Activists from different student groups publicly challenged President Elizabeth Garrett to respond to instances of intimidation from University police toward protesters as well as alleged labor rights abuses at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar during the inauguration events on Friday.
Beginning at 9:10 a.m., before Garrett’s inauguration ceremony, student activists gathered on Ho Plaza and on the Arts Quad to distribute an open letter airing grievances regarding campus police actions against student protesters.
The letter, addressed to Garrett and signed by the Cornell Independent Students’ Union, Cornell Graduate Students United, the Cornell Progressive and Students for Justice in Palestine, was distributed to visiting alumni, students and faculty members as they entered the seating area in the Arts Quad.
“Last semester the Cornell Police used threats of jail time and fabricated charges to intimidate students who voiced dissenting speech,” the letter reads. “Police, wearing armor and carrying guns, are a common sight at peaceful political demonstrations on the Cornell campus.”
According to Alec Desbordes ’17, a member of CISU, the letter was written in response to a campus police investigation of student protester Daniel Marshall ’15 in April, in which the police investigator threatened criminal charges against Marshall if he did not cooperate by answering the investigator’s questions.
In response to the the police investigation and intimidation, 95 faculty members signed a letter that condemned the University’s actions and called for the administration to “respond meaningfully to the fair and pointed questions being asked of them by the students (and the faculty),” The Sun previously reported.
The letter also references a November 2012 incident in which members of Students for Justice in Palestine and the Cornell Israel Public Affairs Committee held competing protests on Ho Plaza at the same time. In the incident, CUPD evacuated SJP protesters from Ho Plaza due to them not having registered the event beforehand. A faculty investigation later revealed that campus police threatened protesters and forced a student to the ground during the evacuation.
“President Garrett, as students, we have the right to participate in dissenting speech, discussion and expression,” the letter reads. “We demand that police do not intimidate or harass students engaged in peaceful political activity.”
While Desbordes said the union’s ultimate goal was to making meaningful changes to how shared governance operates at Cornell, he said the distribution of the letter was not meant to disrupt, but rather to inform the attendees of Garrett’s inauguration.
“We are trying to set up a level playing field for us to organize more,” Desbordes said.
He continued that the use of police force in protests was a constraining factor in how much change the union could currently affect.
The letter concludes by asking Garrett to respond to the concerns outlined in the letter regarding past campus police intimidation and future policies on free speech by Sept. 28th.
“If she doesn’t answer, it’ll show something about her administration,” Desbordes said.
Later in the day, Garrett also moderated a panel, “Democracy and Inequality,” in Bailey Hall. During a question and answer session, Allison Considine ’17, a member of Cornell Organization for Labor Action, presented an oversized card to Garrett that congratulated her inauguration and challenged her to address allegations of exploitation and abuse of labor workers at Cornell’s Qatar campus.
“In the face of reports that workers on our medical campus in Qatar are facing exploitation and abuse, what are you going to do to remedy this situation and ensure that the promises of democracy and inequality on our campus are occurring at all of our campuses?” Considine asked.
Garrett thanked Considine for the card and said she appreciated COLA’s efforts in delivering a letter to her office last Tuesday.
“We take very seriously the health and wellbeing and the safety of our staff no matter where they work for us,” Garrett said. “I am confident that we are treating our staff in Qatar the way we treat our staff here and that we work very hard to have labor conditions of which we can be proud no matter where they are.”
While Garrett promised to give a longer response to COLA in the future, she also said she believed it was important for residents of developed countries to question the best ways to affect change in exploitative labor conditions abroad.
COLA’s action during the panel is the latest in their Weill Workers Suffer campaign, which kicked off earlier last week when members of COLA delivered a letter to Garrett’s office that outlined their concerns with Cornell’s potential abuses of labor rights in Qatar.
In addition to campaign demands for a University acknowledgement of the alleged abuses and for an independent investigation on WCMC workers’ conditions, COLA also requested that Garrett respond to a 2014 International Trade Union Confederation letter addressed to university presidents by Sept. 29.
“So far, we haven’t received much of a response from President Garrett,” said Michael Ferrer ’16, a member of COLA. “She has assured us, as President [Emeritus David] Skorton did, that the labor conditions in Qatar are up to Cornell standards. The initial investigation by the [ITUC], however, says otherwise.”
The ITUC letter highlights problems taking place in Education City, Qatar, where WCMC is located, as well as in the greater Qatari labor system, according to COLA’s letter to Garrett.
Ferrer added that COLA was optimistic that Garrett would respond to their letter and attend their teach-in on Oct. 1st, which will aim to educate Cornellians about labor abuses in Qatar.