Ohio University has responded to a sit-in protest last week in Baker University Center, where approximately 70 students and others were arrested Wednesday evening after about 200 Ohio University students, faculty and community members staged the protest.
The protest was a watershed moment for OU and Athens’ shared history, in part because the number of arrests – 70 – is far larger than arrests that resulted from almost all of the historic protests on campus. For example, about 45 people were arrested during anti-Vietnam War protests in 1970, according to some newspaper records. The only protest that appears to have resulted in a larger number of arrests than last week’s sanctuary campus protest was an anti-Gulf War protest in 1991, where 100 people were arrested.
All of the protesters – who in part were demanding that OU become a “sanctuary campus” – were charged with criminal trespassing, according to the OU Police’s report from the event, and are scheduled to appear in Athens Municipal Court today and Thursday. Criminal trespassing is a fourth-degree misdemeanor, which under Ohio Revised Code carries a maximum jail time of 30 days and a fine of up to $250.
The OU Police in a statement called the protest “unsafe and unlawful.” In addition to the criminal trespassing charge, each student arrested will also be called before OU’s Office of Community Standards and Student Responsibility, meaning the students could be punished additionally for violating OU’s Student Code of Conduct.
The OU Police Department, Athens Police Department and State Highway Patrol all had officers present at Baker Center when the arrests happened around 8 p.m. Wednesday last week; the non-OUPD police agencies responded to a request for aid from the OUPD.
OU’s media relations office released a statement soon after the arrests, although an updated statement was released Friday last week. The university’s rationale for the arrests, according to that statement, is that the protesters created an “unsafe condition, impeding ingress and egress to the building and disrupting” student services and events in the building.
“OUPD worked with Baker Center staff to find an alternative space in the building for the group and at 7:22 p.m. Chief Powers advised the group that their gathering was unlawful and offered them the alternative space,” an OU spokesperson wrote. “Chief Powers followed up with several more announcements explaining to those assembled that they had to leave or face arrest, and offering them the alternative space in Baker, as well as other spaces on campus, to legally continue their demonstration.
“At 7:58 p.m. – after almost 40 minutes and repeated warnings – Chief Powers gave the order for officers to begin arresting those who were refusing to leave.”
Prior to the arrests, dozens of protesters sat peacefully on the fourth floor of Baker Center while sharing stories and political messages through megaphones. Holding signs reading “No wall, no ban, resist,” “Make racists afraid again,” and “Trump is a Nazi,” the protesters in part were responding to U.S. president Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel and immigration to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries, for which a stay was issued Friday by a U.S. federal district court judge in Washington state.
The protesters demanded that OU become a “sanctuary campus,” meaning the university would take a public stance – as others have in recent months – such that it will not cooperate with federal immigration authorities in deportation or other actions relating to its students or staff. Some threats have already been made by state legislators and Trump to pull federal funding from universities that become sanctuaries.
The OU protesters also demanded the university not allow concealed carry of guns on campus. OU in its official response said that the university has “heard the protesters’ demands.” OU Student Senate passed a resolution Wednesday in support of OU becoming a sanctuary campus, which OU said it was in receipt of.
“We do not take these concerns lightly and have been engaged in a discussion about the conceal carry bill and what the term ‘sanctuary campus’ would mean for our university community – a conversation that continues and has included our Board of Trustees at its most recent meeting in January,” OU wrote in its response. “Our core and treasured values of our university community have not changed. We have not wavered from our support and commitment to members of our University community who are impacted by recent executive orders, most especially members of our international community.”
OU Police Chief Andrew Powers said in an interview soon after the arrests that the fourth floor of Baker Center is “not a meeting space.”
“This is a transit space,” Powers said. “...If there had been an emergency in the building we would have had chaos in here and we could have had people hurt.”
Protest organizer and OU student Bobby Walker said that it was “absolutely absurd” to arrest so many students for a peaceful protest.
“No one expected the university to react that badly,” Walker said. “…The last time people occupied Baker Center they had until midnight (to leave). I don’t know what it was about this crowd that was different. Maybe it’s just because it’s bigger or maybe it’s the political climate we’re living in – I don’t know.”
Powers said one of the main issues was access to the building’s entrance and exits, although at one point early in the protest, this reporter observed the protesters clearing a path for people to walk through after being asked to by police.
By the time the protesters were arrested, the police had cleared the room of all media and onlookers and barred further entry to the room. This reporter was threatened with arrest if he didn’t exit the room, although the officers present at the time refused to say on what grounds.
The arrested protesters were held in Baker Center Ballroom – with zip-tie handcuffs – for at least an hour before being released slowly throughout the evening. Walker said her cuffs were too tight and provided a picture of bruising on her arms.
The arrests for trespassing are a far cry from a student-led sit-in protest that occurred in the exact same part of Baker Center in 2014. No students were arrested, and they were allowed to stay past Baker Center’s closing time (midnight, at the time). OU administrators also came to meet the protesters in that situation.
“Last time, the person in charge of Baker Center made a decision to open the facility longer than it was (supposed to be open),” Powers said. “The problem is that every time that we do this, if we allow anyone to do it, we’ve got to allow everyone to do it. That means that if the Ku Klux Klan came in and sat in on the rotunda, we’d have to let them stay if we’ve allowed other people to stay.”
Caitlyn McDaniel, an OU alumna who was arrested last week during the sit-in, also attended the sit-in protest in 2014. She noted that she’s attended at least four sit-ins at OU in the recent years where very few or no students were arrested.
“It’s never been like this,” she said.
McDaniel said she was puzzled as to why the sit-in led to so many arrests.
“Maybe they’re scared,” McDaniel said of the university’s position in the Trump era. “…I don’t think they’d figured out what side they wanted to come down on, and I think they picked the wrong side.”
The sit-in started as a protest in front of the Athens County Courthouse with roughly 300 attendees, with themes on signs and in chants reminiscent of #NoWallNoBan protests that have spread across the country. The protesters then took to the streets, marched up Court Street, and entered Baker Center around 5:30 p.m.
According to a Tweet from Emma Ockerman, editor-in-chief of OU’s student newspaper, The Post, one of The Posts’ designers was arrested.
“A designer for @ThePost was charged with criminal trespassing for existing in the building where we make the paper. Just released,” she wrote.
A legal defense fund for the arrested protesters was created soon after the arrests. As of Monday morning, more than $10,000 had been raised.
EARLIER IN THE DAY, Ziad Abu-Rish, an OU assistant professor of history, commended the bravery of the non-citizen students (on visas and otherwise) present at the protest outside the Courthouse prior to the sit-in. He said those from the seven countries in Trump’s travel ban have “never attacked this country,” and decried the damage that Trump’s executive order does to immigrant families, including those at OU who wish to do research abroad.
“We are standing with millions of people around the country and the world that are taking to the streets to say no to racism, no to xenophobia, no to anti-immigrant bans, and no to all the problematic authoritarian fascist homophobic and sexist policies of the Trump administration and many other right-wing administrations in the world today,” Abu-Rish said
The protesters during the sit-in asked OU administration to meet them to talk with them about their demands. The protest group’s original demands follow:
• That OU make a statement condemning the travel/immigration ban on Trump’s part, and develop a plan to make the university a “sanctuary campus.”
• Include “immigration status” as a protected class under OU’s definition of harassment and discrimination. A very similar proposal was sent to OU Provost Pam Benoit on the part of OU Faculty Senate in early January, but it’s not clear if she has approved the proposal as an official OU policy yet.
• “Do not allow concealed carry weapons on campus.” OU’s Student Senate, Faculty Senate and Graduate Senate have all passed measures asking the OU Board of Trustees not to allow concealed carry on campus.
Protest organizer Walker said during the sit-in that it’s no longer enough for people to “sit on Facebook and Twitter” and complain about the Trump administration. She argued that physically “being there” for protests is how change will come about.
“There are a lot of people here who are prepared to sit down and occupy this space for a while,” Walker said. “...until the administration comes here and is ready to meet our demands, because we want to win.”
OU wrote in its statement that Jason Pina, OU’s VP for Student Affairs, and Jenny Hall-Jones, OU’s dean of students, were attending a “campus conversation” meeting during the protests about “responding thoughtfully to oppressive comments and actions.”
“Through efforts of our staff in the International Student and Faculty Services Office to President McDavis’ own leadership actions, support and advocacy (for those affected by Trump’s executive orders) has and will continue,” OU wrote. “Additionally, we have not removed the current conceal carry ban in place on our campuses and we have not altered any of our policies, procedures, or support as it relates to protecting and assisting students, faculty, and staff regardless of immigration status.”
For a gallery of photos of the protest, see here.
Editor’s note: Special thank you goes to OU student Austin Linfante with The New Political for researching the history of protest arrests at OU.