Dismissed, Disrespected, Disenfranchised: Indiana Grad Students Protesting Tax Bill Get a Lesson in Democracy for the Rich

Risking arrest, activists from Campus Action for Democracy occupy the office of US Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (R-Indiana) on December 11, 2017. The activists are graduate students at Indiana University and they staged a sit-in to pressure their representative to vote against the tax bill. (Photo: Denisa Jashari)Risking arrest, activists from Campus Action for Democracy occupy the office of US Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (R-Indiana) on December 11, 2017. The activists are graduate students at Indiana University and they staged a sit-in to pressure their representative to vote against the tax bill. (Photo: Denisa Jashari)

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now nearly a year into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 100th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Tracey Hutchings-Goetz, Edward Brudney, Justin Knight, Kathryn Lehman, Amanda Waterhouse and Liam Kingsley. They are Ph.D. candidates or graduate students at Indiana University, and all are involved in Campus Action for Democracy. They discuss their recent occupation of their congressman’s office in opposition to the tax bill and how disconnected they felt from their representative, who was unwilling to engage these constituents.

Sarah Jaffe: I am talking to all of you because you had an occupation of your congressman’s office Monday. Tell us about that action and how that went.

Edward Brudney: We went in with the plan to bring our congressman, Trey Hollingsworth, a petition with signatures from around 500 … members of the community of Indiana University in opposition to the tax bill. We went in with a specific demand of getting Trey on the phone to speak to us and to get him to change his vote to “no.” Those were the conditions by which we would agree to leave his office.

Tracey Hutchings-Goetz: We went in with seven of us willing to sustain arrest, and you are talking to six of the seven…. We went in knowing full well that arrest was a possibility. Then, the staff let us kind of hunker down and wait. We conducted a teach-in in the office about the tax bill, the history of taxation and we livestreamed that the whole time.

Kathryn Lehman: We all very consciously all wore blazers. We were talking about it as “professor drag.” It was to indicate that we are not just students at the university, we are also teachers, we are graders, we are part of the workforce that makes the university function and continues to let it be a viable public higher education institution.

Liam Kingsley: We all gave testimonials in the Occupy “mic check” way, in which we sort of spoke about ourselves, our experiences, what we do at the university and how this tax bill was going to affect us.

Hutchings-Goetz: We were then in the office waiting…. We had called Representative Hollingsworth’s DC office because his staff seemed unable to get him on the phone…. We were told the DC office then called the Capitol Police, who then called a man who identified himself as the landlord of the building [we were occupying], but refused to give us his name. That man then contacted the Greenwood Police Department. He sent officers to the office around 6:45 pm.

Brudney: At which point, the seven of us who were risking arrest sat down on the floor in order to demonstrate our peacefulness and nonviolence in the situation as the police entered. We were engaged by a sergeant of the Greenwood Police Department. His first strategy was to ask us to stand up and leave the office. He sort of discouraged us from taking arrest and then said, “Well, listen, if you want to take arrest, just stand up and leave and I will still arrest you outside.”

He spoke to us for a while. It seemed as though he was about to reach the end of his negotiating tactic and have to do what he clearly did not want to do, which was arrest us, when another officer — who turned out to be his lieutenant and a shift commander — ducked his head in and said, “Alright, we are done. We are out of here,” and let us know that he had spoken to Representative Hollingsworth’s chief of security and had been told that they did not have permission to arrest us and that we should stay in the office.

Hutchings-Goetz: … We had folks there acting as liaisons, we had folks there acting in the capacity of media outreach, and we also had someone there acting as jail support. We gave those friends our cell phones, our bags — everything except our IDs and some cash. They left the building and we were deprived of our cell phones at that moment because we thought we were about to be arrested.

Amanda Waterhouse: When the shift commander told us that they weren’t going to arrest us … he also drew a distinction between inside of the office and outside of the office…. He pointed to the doorframe and said, “If you cross outside of the doorframe and into the hallway of this commercial building where the office is located, you will be evicted from the building.” The really key part of that was that the restroom was outside in that hallway….

Hutchings-Goetz: Another really strange thing happened related to the landlord and to the various parties involved in this, who seemed to all be coordinating things with one another…. At one point, the landlord came out and sat down at the big conference table as if he wanted to negotiate with us. He painted himself as somehow an authority in the situation and he told us that if we would agree to leave after the conversation, that he would get Representative Hollingsworth on the phone with us.

Brudney: We asked him, “Have you spoken to Representative Hollingsworth?” and he indicated that he had.

Hutchings-Goetz: So, we are having this really strange discussion with him and he told us, “You guys came in here threatening, being coercive, but you are trying to coerce the congressman into changing his vote and that is not how politics works. So, I can get him on the phone if you agree to leave.”

Lehman: He was being very confrontational still at this point … through the rest of the time we were there, [he] still refused to give us his name.

Hutchings-Goetz: Strangely enough, through this conversation both with the landlord and with Representative Hollingsworth’s staff, they kept saying that Representative Hollingsworth would not ever concede to our demand and agree to say “no,” which we thought was quite strange, because they also told us that he would also not tell us how he was going to vote. That he would never tell anyone how he was going to vote, which struck us as weird as coming from the landlord.

Brudney: We also found out … that Trey had communicated, perhaps indirectly, with his staff toward the end of the night…. We asked them if, hopefully, they were getting overtime or something for this, and they indicated that they talked to Trey or they talked to some chief of staff that they were going to get a vacation day, something like that. We realized at this point, “Okay, at least three different people have communicated with Trey Hollingsworth…. That is three different ways in which Trey spent time delegating to other people to deal with us rather than to simply speak to his constituents.

Justin Knight: At some point, we had been effectively stuck in this room for about three hours since they prohibited us from going outside into the hallway to use the bathroom or use the telephone. We couldn’t communicate with anybody on the outside. We learned later that the rest of the people who had come with us assumed that we were going to spend the night and were actually debating leaving and then coming back in the morning.

We were all in increasing states of discomfort from not having access to a restroom … and we were repeatedly warned by the police that any attempt to relieve ourselves in any places except the restroom would be ground for immediate arrest on either indecent exposure or vandalism or destruction of private property charges — none of which we were particularly interested in doing, because they obviously don’t reflect the reason that we were there.

At some point, one of us decided that they were going to test how this system was working. So, I got up and went to the restroom and attempted to come back, and as we opened the door, I was physically stopped, first by the staffer and then by the building owner.

Hutchings-Goetz: They actually locked the door when you went out and when their back was turned, I unlocked it.

Knight: It was a pretty small office. Also, the door makes a chime when you open it, so sneaking in and out was a tough job. I wasn’t allowed back in the room. They called the police back to the building…. So, the police physically escorted me out and told me that if I set foot back on the property, I would be arrested for trespassing. That is when I realized that this problem of communication went both ways, because nobody on the outside had any idea what was happening with us on the inside.

For the next 40 minutes, we debated next best moves on the outside and how we could resolve this situation, because it seemed clear when I was forcibly evicted that nobody among the remaining six occupiers was going to be able to last 11 more hours without access to a restroom. I managed to talk my way back into the building to relay a message to the people that were still inside. What we ended up deciding was that they would go to the restroom and at that point, as soon as we were outside of the physical space of Trey Hollingsworth’s office, we were all forcibly evicted from the building and prevented from any further attempts to get in touch with our congressional representative who … for more than eight hours, refused to talk to us as we sat in his office.

Hutchings-Goetz: At a certain point — I think it was probably around 10pm — they … brought in a Marion County Sheriff’s Deputy, presumably to guard the public records that they had within the office…. When he arrived, we asked him about that, and he said he was there to protect the property of the office, to make sure we didn’t commit vandalism or indecency that they thought we would commit, to make sure that we didn’t use the bathroom or go outside of the office. That also struck us as odd that a sheriff’s deputy from a different county….

Knight: He seemed to be off-duty, wearing the sheriff’s regalia and armed with bulletproof vest. He was wearing jeans. He wasn’t wearing a uniform…. It was not clear whether he had been contracted privately, whether the landlord had paid for him to be there, whether Representative Hollingsworth was using public funds to pay for him to be there.

Hutchings-Goetz: It sort of represented to us … this strange intermixture between public and private ownership and authority that was happening in the space that we were trying to speak to our representative in, and to do this protest that was about public and governmental matters.

Tell us about Representative Hollingsworth. He voted for the tax bill the first time around — the House bill, which included the attacks on graduate student workers’ income. What else should people know about him?

Brudney: Perhaps the most important thing to know about him is that [he] is not from Indiana. He does not live here. He is actually from Tennessee. He is the son of a millionaire real estate developer. He purchased a condo in Jeffersonville, in the southern part of the 9th District, in 2016 in preparation for this race, which he funded himself with a PAC that his father had started in Indiana. He has never held a public forum since being elected. He has never actually spoken directly to constituents in a public setting. He is the beneficiary of this tax bill.

Hutchings-Goetz: According to [the information] available, he is worth around $60 million.

Waterhouse: His full complete name is Joseph Albert Trey Hollingsworth, III.

Knight: It took quite a while for him to even set up an office in the district. Correct?

Hutchings-Goetz: A little bit of information about the 9th District of Indiana might be helpful, as well. It is a district which basically extends from the southernmost ring of Indianapolis suburbs … all the way in a kind of a skinny line down to the bottom of the state and the Kentucky border, which includes Jeffersonville and New Albany, which is where his other office is….

Bloomington is where Indiana University is, and the city that we occupy is the largest city in the district, and Indiana University itself is the largest constituency within the district. We are actually the most populous group in the district — Indiana University students, employees, faculty, and staff and administrators.

And the congressman has never been available publicly to his constituents at either office, anyway. We really felt when we went there … like we don’t have the opportunity to have any kind of communication with this person who has been elected to represent us and is supposed to be our voice in Congress.

And … he really proved that point to us, that we actually have no way to communicate with him…. I felt really dismissed and disrespected, and honestly, disenfranchised by that experience … by the way that he and his DC office coordinated things around us without engaging us. It was a really troubling and upsetting experience as a constituent and a voter.

Brudney: I agree.

Knight: We felt that the only recourse that we had to communicate with our congressman was to show up in his office and refuse to leave, or else, perhaps, get arrested … and it didn’t work….

Tell people about your Campus Action group and the organizing you have been doing leading up to this.

Hutchings-Goetz: Campus Action for Democracy, which is the on-campus chapter of Hoosier Action, was founded this fall…. We have been organizing up and down the 9th District ever since, but are very soon to expand state-wide. That is the goal for Hoosier Action: to build power and fight for the interests of working Hoosiers, working families here.

Then, in September, I, as a Hoosier Action member, helped found this on-campus chapter. We have chapters around the district … the chapters work in coordination with Hoosier Action on specific issues that affect the folks in those chapters….

I started the on-campus chapter and we have had monthly meetings working on figuring out how to get Indiana University faculty, staff and students … trying to get all of the folks there to start thinking of themselves as a voting bloc, as a group of people who can fight for a more democratic university and a more democratic state and a more democratic country. I mean that in the sense of democracy, not the big D party sense, because we are not party-affiliated and we are also self-funded. Our members pay dues, and that is how our organization funds [itself], so that we are truly grassroots and the money is from Indiana. We are speaking to our own interests.

We have been organizing around enfranchisement, and then when the grad student tax came up in the House version of the tax bill, we have been organizing around that particular issue. We made a petition which eventually garnered about 500 signatures, and then, after Rep. Hollingsworth voted in favor of the bill, we joined the national organizers of the national walkout and march against the grad student tax. That was an event that was coordinated with Save Grad Ed, as well as some students in California….

On November 29, we organized a walkout and a petition delivery march, where we had about 150 mostly graduate students, but also faculty and staff and undergrads. We rallied together on campus in opposition to the tax bill, particularly the grad student tax, and we delivered our petition to [Indiana University] President [Michael] McRobbie’s office, where we were greeted by the chief of staff there who was really lovely to us. We delivered our petition, gave some testimonials, and then our decision to engage in this action at Rep. Hollingsworth’s office came out of the grad student walkout….

What are next steps?

Hutchings-Goetz: We are currently still figuring that out, but we know that the fight is not done. One of the things that we are calling for, which I think would be very powerful, would be if professors would decide to step up and consider occupying one of Rep. Hollingsworth’s offices. This fight is not done. The reconciled bill has not been voted on yet.

Brudney: … Some of the other things we had talked about in terms of next steps include also inviting Rep. Hollingsworth … to come to Bloomington and actually speak to us, to take part in a candidates’ forum which Campus Action for Democracy is organizing, ahead of the 2018 House elections, which all of the Democratic candidates have expressed interest in.

Hutchings-Goetz: The day of the House vote, Rep. Hollingsworth posted on Facebook that he was answering phones in the DC office, and coincidentally at that time, I was able to call him and speak to him. I explained the opposition that my organization and myself have to this bill and begged him to vote against it. He told me, “Well, it is important to keep higher education more accessible rather than less accessible,” and wouldn’t make any promises. It was at that point that I asked him to attend this candidate forum in the spring, and he said that it depends on his schedule and the congressional schedule. We will see if he actually shows up to that event, but I think from our experience together, that is extremely unlikely.

We will fight … this with our last breath because these are all of our lives. Many of us don’t know what we will do if this bill passes, frankly. I spent seven years studying to become a professor of English, and it is possible that even with the tax burden, I might be able to still finish my dissertation, but there will be no jobs for me because departments and universities will have to shutter as a result of this tax bill. There is a reason why Moody’s has downgraded higher education from a stable investment to a negative investment, an investment to be avoided, because this bill is so apocalyptic for higher education.

We are going to continue to organize and build our power and grow our organization so that we can ensure that Trey Hollingsworth is no longer our representative come 2018, because it is very clear that he is much more interested in protecting his own money and growing his own wealth rather than actually acting as a public servant for the people of this district, because most of them, frankly, are low-wage workers….

How can people keep up with you and your organization?

Hutchings-Goetz: We have a Facebook page. You can also check out the Hoosier Action Facebook page or www.HoosierAction.org to find out more about our parent organization if you are not affiliated with the university. You can also become a dues-paying member of Hoosier Action on HoosierAction.org and that would be really great so that we can keep growing our power together and keep fighting for the rights of Hoosiers.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.