Arrests and Defiance at Gallaudet

October 16, 2006

Washington police arrested more than 130 protesters at Gallaudet University Friday night and early Saturday morning -- ending a barricade that had effectively blocked people from entering the campus. But the protesters, who were taken away, fingerprinted and fined $50 each, quickly returned to campus, where they pledged to keep their activism going.

By late Sunday afternoon, students had abandoned the gate where the arrests took place and cars could be seen leaving and entering the campus. But protesters moved to the main campus gate and vowed to continue the fight unless Jane K. Fernandes, the provost whose selection as president set off the protests, resigns.

Classes and most activities at Gallaudet -- internationally known for its education of deaf students -- were suspended for much of last week because of the protests. Among the topics of debate are exactly why the protests are taking place. Fernandes and her supporters on the board say that she is a victim of deaf identity politics because she was not raised on American Sign Language. Students portray the protest movement as one focused on what they perceive as a lack of leadership skills in Fernandes.

The arrests began just after sundown, on Friday, when President I. King Jordan walked over to the protest and read from a prepared statement. “Gallaudet University has exhausted all means of communication and negotiation with those who have disrupted the university’s educational processes and held the campus hostage to their demands…. The university fully respects and is committed to free speech and the free exchange of ideas, but the protestors’ own actions are in violation of those fundamental principles of academic life and pursuit of knowledge…. I have asked the Gallaudet University Department of Public Safety, the consultant, and the Metropolitan Police Department to take actions necessary to reopen Gallaudet University for educational purposes. I deeply regret being forced to take this action.”

Washington police then blockaded the area with police tape, while hundreds of students, faculty, alumni and other supporters formed a wall around students who began moving to the ground to be arrested. By 8:30 p.m., around 40 police stood ready, including two mounted police officers, who later left the scene, once it became obvious that the crowd was orderly.

For the next six hours students almost fought to get arrested, and were joined by a few alumni and faculty members. The area turned nearly festive as a crowd of mostly student supporters cheered and hooted. “JF out! JF out!” protestors chanted. For each arrest, Gallaudet security walked up in threes to pick up students splayed out on the ground in front of the gate. Once hoisted off the ground, the students went limp and were carried 90 feet over to a police van, where they were then stood up and asked for identification. They then stood for a picture. One student reached over, slung his arm around an officer and mugged for the photo with a smile on his face. Police laughed along.

When security picked up a sophomore, Calvin Doudt, a couple of protesters yelled and signed, “We love you, Calvin!”

Officers seemed relaxed and resigned to a long night. “I think we’ll be here until morning,” said one.

Tim Monigan of Frederick, Md., north of Washington, sat atop the security fence at the gate’s entrance to gain a better view, signing and chanting with the crowd. “I came to show my support,” he said. Like many people in the story, Monigan was interviewed through a translator. “My sister was at Gallaudet, but she couldn’t make it, and I came in her place,” he said. “People all over the U.S. are watching this."

“My daughter is a freshman, and I came as a representative of Indiana Deaf,” said Jay Krieger, who graduated in 1982. Krieger said that Gallaudet is the mecca of deaf culture and that the university deserves a leader who can lead. The process that led to the choice of Fernandes was flawed, he argued. “The board is supposed to represent the [deaf] community and [Fernandes] was not even close.”

A former Gallaudet student, Rachel Lawrence, said that she decided to get arrested because she wanted to show that this was not merely a “student” protest. “This is my community and this represents more than a place that I attended for a year of college,” she said, standing in line for her turn. “I’m doing this for deaf kids around the world.”

“All our lives, we are given the impression that we can’t do anything,” said Sean Stone, a freshman who also lined up for his arrest. “We are here to break that impression. The deaf culture is small, but we are united … and we need a good president.”

“We know that outsiders do not understand this,” added Lawrence. “It’s all about culture and [Gallaudet] is the core of deaf culture. We are white, black, brown, and all different colors, but we are all deaf. Maybe if we dyed   ourselves purple then people would understand."

Kenneth Doane, a junior, said that the orderly nature of the arrests was designed to embarrass the university administration.

The arrests continued long after television crews left after filing for the late news. Wave after wave, students continued to come forward, but by 2:30 a.m., police had had enough. They were almost finished, when yet another group stepped forward to be arrested. At this point, police officers packed up, and students later abandoned the gate.

On Sunday afternoon, protesters rallied at the main gate, where camera crews gathered to film. Off to the side, a large tent sheltered a large spread of food with apples, oranges, granola bars, salad and Popeye’s chicken. Grills sat waiting for evening barbeques and students wandered in and out of tents pitched on the lawn.

Jordan and Fernandes have declined numerous requests for an interview, and nobody answered the door at Jordan’s personal residence on Sunday. However, Fernandes published an op-ed in The Washington Post on Saturday titled "Many Ways of Being Deaf."

“That’s part of her style  to not deal directly with people,” said a graduate student, Louise Gilbert. “She could have the same record and be fine if she was just a warmer person.”

In the article, Fernandes argued that deaf politics were partly to blame for why she has been rejected by the deaf community. Fernandes did not learn sign language until later in life and the issue has been occasionally mentioned as why she is disliked.

While some have hinted that this may be a problem, numerous people who have been interviewed have denied such a charge, including Nancy Bloch, the CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, a national civil rights group. Bloch said that she too learned to sign only late in life and was “ragged on” when she came to Gallaudet as a graduate student in the '70s and could not sign fluently.

“Why does everybody like me?” she asked. “Why do they feel a connection with me? Many people, like me, learn to sign late in life. Fernandes is playing deaf politics. Gallaudet is home; this is about home business.”

Gallaudet’s homecoming week begins today and students and faculty members say that they are unsure if classes will continue on Monday, although the university issued a statement Sunday evening saying that Gallaudet would be open. By Wednesday, hundreds of alumni will have arrived. One of them, Patricia Raswant, said that protesters have already secured a permit to march to Captiol Hill Friday. “We want to let Congress know that things are not working here and maybe Congress can intervene,” she said.

Bloch said that the National Association of the Deaf has called for Fernandes to step aside for the greater good of Gallaudet. “This has repercussions for higher ed all across the country,” she said. “This protest will become a case study in campus leadership.”

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