Seventy protestors calling for Ohio University (OU) to proclaim itself a sanctuary campus for those threatened by the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies were arrested for peacefully occupying a university building.
The February 1 action began as a rally of about 300 students, faculty, staff and community members in response to the administration’s lack of action in defense of university and community members affected by Trump’s recent immigration ban.
While discussions around making OU a “sanctuary campus” have been building since his election, Trump’s executive order brought the issue to the forefront of attention. OU President Roderick McDavis issued a January 29 statement repeating the university’s typical platitudes about the issue:
I share the increasing concerns from many members of the Ohio University community who are reaching out to me regarding the executive order entitled “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States” signed by President Donald Trump on January 27, 2017, and its potential impact on our fellow students, faculty and staff.
We will continue to monitor these national discussions and will keep the university community informed of important developments as they unfold.
McDavis’ statement amounts to an empty offer of concern with no concrete measures of support. While the OU Student Senate and Graduate Student Senate worked to pass resolutions urging the administration to declare a sanctuary campus, concerned students organized a rally to apply the needed pressure to compel the university to provide more than news of “important developments.”
Speakers at the rally, which began in front of the Athens County Courthouse, addressed the diverse crowd about the issues of immigration and solidarity, the history of American imperialism, and how the latest anti-immigrant assault by Trump has upended people’s personal lives, families and friends. History professor Ziad Abu-Rish told the crowd:
The Trump administration has temporarily stopped accepting refugees and asylum seekers into the United States — at a time, I will be very clear, when the United States’ policies overseas are one of the main reasons creating refugees and asylum seekers.
We have been here before. We have been here with the Chinese Exclusion Act. We’ve been here when the United States did temporarily ban Jewish refugees from Europe. We’ve been here before, when being a member of a communist party was grounds for deportation. And until today, you have to tell the US government when you immigrate to the United States if you are a member of a communist organization. Until today.
This is an opportunity to stand up against the targeting and terrorizing of members of our community. We have Iranians on our campus. We have Syrians on our campus. We have Yemenis on our campus. We have people who are faculty, staff and, primarily, students from all of these countries. And I’m here to stand with you and everybody else who has come up here to say that everybody is welcome at our university.
The protestors called on OU to become a sanctuary campus, specifically demanding:
- The university does not share students’ immigration status.
- The university does not allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers on campus.
- The university prohibits the OU Police Department from collaborating with federal immigration authorities.
- The university will provide resources and information for immigrant students and their families.
Protesters, flanked by police, then took to Court Street, marching against traffic towards Baker University Center, where they occupied the fourth floor lobby. Roughly 150 protesters demanded that the university administration recognize or open a dialogue about their demands for a sanctuary campus.
Police requested that protesters open paths between the escalators and the doors, allowing people to pass. After clearing space for movement by those not involved in the occupation, protesters continued calling for an administrative response for the next two hours.
Rather than address the protesters directly, the university administration deferred to campus police, who began threatening to arrest protesters if they failed to disperse. After several warnings, police began to close in. A core group of 70 students and community members created a tight circle as those who were unable to risk arrest began to clear out.
Despite Baker Center not beings scheduled to close for another four hours, police began physically picking up protesters and using zip ties to detain anyone continuing to sit. Notably, people standing nearby were not asked to disperse nor were they detained.
Protesters were processed over several hours, while administrators ignored the pleas of students to defend those most vulnerable in the wake of the recent actions by the Trump administration. All protesters were eventually charged with fourth-degree criminal trespassing for failing to disperse and released that evening.
The OU Student Senate passed a resolution that same evening in support of making OU a sanctuary campus. So far, the university administration has not issued an official response to the demand, but pressure is mounting. On February 6, the OU Faculty Senate passed its own resolution criticizing the university’s position regarding Trump’s policy, with the Graduate Student Senate set to vote the following day.
During the Faculty Senate meeting, President McDavis expressed his full support of the police and their actions, also adding that there is no need to make OU a sanctuary campus. McDavis explained that the university administration has opted to take an “individual approach” rather than make “politically charged statements,” saying university officials had been in contact with those most affected by the recent executive order.
The OU faculty senate, however, came out in overwhelming support of the protest, voting 35-2 to demand the university request “the appropriate authorities” to drop all charges and not pursue its own disciplinary action against anyone arrested during the protest. Later that week, both the Graduate Student Senate and the Undergraduate Student Senate passed resolutions urging the administration to drop all charges against the protesters.
Despite arrests and threats of additional punishment, local activists — students or otherwise — are not backing down. The recent protests in Athens show that the university is willing to take unprecedented steps to repress any grassroots movement seeking to influence the power structure of OU — and the community is taking notice.