[Hunger] striking against VCE: Student withdraws from College as groups question conduct process

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Aditi withdrew from the College of William and Mary after participating in two hunger strikes, going through student conduct process. COURTESY PHOTO / WM STUDENTS UNITED

Tuesday, Oct. 30, a student who goes by Aditi left the College of William and Mary. Aditi, formerly a member of the class of 2020, chose to withdraw from the College mid-semester after they were placed on disciplinary probation. Saturday, Nov. 3, Aditi left the United States, headed to their mother’s home in India. Aditi asked that their last name be withheld from publication.

“Leading up to my withdrawal, I thought about what education means. I talked a lot about languages, the white academy, the university,” Aditi said. “… William and Mary, the way it is, is part of the oppressive structures. Partaking in this institution perpetuates the things we’re trying to fight.”

Aditi is one of five students associated with William and Mary Students United who went through the student conduct process this semester. After being summoned to the Dean of Students Office for failing to comply with orders given by Student Leadership Director Anne Arseneau ’89 M.Ed. ’92 at a Sept. 4 interest meeting, Aditi went through a committee hearing and was then placed on disciplinary probation for the fall 2018 and spring 2019 semesters. Only one of the other four students, Maura Finn ’20, was placed on disciplinary probation for the remainder of the fall 2018 semester.

A few days before Aditi made the decision to withdraw, they were engaged in their second hunger strike of this semester in order to draw attention to the issue of prison labor. Responses to their hunger strike as well as the results of their conduct process contributed to Aditi’s decision to withdraw.

Origins of Students United

Students United — which is not a recognized student organization at the College — can be loosely described as a campus chapter of the broader Virginia Student Power Network, which is an organization that gives smaller campus organizations the resources needed to mobilize networks of students. George Mason University and the University of Virginia each have their own chapters of this parent organization.

According to Dalton Jared ’20, another student involved with the organization, Students United serves to fill a void that students like himself felt had been created by the dissolution of the College’s chapter of Black Lives Matter. A number of students who organized with Black Lives Matter and students who helped organize the fall 2017 protest at an AMP-sponsored American Civil Liberties Union event merged to create Students United and changed the College’s Black Lives Matter page on Facebook to “Concerned Students at William and Mary” and then to “W&M Students United.” VSPN first formed an affiliation with students at the College after Students United began organizing.

“A few people involved with the ACLU event, they either graduated or left [the College],” Aditi said. “There did seem [to be] like a void … clearly there was a lot to be changed, and it doesn’t have to be that complicated.”

Over the last several months, Aditi, Finn, Jared and others have organized events under the name Students United. For many, an event this summer created the impetus that rallied support for Students United.

Issues at hand

This rallying event was a national prison strike held Aug. 21. The strike called for the improvement of conditions inside prisons, for all prisoners to be paid their state’s minimum wage for labor they provide while imprisoned, the reinstatement of voting rights of prisoners and those formerly imprisoned and for the end of criminal justice policies and practices that target people of color. Students and alumni — many of whom are now associated with Students United — traveled to Richmond to participate in the national event.

Since then, Students United has mainly organized around the issue of divestment from prison labor, particularly the statewide contract that requires public institutions in Virginia, such as the College, to purchase furniture from Virginia Correctional Enterprises. Prisoners who produce this furniture make less than $2 per hour.

Over the past semester, Students United has identified their broad goals as raising awareness about and politicizing this issue. More narrowly, Students United wants to see the College end its relationship with VCE and have College President Katherine Rowe identify the contract with VCE as a form of modern slavery in a campus-wide message.

“We do feel hopeful. By pushing William and Mary to acknowledge that, we can cause other universities to do the same,” Jared said.

While other groups, such as the College’s chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America, are mobilizing around the issue of prison labor, Students United distinguishes itself as a loose organization that welcomes those involved to engage in any form of protest. This past semester, that has included student-hosted open mic nights, marches, hunger strikes and small group discussions. Jared referred to this strategy as a “diversity of tactics,” meant to ensure that Students United is approaching the issue from as many angles as possible.

Student activism and administrative response

The Sept. 4 event in which students gathered in the Sir Christopher Wren Courtyard to protest was advertised as an interest meeting for students who wanted to get involved with Students United. Students United distributed flyers during Convocation and planned for the meeting to be held in the Wren Yard. Students United was contacted by Arseneau over Facebook in the days leading up to the event. Arseneau informed them that only recognized student organizations could reserve the space in the Wren Yard and asked them to either find a recognized sponsor or consider relocating the event to a space designed for spontaneous expressive events.

The spontaneous expressive activities policy is part of the broader Use of Campus Facilities Policy which was last revised Oct. 15, 2013. For an event to be considered a permitted spontaneous expressive activity — phrasing Arseneau said was used to avoid the phrasing of “free speech zones” — it must either be held at a designated spontaneous activity location or at another location when advanced scheduling is not practical, if designated locations are in use, if the spontaneous activity is too large for a designated location or if the expressive value of the activity is enhanced by it taking place at a different location.

Jared said that Students United believes its event complied with the spontaneous expressive activities policy, even though Arseneau had messaged the group to the contrary, because the location at the Wren Yard was significant to Students United. Jared said that because they planned the interest meeting as a way to communicate student opinion to Rowe and other campus officials, the Wren Yard outside the President’s House was a symbolic location. Arseneau said that because the group had passed out flyers and advertised the event a week in advance, she did not find the event to be in compliance with College policy.

Arseneau also suggested that Students United reach out to YDSA and Amnesty International as potential sponsors to host this event. However, Aditi said Students United was not in favor of going through the process of securing a sponsor to legitimize their actions. Neither Amnesty International nor YDSA agreed to sponsor the event.

When students were asked to leave the event by Arseneau and Associate Dean of Students and Community Values and Restorative Practices Director Dave Gilbert, some lingered. These were the five students issued summons to begin the student conduct process.

“I very much failed to comply,” Finn said. “I didn’t think these regulations were interpreted correctly.”

“I very much failed to comply,” Finn said. “I didn’t think these regulations were interpreted correctly.”

Aditi said the response to this first event of the semester set the tone for how Students United would plan its strategy for the following months.

“When there is more repression, there is more room for rebellion,” Aditi said. “[The administrative response] made very visible the repression we were trying to point out.”

Gilbert said he believes that Students United has generally mischaracterized the opinions of College officials as a result of some students’ perceptions of the student conduct process.

“I do want to say, however, that I think matters had been mischaracterized as far as the university’s intention,” Gilbert said. “I have not heard, nor have I uttered, I have not heard any of my colleagues utter it for a moment that they are hostile towards the message here, or that they don’t support free expression. I think what students — and again, why would they, they don’t run a university — but they don’t see the bigger picture. And an example would be every institution has time, place and manner restrictions on speech.”

Since Sept. 4, Students United has hosted several events at the Meridian Coffeehouse, organized a march through campus co-hosted by the Student Environmental Action Coalition and made public remarks at Student Assembly senate meetings to share their concerns. Aditi has also engaged in two hunger strikes.

During the first hunger strike, Aditi remained on the Sadler Terrace for 54 hours in a grouping of chairs meant to symbolize a cage. Aditi and other students associated with Students United read poetry and letters written by incarcerated activists and held signs explaining their mission. Then, as Homecoming began, Aditi announced a second hunger strike. This one was planned to last for a maximum of 14 days but would end early if Aditi passed out or if Rowe acknowledged their demands. Aditi ended their second hunger strike Oct. 23 after going without food for 125 hours. Aditi lost 10 pounds during this time period.

“I am prepared to die in the fight to put an end to slavery,” Aditi said. “And I exhausted myself to work towards that at this university.”

“I ended my strike yesterday, after 125 hours without eating,” Aditi said on the W&M Students United Facebook page Oct. 24. “Much love to everyone who supported me. But the weather was too cold, as were the hearts of many of the people that I was hoping to spur into action, for me to continue to starve myself. I am prepared to die in the fight to put an end to slavery. And I exhausted myself to work towards that at this university. …”

Aditi said that while many students and faculty members were kind and supportive of them as an individual, they were disappointed by students that questioned their choice to engage in hunger strikes and by students who were not called to more radical acts of protest.

Moving forward

Although Aditi has since withdrawn from the College, Jared says he and other students plan to continue organizing under Students United.

“This process has been strenuous,” Jared said. “It has really thrown a wrench in things. It’s been slow.”

Jared also said that he hopes in the future, the group will be able to reorient; he never intended Students United to focus solely on prison reform. For Jared at least, the hope is that Students United will become a hub for all students to participate in radical organizing around a variety of issues. For example, Oct. 11, Students United hosted a discussion space for black student activists where the conversation centered on whether it was harmful or helpful for students to study abroad.

Other organizations have also become involved with Students United. UndocuTribe, an organization that advocates for the rights of student recipients of the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status policies, began circulating a petition in solidarity with Students United denouncing “unequal punishment and treatment” and demanding “the immediate reversal of the sentences against the members of W&M Students United.”

Professors have expressed solidarity as well — faculty from the Asian American and Pacific Islander academic program worked together to release a letter criticizing the treatment of Aditi and other students associated with Students United.

The letter addresses concerns stemming from Aditi’s committee hearing. Aditi began their testimony in Hindustani and they were asked to continue their testimony in English. Aditi received disciplinary probation for two semesters and Finn received disciplinary probation for one semester while other students received warnings. The APIA faculty letter calls to question whether or not the differing repercussions were a result of Aditi and Finn’s race or gender identity.

“In closing, we issue this statement as an exercise of our academic freedom but more so out of concern and dedication to our entire William & Mary community that wishes to proudly announce to our entering and current students, their families, faculty, as well as to administrators and staff members, that all who are here belong here,” the open letter signed by Asian and Pacific Islander American Studies faculty states. “We certainly hope that this is the case.”

— News Editor Leonor Grave ’ 19 also contributed to this report.