UVM hunger striker ends campaign, students stage sit-in, see Sullivan

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University of Vermont staff member John Mejia announced an end to a seven day hunger strike in support of students of color on campus during a protest Friday, Feb. 23, 2018, at the Davis Center.
RYAN MERCER/FREE PRESS

University of Vermont staff member John Mejia is ending a seven-day hunger strike in support of students of color on campus, but not giving up the cause.

Mejia made that announcement during a Friday protest that began in the Davis Center before ending as a sit-in at university President Tom Sullivan’s office, the latest in a series of demonstrations over issues of race, gender and culture on campus.

“Do your job, Tom,” the students chanted inside the Waterman building at 12:30 p.m., led by Black Student Union President Harmony Edosomwan. The group used Facebook to livestream the event, which came a day after students blocked traffic near the university to demand a meeting with Sullivan — which he declined Thursday night. 

More: UVM racism protests: Students leave street, but vow further action

“Will someone come out and talk to us?” Edosomwan called on a megaphone Friday through the president’s door after she asked the hundred or so students who accompanied her to sit down.

At about 1:30 p.m. Sullivan addressed the protesters lining the hallways.

“I have a commitment — the administration has a commitment to make sure we have processes, conversations and discussions and timelines and goals in place to move the conversation forward,” Sullivan said, acknowledging what he called the urgency the students must feel.

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Students protesting racism at the University of Vermont, blocked Main Street, stopping traffic during the evening rush hour Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, demanding that university president Tom Sullivan come meet with them.
RYAN MERCER/FREE PRESS

Sullivan left shortly after Edosomwan demanded the president’s promise to rename the Bailey Howe Library over what she said were connections to Vermont’s eugenics movement. Sullivan spoke briefly of the university’s review process on the issue, but Edosomwan wasn’t convinced of his intentions.

“I can’t trust you,” Edosomwan said, explaining she could not, as a queer woman of color on campus, trust the administration.

The sit-in ended at about 3 p.m.

During the morning’s demonstration, Mejia, who uses the gender pronouns they and them, said the hunger strike was a protest against white supremacy on campus and a means of drawing the administration’s attention to the students’ demands.

“I wanted them to care. I wanted them to stop for a second and think. They haven’t,” Mejia said, referring to administrators. 

The activists’ demonstration was planned to coincide with a day of visitations by students who have been admitted to UVM for the class of 2021. Protesters co-opted the university’s Twitter hashtag for the occasion, #uvmsaidyes, to air their grievances.

Edosomwan told the group that the next coordination meeting for protests would convene at 6 p.m. Sunday at the campus Mosaic Center. 

The group is planning a campus-wide walkout at 1 p.m. Monday.

What’s at stake

The campus protesters have demanded the university heighten the sensitivity of staff, faculty and students to matters of race and gender.

According to a list posted Thursday night by activist group No Names for Justice, UVM should:

  • Hire more people of color, as well as people with a wider spectrum of sexual identity.
  • Create more diversity-awareness courses.
  • Improve responses to incidents of bias.
  • Require annual diversity-awareness training for faculty, as well as for members of UVM fraternities and sororities.
  • Increased funding for campus groups that advance racial, gender and religious tolerance.

More: 5 things to know about the UVM students protesting racism on campus

In addition, the group’s call for renaming Bailey/Howe Library arises, they say, from Guy Bailey’s involvement in a eugenics movement that abused disabled people and people of color in Vermont. The group also seeks to rename the George H. Perkins building (although the university maintains that Henry Perkins, not George H. Perkins, was involved in the eugenics movement).

In an email late Thursday, after the street protest had ended, university spokesman Enrique Corredera outlined UVM’s courses of action:

“Here’s what’s doable, and we’re doing it,” he wrote, prefacing the following:

  • Speaking out against, and condemning in the strongest possible terms, the white supremacist campaigns that are targeting our campus .
  • Enhancing and expanding diversity and inclusion training for faculty, staff and students.
  • Taking steps to facilitate affirmative recruitment, hiring and retention of faculty of color.
  • Improving the required diversity courses.
  • Mandatory diversity/inclusion/climate/equity training for fraternities and sororities.
  • The Student Government Association (SGA) has agreed to increase funding for approved student clubs and identity centers.
  • The UVM Foundation website has been updated to present diversity giving as a top-line priority. 
  • The university has made substantial progress on a process to review requests for renaming buildings.

Corredera also elaborated on constraints he says UVM faces. “Here’s what’s not doable and why,” he wrote:

  • Treating recent postings on campus, the Black Lives Matter flag removal, and other similar incidents as hate crimes: Hate crimes are specifically defined by Vermont state law, determined by the state’s attorney, and adjudicated through the court system.
  • Expelling the student who removed the BLM flag: The student involved was afforded due process and was sanctioned. The student cannot under law be charged or sanctioned again for the same incident that has been adjudicated.
  • Prosecuting and expelling the student who was overheard allegedly making racist and threatening statements: The student is no longer enrolled at the university. UVM police cited the student into court on suspicion of disorderly conduct. The court did not find probable cause and dismissed the case.

Contributing: Jess Aloe of the Burlington Free Press. 

Contact Nicole Higgins DeSmet [email protected] or 802-660-1845. Follow her on Twitter @NicoleHDeSmet

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