April 16, 2009

Unrest Persists at Cornell Following 1969

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Activism at Cornell has taken many forms since the Straight Takeover — from the Shantytown erected on campus during the Apartheid Divestment protests in the 1980s, to the Day Hall Takeover in 1993 that established the Latino Living Center and the Latino Studies Program, to students chaining themselves to trees to protest the destruction of Redbud Woods in 2005. The University’s relationship with campus activism has evolved as much at the activism itself.
In the aftermath of the Straight Takeover, negotiations between students and the University produced a pledge that Cornell would not discipline the students, but this has not always been the case for campus activism on the hill.
Since the takeover, protests throughout Cornell’s history have varied in seriousness, though no specific disciplinary protocol has been developed to respond to campus activism. Different administrations have also handled cases of student activism differently, according to Kathy Zoner, captain of the Cornell Police Department.
Today, the CUPD responds to each situation differently — if a situation requires a response at all — with the top priority being safety. “Different circumstances require different responses,” Zoner said.
Though students can register events like rallies and protests, the CUPD responds to situations as they unfold, by first engaging all parties involved to consider the “best way to serve everyone,” according to Zoner.
In situations in which there are protests, the CUPD will meet with those being protested against to determine the next steps and if charges will be filed. The consequences are determined by the severity of the protest or action, regardless of intention, Zoner said.
When determining whether to respond to a situation and the severity of a protest or action, the CUPD considers whether or not it is constructive to the University environment.
“Is what’s going on enhancing the education environment … or degenerating it?,” Zoner asked.
When students are charged, their charges are adjudicated to the Judicial Administrator, who promotes an educational aspect for students to learn from their actions and discipline students through sanctions, according to Zoner.
“The main thing to know and to stress is that the campus disciplinary system looks at the behavior and not what the message of the speech is. That was something some people were surprised by. … Because the Hearing Board members or I very well may agree with the message of the protesters,” Mary Beth Grant, the judicial administrator, said.
Like the response of the CUPD, the J.A. evaluates each case based on its severity, considering the level of seriousness of the behavior, how cooperative the protesters are and whether people are injured when sanctioning students, and seeks to educate students in the process.
“Our process is definitely educational in nature … We ask how can we use our system to both help the accused student learn from his/her choices and help improve the educational environment for the entire community,” Grant said.
Like the debate that ensued over the fate of the students involved in the Straight Takeover, students and faculty who have been sanctioned for activism question the consequences.
Danny Pearlstein ’05, a former Sun columnist and member of the Redbud Eight, was arrested during a sit-in in the president’s office. During the ensuing events, protesters attempted to stop the demolition of the Redbud Woods in order to construct a parking lot. Pearlstein was initially charged with trespassing, resisting arrest and several other violations of the Campus Code of Conduct.
“I didn’t expect to be arrested. I didn’t expect that the police would use [plastic] handcuffs that they were unfamiliar with, cutting off my circulation, and then unsure how to remove them … I also felt that the J.A. was quite harsh,” Pearlstein stated in an e-mail.
Another student, who asked to remain anonymous, was given four citations for trespassing during the Redbud Woods protests.
“It is my understanding … that the CUPD used excessive force when they removed the students from the president’s office in April 2005. For example, they flipped the students onto their backs with their legs in the air,” the student stated in an e-mail.
Prof. Paul Sawyer, English, was arrested twice during the Redbud Woods protests.
While Sawyer had a positive experience with the CUPD, he cited the University administration as an antagonistic force.
“We understood that the police were there to do a job, without personal animosity, and we attempted to maintain a similar courteous demeanor, since our quarrel was with the administration, not the security force,” Sawyer stated in an e-mail.
Kent Hubbell ’67, dean of students, stressed the necessity of communication between the administration and student activists.
“In my view, if you can communicate effectively, students and the administration and faculty and staff … would realize that they are allies more than they are opponents,” Hubbell said.
Takeover, sit in or rally, the need for good communication in all situations involving student activists is clear.
“To me, it’s all about communication,” Hubbell said. “Sitting down and taking about what is the issue, how we can address it together as a community, if people have a strong opinion about what the University is doing. We can’t just protest forever … If there are sincere concerns, we can discuss them.”
When weighing the consequences for activism, students must consider what kind of activism will communicate their message — while escalation was an effective tactic for the students in the Straight, it might not be in all cases.
“I so strongly support activism on campus. … There are all kinds of political viewpoints. As people are considering what kind of activism in which to engage, however, they need to consider the consequences,” Grant said.
In the years since the Straight Takeover, there has not been a threat of escalation to the point of violence.
“[The response] really depends on what we’re hearing. There hasn’t been any violence and there hasn’t been a threat of violence since the Willard Straight Hall Takeover,” CUPD Patrol Officer Jim Morrissette said.
Though the administration seeks to communicate with activists, there are dissenting voices.
“Certainly we felt the administration had behaved reprehensibly. … No one trusted what [administrators] said. But the students were amazing,” Sawyer stated.