Not much changed with last week’s Student Assembly elections. Most winners were incumbents with strong records in a strong year of fighting for student rights in a town that has long denied them. But, encouraging though the progress has been, the hardest challenges lay ahead.
p. The SA must continue to play the delicate role of projecting the student voice while carefully avoiding any tone of anger, entitlement or threat. The Williamsburg city government, a set of bodies not well acquainted to giving students a fair say, must be made to listen.
p. This requires a careful combination of force and humility, of confrontation and conciliation. For the SA to be too meek would allow the city to continue to ignore student interests; to be too aggressive would entrench it in opposition and make the disparity in our interests even more difficult to overcome.
p. The city council remains unresponsive to students. In a Feb. 12 interview with The Flat Hat, Mayor Jeanne Zeidler continued to offer the same transparent excuses for anti-student legislation. For example, when asked about the infamous three-person rule — which has only ever been enforced against students daring to live in houses as if we were actual human beings, and not against large extended families or unrelated migrant workers — Zeidler first said she couldn’t be held responsible for the law because it had been passed in 1991, before her tenure (never mind that she has the power to overturn it).
p. Zeidler then trotted out the same tired excuse she’s been citing for years, saying that the law protects against “too many cars in neighborhoods that weren’t built for cars.” Never mind that the city already limits the number of parking passes per residence, that it could limit them further if parking became a problem and that open parking spaces remain plentiful even on the most student-heavy streets.
p. But the fact that Zeidler was willing to sit down for an interview with The Flat Hat at all — that she has become increasingly compelled to talk to students, even if only to pay us lip service — is a good sign. While going from dismissive to placative may not seem a tremendous improvement, and while it does nothing to excuse the city council’s absurd behavior, it is a step in the right direction.
p. The only real way to bring accountability to the city council is by electing a student, thus ensuring that at least one of the five council members will give students fair and equal rights while also sending the message to current and future council members that they must be responsive to students or risk losing office. That student, of course, may very well be Matt Beato ’09.
p. Beato already broke governmental ground in Williamsburg by being one of the first SA senators to work for furthering student interests rather than merely using the office as a platform for getting into a good law school. He was also elected to the Williamsburg Soil and Water Conservation Board. While not exactly a corridor of legislative power, the board has given Beato an opportunity to prove that he cares about Williamsburg beyond the boundaries of campus and that he is dedicated to serving residents even in the most mundane of ways.
p. However, Beato will not win on the student vote alone. Many of the thousand students registered may allow the short-term demands of final exams to overpower their democratic duty. Two years ago, David Sievers ’07 won 712 votes in his run for city council, almost all of which came from non-students. Sievers campaigned heavily in lower class and non-white communities; students are not the only ignored constituency in Williamsburg. Beato must energize those same electorates for a chance at city council.
p. He has already begun to receive a warm reception from the rest of the Williamsburg community. On March 12, a Virginia Gazette reader wrote, “I’m happy that William and Mary students are using their newfound voting power responsibly. Putting up one fairly moderate student in Beato is much better than anything I or my neighbors feared.”
p. There is no question tensions may rise as we students elbow our way into the decision-making of a community that has typically only acknowledged the needs of tourists and retirees. While it may be tempting to leverage our franchise to force our will, righteous though our demands for equal rights may be, we are still only one part of a many-faceted Williamsburg. It is only by working alongside these differing peoples and politics of our city that we may truly progress.
p. Max Fisher is a senior at the College.