Living Wage Coalition takes one more seat before the final bow

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April 21, 2011

10:58 PM

The end has finally come. The Living Wage Coalition has played its trump card and occupied College of William and Mary President Taylor Reveley’s office. A few weeks ago, I incorrectly predicted that the LWC would not, in the end, occupy a building, even though all successful such movements have to resort to building occupations. It turns out they are not playing at “protesting,” as I had originally thought, but, in fact, are very serious about it. The leaders of the group did their homework and were prepared to take the protest all the way. As strange as it might seem — considering the general lack of sympathy from the rest of campus — the LWC has a good shot at forcing concessions.

This might seem counterintuitive to those who have read the stream of editorials issuing from campus publications that instruct the LWC to tone down their chanting and to have a sober debate. The consensus seems to be that this would be a more effective way to advance their goals. If we lived in a perfectly rational and logical society, this may be the case but the fact is that the LWC knows exactly what it is doing and how best to advance its cause. They have carefully avoided or thwarted any rational discussions about their demands. They would lose in such a situation because they do not have a large base of supporters or any sort of actual plan of implementation. This is not because they are juvenile or stupid. Instead, it is because they know they don’t need a majority or a budget plan. Slogans and emotional appeals are much more effective and are harder to dissect and criticize. In the end, their position is not based on economic logic, but on morality.

The leaders of the LWC are following to the letter similar protests at Harvard University and Washington University in St. Louis. The occupation of the president’s office was the culminating step in the year-long campaign. It is possible the LWC hoped to avoid such a measure, but given the current financial environment, they probably knew it would come to this.

The year of escalating protests served to gain them campus-wide recognition and lent a modicum of legitimacy to their occupation, which it would not have done if they had quickly gone from protesting to occupation. They could claim that it was because the administration didn’t listen to them that they were driven to such drastic measures. This is by design, of course, as their campaign strategically made any real dialogue with the administration impossible.

Occupations succeed mainly because of the press. Media attention, especially around college decision time, ties the administration’s hands in dealing with protesters. They do not want to be perceived as overly authoritarian, so, from a strictly public relations perspective, the only choice is to make enough concessions to get the protestors out of the building.

The administration, however, seems to have been either unwilling or unable to placate the LWC. It is likely they expected and prepared for an eventual occupation. They followed the playbook perfectly. After waiting for most of the day so that they could claim to have let the LWC exercise their “right” to express dissent, they moved swiftly and effectively. A few hours later the police were called in to remove the students. All in all, the administration came out on top. The College may get a bit of bad press for “authoritarian practices,” but the protest was too short-lived to garner major attention. The current incarnation of the LWC is likely done for. Many of its most involved members will graduate and their campaign, which relied on escalating disturbances, has no path forward. They may try one last stunt before the year is out, but the administration has shown that it is prepared to deal with them decisively.

At least we can say we had a real building occupation in our time here. After all, the new line is that dramatic protests are part of a complete college education.

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