Occupation Fatigue

Occupy Seattle picked Seattle Central Community College as its home. Protesters claim solidarity with the college, but tensions rise as campus administrators want them to leave.

November 17, 2011

Move over Berkeley and Harvard; Seattle Central Community College has become an increasingly high-profile and tense campus home for the Occupy movement.

Occupy Seattle has declared its solidarity with the cash-strapped Seattle Central. But administrators tried to warn off protesters even before they arrived on Oct. 30. Animosity has grown since then. A college spokeswoman says the tent city’s presence on campus is a health and safety hazard, as well as disruptive to students and expensive for the college.

Occupiers have disputed those charges, and local news media have pounced on the growing spat. Faculty union leaders have also challenged the administration’s claims, and are staging teach-ins for protesters.

The protest has even welcomed an academic celebrity, with a surprise speaking appearance by Cornel West on Wednesday afternoon.

What happens next is unclear. State laws don’t allow the college to evict Occupy Seattle, which is focused on broad economic issues and not the management of the college. But administrators have reportedly discussed their options with the attorney general’s office.

At first glimpse, a community college doesn't seem an ideal location for a movement trying to shame the 1 percent into caring about everyone else. Even student debt, a hot issue for occupiers, is more relevant for protests on or near campuses that charge far more than Seattle Central, where annual tuition is $3,100. (Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct an erroneous tuition figure.)

But, as its name implies, the college is a good location for Occupy Seattle. And the campus has a long history as a gathering spot for marches. This time, however, the protesters aren’t marching off -- county health inspectors counted an estimated 150 protesters, 12 “large dogs” and 60 tents or other erected structures during a recent site visit, according to Judy Kitzman, a college spokeswoman.

The occupation is centered on a lawn area on the college’s south plaza. Kitzman said the space is 20,000 square feet, which is tight for a group of that size.

“They’re building temporary structures out there,” she said, adding that “the encampment literally abuts our outdoor child care facility.”

Kitzman said workers at the child care center have spotted protesters using drugs. The college put tarps over a fence between the facility and the camping area, but Kitzman said protesters tore some of the tarps down to use in their makeshift shelters. Now she said children are restricted to staying inside during their recess periods.

The college has blamed Occupy Seattle for other campus problems, including clean-up costs for restrooms, increased security and female students' claims of sexual harassment by protesters. Kitzman said the college is receiving at least one complaint per day about the occupation, like one recent call from a parent worried about a female student’s safety. She also said the number of rats on campus has increased, because of protesters’ food and trash.

“This is obviously straining our resources,” Kitzman said.

In a written statement, Occupy Seattle said its members had not vandalized bathrooms and were not the source of drug paraphernalia on campus.

"Occupy Seattle understands the deep funding cuts facing the school, in fact our work is focused on changing the economic inequity in this state so that schools are adequately funded," the statement said. "We are committed to being respectful of the school and the community and look forward to continuing what we thought was a good working relationship to address all concerns."

Two professors, who are also faculty union leaders, said the college was exaggerating the mess, or at least failing to prove that protesters were behind common nuisances on the urban campus, where drugs and mentally unstable passerby are hardly rare.

The union has also supported the protest’s overall goals, and has brought cupcakes, bread and roses to occupiers. Faculty have staged teach-ins, including an all-night event when Occupy Seattle first arrived.

Sandra Schroeder, president of the Washington State chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, has taught English at the college since 1979. She said faculty members were worried about some of the problems the protest might be causing on campus. For one thing, Schroeder said she’s sure the college is spending more money than it can afford because of the occupation.

However, Schroeder said some of the complaints by campus administrators have led to biased reporting about the protest.

“Like all of the Occupy sites, the organizers are struggling with how to deal with the unfortunates of the city who end up attracted to a place where they might be able to get food and companionship,” she said via e-mail. “But Seattle Central is also a place where it would not be at all unusual to have the soap stolen from a bathroom. And anyone who works at Central, if honest, will tell you they have had rats on campus forever.”

Free Teach-Ins

Some local news media reports have claimed that the college’s AFT chapter invited the protest to campus. However, Karen Strickland, president of the AFT Seattle Community Colleges (the district includes three colleges), disputed that claim.

“We did not invite them,” Strickland said. Besides, “it would be somewhat counter to Occupy Seattle to wait for an invitation.”

Late last month, the protest’s leaders began considering a move from their location at Westlake Park, in downtown Seattle. The occupation had several publicized scrapes with police there, and decided to move about a mile to Seattle Central.

The college issued an “open letter” to the protest on Oct. 26, which stated that “camping on college property is prohibited for all individuals and groups. If this rule is violated, the college may choose to impose its own sanctions, including criminal or civil prosecution.”

But the prohibition on camping wasn’t so simple. Kitzman said while district policy does not allow camping, the college discovered later that Washington State codes prevent the expulsion of campers from college property.

Paul T. Killpatrick, the college’s president, later met with both union and protest leaders. He said in a statement issued to faculty on Oct. 28 that he remained “strongly opposed” to an encampment, and that the college would have to cover any additional expenses related to the protest, which it could ill afford.

“That imposition comes at a high cost for the college and our students,” Killpatrick said, “as we are already struggling with declining state funds.”

Killpatrick and other administrators have met with protest leaders and faculty union representatives every Tuesday since the campus occupation began. The meeting this week was canceled, however, due to scheduling problems for college officials, Kitzman said. But some protesters interpreted the cancelation as a sign that the college was breaking off relations with them, which Kitzman said is not the case.

Strickland gives nuanced answers when asked about the college’s response to the protest. She said there have been reports of some occupiers visibly using illegal drugs, and that there is resistance to the protest among certain students. Others, she said, have joined the rally.

The teach-ins, however, have been a success, Strickland said. During the all-night lecture, professors gave presentations about calligraphy and the art of protest signs, labor history, how to film demonstrations and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Another lecture is scheduled for today, she said.

Strickland thinks the college will try to evict the protesters, perhaps citing fire code violations they presented to her and occupiers at a meeting last week. And a confrontation now seems more likely.

“Things have escalated,” she said.


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