SDS activists hold conference in Sunken Garden on Mideast
April 25, 2007
Over the, weekend the Students for a Democratic Society hosted what they hope will become an annual Mideast convention to raise campus awareness of opportunities to better the surrounding community and encourage students to actively participate in local government. Lectures and workshops advocated peace, raised questions of political theory and addressed ways students could become involved in grass-roots organizations for social change.
Club members and organizers of the convention initially intended to camp out in the Sunken Garden in tents for the duration of the weekend-long convention.
p. “Tents serve as a great way to bring people together. They would wake up, eat breakfast together and start the day at the Convention,” SDS President Sean Sheppard, a sophomore, said. “Living with people increases understanding and solidarity, which is what we sought to recreate in establishing a tent city. It is also a great way to meet people you are not normally exposed to, a great way of learning.”
p. Participants in the convention, many of which hailed from surrounding colleges such as Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Mary Washington, were not allowed to set up tents or camp out in the Sunken Garden. When SDS presented the idea to the Office of Student Affairs in January, it was rejected.
p. “We did deny the use of the Sunken Garden for the purpose of overnight stay,” Mark Constantine, Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs, said. “We are not a campground on campus and are not equipped with bathrooms, sinks and showers for a two-night, three-day conference.”
p. The office of Student Affairs would not allow for trailers or the implementation of portable restroom facilities because they believe such amenities would interfere with the aesthetic appearance of campus.
p. Constantine declined to comment on the question of a camp-out lasting only one night because such a proposal was not presented by SDS. Six years ago students were allowed to sleep in cardboard boxes overnight in the Sunken Garden to protest homelessness. “We are always willing to look at a request and make appropriate decisions based on established policies and procedures, not on the nature of an individual organization,” he said.
p. The Office of Student Affairs did grant permission for the conference to take place and gave SDS use of classrooms for a lecture series Saturday. Although typically no two organizations are allowed to have use of the Sunken Garden at the same time, Student Affairs also granted SDS use of the north end of the area for workshops or registration Saturday, despite a conflicting event sponsored by the United Nation’s Children’s Fund.
p. “For one reason or another, tents are not allowed in the Sunken Garden. From our point of view that is censoring and against the rights outlined in the Student Handbook,” Sheppard said. “It diffused our purpose and had a considerable effect on attendance.”
p. Some tents were set up late Saturday night, but SDS was asked to take them down.
p. “Any tents that went up Sunday did not have permission of Student Affairs or the scheduling office,” Constantine said.
SDS plans to start organizing next year’s convention over the summer.
p. “In the future we will stay with the same philosophy because of health and safety concerns,” Constantine said. “I don’t think we would allow any organization to set up a tent city in the Sunken Garden.”