Reclaiming our rights

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September 25, 2007

4:39 PM

Imagine a place. It is hot, green, beautiful. People live there. They are divided. Two groups, each the same size but with one ruling absolutely over the other. The oppressed are peaceful but powerless in their own home. The ruling class forbids them representation in government, forces them off of the desirable land, and invents imaginatively cruel laws to punish them for crimes real and imagined. But the severest crime of the oppressed class is existing.

p. The oppressed have appealed for outside help many times but are always denied. The would-be saviors see the injustice, they say, but are too busy with their own problems to intercede. So the oppressed must fight for themselves, must stand up in unison to demand equality, must seize it themselves if necessary.

p. That place could be Sudan, Rwanda, Afghanistan. But it is not. That place is Williamsburg. The oppressed are us, the students of the College. The time for oppression is over. The chains have rusted and together we are strong enough to break them. Today.
The abuses we have suffered at the hands of the Williamsburg city government are many and severe. For years, we were not allowed to vote here, though it is the norm in Virginia and elsewhere to allow students to register in their college town. The history of our disenfranchisement — students have been denied the right to vote for everything from their places of worship to the area code on their cell phones — is discussed in my Sept. 4 column.

p. The city leadership fights to keep us from living off-campus. A ridiculous law forbidding more than three unrelated people to live together served as the city’s excuse for evicting 38 students from their homes this spring. Meanwhile, 80 non-student Williamsburg residents living in violation of the same law were allowed to keep their homes. More examples of the city’s hypocrisy and persecution of students are explored in my Aug. 24 column.

p. Every year things get worse for students living in Williamsburg. The city, led by the five members of the City Council, finds more ways to harass students. But this year will be the last. This year, we have regained the right to vote in Williamsburg.

p. You can register to vote in Williamsburg. You can do it right now. You can go online, to sa.wm.edu/voteinwilliamsburg. You can go to the University Center where, all this week during lunch and dinner, members of the Student Assembly will help you to register in a few quick moments. The process, beginning to end, can be finished in a couple of minutes. There are no risks. It costs nothing.

p. As College President Gene Nichol wrote in an e-mail to students just before last spring’s election, “This community will be your home for four years or more. It is your present center of focus and engagement. The decisions of its civic leaders, you have indicated, can have a substantial impact on your lives. And you believe, as I do, that you are full members of this community — entitled to equal rights of political participation and ready to shoulder the civic responsibilities that are their constant companion.”

p. The election was an historic one. A student, David Sievers ’07, ran for the City Council. Though the city successfully blocked almost every student from registering to vote, Sievers came within 155 votes of winning a seat on the council. (A sign, perhaps, that many non-students in Williamsburg are growing increasingly uncomfortable with the city’s persecution of students.) Since then, with the right to vote returned by the newly appointed registrar, we have registered an estimated 400 students to vote in Williamsburg.

p. But this is still not enough. Even if the election ran again today, and Sievers won, he would still be outnumbered in City Council, one student among four of the anti-student elite. This May 6, a week before commencement, three of the five seats of the city council are up for re-election.

p. There are over 7,000 students at the College, every one of whom is affected by the city’s discriminatory policies. It is only if three of those students run for the office, and if enough of their classmates support them with their vote, that equality and justice can return to Williamsburg.

p. In the past years we have been disenfranchised, harassed, talked down to and herded about the streets of our own town like so many cattle. Now is our chance to reclaim our rights. For, though the political landscape of Williamsburg may tell a different tale, we are not Rwandan, Sudanese or Afghani. We are American.

p. Our forefathers, our heritage and our revolution are shining beacons toward which we must now march. If we succeed in this march, at the end of which is the return of our rights as equal citizens, then it is not only because of our tradition of democracy that we succeed, but for it. But should we fail, we will have only ourselves to blame.

p. __Max Fisher is a senior at the College.__

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