Students United stages demonstration to protest College’s use of prison labor

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Hunger strike conducted by Students United on the Sadler Terrace. MADELINE MONROE / THE FLAT HAT

Starting Wednesday, Sept. 19, a three-day demonstration was staged by a group calling themselves W&M Students United to protest the College of William and Mary’s use and purchase of furniture from Virginia Correctional Enterprises. 

According to W&M Students United’s Facebook page, the demonstration  serves to emulate a prison cage using the College’s own chairs. The demonstration’s hunger strike, which meant to underscore the $2 a day worth of food afforded to prisoners, saw one student referred to as Aditi go without food for 54 hours.

“In an attempt to resist the state’s efforts to degrade and disappear prisoners, and to make the William & Mary community confront the system of slavery that they are encouraged to disregard and forced to be complicit in, comrade Aditi has put themselves in a cage on the terrace,” the group said in a statement on their Facebook page. “This cage has been symbolically constructed from furniture that Virginia forces prisoners to make for almost no compensation. Aditi will stay in the cage from Wednesday to Friday. They hope that witnessing a student living, working, sleeping, sacrificing their “normal” or prescribed lifestyle in a cage, right at the center of campus will shake William & Mary out of its state of apathy.”

According to College spokesperson Suzanne Clavet, the College spent an estimated $1.2 million on VCE-related products and services in the 2017 fiscal year and $504,000 in the 2018 fiscal year. In comparison, the College spent $984,000 in FY17 and $240,000 in FY18 on products and services outside of VCE. Clavet said what makes up the most of the College’s VCE purchases is furniture for residence halls.

“Although formerly required to purchase certain goods and services from VCE, William and Mary has been granted additional discretion in the area of procurement,” Clavet said in an email. “As a result, the university last year began adding other vendors for these purchases and reducing furniture purchases directly from VCE. We have been closely following the issue raised recently on our campus and are studying our own options, which we have invited student leadership of those concerned to discuss.”

“Although formerly required to purchase certain goods and services from VCE, William and Mary has been granted additional discretion in the area of procurement,” Clavet said in an email. “As a result, the university last year began adding other vendors for these purchases and reducing furniture purchases directly from VCE. We have been closely following the issue raised recently on our campus and are studying our own options, which we have invited student leadership of those concerned to discuss.”

Maura Finn ’20 said she believed the demonstration helped bring people of all viewpoints together to converse on campus, instead of keeping the conversation within student Facebook pages like Discourse. 

“I think it really did raise a lot of awareness — a lot of people came up and talked to the people around and learned more information and wanted to get more involved,” Finn said. “… It was cool to see things able to be talked about in real life rather than just over Discourse because its real person to real person in a way that is very different than Facebook or other online platforms.”

Individuals associated with Students United  met with Student Assembly Sept. 18 to voice their concerns regarding the College’s use and purchasing of furniture from VCE. Students United intended for SA to work with them to create a resolution that would address these concerns and condemn the College’s use of prison labor, which they see as perpetuation of modern slavery, according to the group’s Facebook page. 

“… I’d like to offer that I believe [W&M Students United’s] participation in the Senate meeting on Tuesday is an excellent example of an opportunity for productive dialogue within our community and this is why the Student Assembly exists; to hear from the student body so all parties can work together to find appropriate avenues to share concerns and work towards positive change,” Associate Director of Student Leadership Trici Fredrick M.Ed ’05 said in an email. 

During the livestreamed meeting, individuals with Students United suggested that SA, with its connections to the administration, provided an ideal platform to raise awareness about the College’s use of prison labor, and also asked SA to support them if and when they feel that the administration has not done so. The group representing Students United also expressed interest in bringing the issue to the attention of the Board of Visitors, which meets Sept. 26-28. 

Students United also hosted a meeting Sept. 24 focusing on organizing action at the College. Virginia Student Power Network, which is a parent organization for autonomous student organizations  around the state, helped lead the meeting. 

Four students who have been involved with Students United are scheduled to appear for conduct hearings Sept. 26, according to a post on the group’s Facebook page. 

“It would mean a lot to our comrades if the community showed up to support them and at their hearings,” the Facebook post said. “There will be a discussion of activism and suppression in universities. While the administration has no interest in what the community has to say about the matter, moral support from their peers and the rest of the community would be invaluable to our friends.”

“It would mean a lot to our comrades if the community showed up to support them and at their hearings,” the Facebook post said. “There will be a discussion of activism and suppression in universities. While the administration has no interest in what the community has to say about the matter, moral support from their peers and the rest of the community would be invaluable to our friends.”

Finn, who said her hearing has already taken place, is on disciplinary  probation for the rest of the semester for failure to comply with directions.  

Disciplinary probation is defined as continued enrollment under certain conditions where if the individual engages in additional misconduct, they may be separated from the university. The probation notice was given by Community Values and Restorative Practices, which is a department in the Dean of Students Office. 

“How we see this is very much as a student repression issue and the administration is trying to silence our voices in this,” Finn said. “Essentially, we don’t agree with the citations and the fact that they’re likely to get probations like the rest of the people who have their hearings on Wednesday.”