forces but tends to lack any sort of follow through or action that changes the experience of minority students on campus.
Rushet and Walker were interviewed by my colleague Tari Gunstone after the convocation disruption as to why they felt that action was needed. Their responses resonated with me as a student of color; that there is an overall feeling that the school does not listen. Rushet and Walker are currently under investigation by the school for two instances of student code of conduct violation including obstructing or disrupting an event, in relation to the disruption of the Purce hall opening ceremony, and failure to comply with the direction of a college official. Punishment for code of conduct violations could include suspensions, which would include loss of on campus housing.
The school didn’t shut down these students while they were protesting—they waited several months to investigate and issue student code of conduct violations. The student code of conduct specifically prohibits “Conduct that obstructs or disrupts any college learning, teaching, research, administration, adjudicative process, public service functions or college-sponsored events or activities.” It also prohibits students from non-compliance when faced with direction from faculty or the command to identify yourself to a college or public official.
These definition are so broad it effectively makes any sort of meaningful direct action against the school a punishable offence. Rushet and Walker admit the fact that they did disrupt these events, however they are passionate about the fact they did it with a purpose and a reason. They feel that “The school talks in radicalism, but governs in fascism.” They feel their direct action is a result of lack of action or understanding from the administration.
Evergreen claims to support diversity and equity, even listing “social justice and diversity and equity” in it’s core themes on the school’s website, and yet punishes students who are the most passionate and outspoken about social justice as it relates to the school and administration. Direct action is a main tenet of social justice and one of the most effective ways to create change. How can Evergreen be for social justice but not for direct action? How can they be for direct action but only as long as it is not directed at them?
The school’s diversity statement says: “our community of faculty, staff and students work together to ensure an environment that embraces differences, fosters tolerance and understanding and celebrates a commitment to cultural, ethnic and racial awareness.” The students staging these disruptions are trying to bring to the school’s attention that they are not doing their job of “work[ing] together to ensure an environment that embraces differences, fosters tolerance and understanding and celebrates a commitment to cultural, ethnic and racial awareness.”
Evergreen is a place that draws people prone to or committed to social justice and destroying the status quo, it is supposed to be a place that fosters diversity. Over the last year, we have seen many cases of direct action at Evergreen and the world at large and a common response is for some people to shake their heads and say this is not the time and place. The student code of conduct allows the school to officially hold this position, stating when and where they think student protest is acceptable, and stop or at least discourage students from focusing direct action against the school.
All of this makes me wonder why these specific students are being disciplined and whether the code of conduct rules are being enforced unfairly. There were approximately 50 students who participated in the disruption of Purce Hall and to our knowledge Rushet and Walker are the only two being faced with a code of conduct violation.
One of the main issues they have with Rushet and Walker’s participation in this disruption (mind you they are two of many) was that they used uncivil language while protesting. “Civil” (read: silent, peaceful and respectful of white supremacist/academic standards) protest is the easiest to ignore and by expecting students of color to hold each other to respectability politics they are asking us to jump twice as high when just asking to be treated equally at this school. There are serious racist undertones involved with even using the word civil, in relation to protest by students of color, at all. The school seems to not understand that what the students are protesting against is in itself “uncivil” treatment disguised under official and academic language.
While the school has taken action against these disruptions, there are a continuous stream of anti-abortion protestors who are allowed to remain on campus, shouting things that could very well be considered hate speech. Students have been vocal about the fact that these presences on campus make some students feel unsafe but because red square is a public place, as opposed to the library lobby which is considered private, they are allowed to continue.
The school is basically saying you are allowed free speech as long as it doesn’t affect us or potentially cost us money. And what it really seems to come down to is money. When you’re disrupting Board of Trustee meetings and planning actions that the school would probably deem embarrassing that could lead to loss of students and their tuition, such as the convocation and the Purce hall disruption, they will come after you for a code of conduct violation. While it may be in their right to do so, it seems retaliatory, especially since they appear to be only coming after some of the protesters, often ironically students who need the most support and understanding from the school in the first place. The school is pushing back against students who are rightfully angry about the lack of action the administration is taking, and instead of listening to their concerns and actually changing things for the better, they are punishing them for speaking up . They seem to be more concerned with the frequency of these events than the reasoning behind them. To which I say if it seems like these types of actions are occurring too frequently or at every school planned meeting it is only because the school still hasn’t listened. If the school is losing money because of these interruptions it’s because that’s the point, anyone who has participated in protests or boycotts knows one of the the best ways to create change is to hit them where it hurts, their wallet. Nobody wants to be put in a position that calls for direct action. Nobody wants to put themselves in a place where they can be punished by the school, especially since this school has a history of going after and tracking student activists.
Personally, I think maybe we need to rethink the application of the student code of conduct as a school so as to allow for students to do social justice work without being punished. If found to be in violation, punishment ranges from a warning to expulsion. In my opinion even a warning is too much, why are you warning students not to stand up for themselves in anyway possible, or be punished. Students well being should be more important than the bureaucracy and in this case it seems the school may choose to take a stick to the rules approach. This doesn’t seem like the appropriate way to react when faced with direct action from our most vulnerable students. This system of code of conduct violations doesn’t seem to be working for us in a way that promotes diversity and understanding.
POC Talk is a space to focus on the unique experiences people of color face at Evergreen and in Olympia. It is written anonymously by an Evergreen Student of Color in an effort to specifically discuss POC issues. We want to center and boost POC voices so if you have something to add you can submit your questions, comments, concerns, or ideas for what you would like POC Talk to cover to firstname.lastname@example.org