Power To Disrupt: Limits And Possibilities Of Campus Sit-Ins
Above Photo: Sit-in at Johns Hopkins University protesting ICE contracts and armed police on campus. Photo: democracynow.org
What role can sit-ins play in building radical, bottom-up class power on college campuses in the US? Four recent examples to draw lessons for revolutionary campus struggle.
College campuses are systems of capitalist domination: of workers, students and surrounding communities. But campus revolts have been on the rise in recent years. In the US, for instance, as the university system comes to rely more and more on cheap, precarious labor, teacher and graduate student union struggles have been on the rise.
As public funds for colleges are slashed, tuitions increase, and campuses become key sites for fascist recruitment among disillusioned youth, many students are pushing back in occupations, walk-outs, demonstrations and other actions.
In struggles for power on-campus, the sit-in is one of the most often-used tools — although the results are mixed. Sit-ins can be powerful weapons helping shift the balance of university power for the dominated class. But they can also become sinkholes of time and energy leading to reprisals from administrators, burn-out and infighting.
Now that a new school year has begun, what lessons can we learn from recent sit-ins about how and when to use them well? And what other, and more radical, possibilities can sit-ins point us towards? To answer these questions, I look at a few recent sit-ins that happened on very different kinds of campuses. Allowing for differences, we can mine those struggles for organizing lessons.
JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY, BALTIMORE, MD
The 35-day Hopkins sit-in that began on April 3, 2019 exploded out of a longer struggle against the administration’s push for an armed, private police force on campus. Hopkins justifies that push for the sake of both public safety and keeping up with its “urban university peers” — relying on a method that has already had deadly results across the country. In the process the school strengthens its links to Baltimore’s violently racist police force.
For about a year beforehand, the fight at Hopkins focused on contacting the JHU admins for more information and asking for a reversal of the decision. The sit-in was organized by grad and undergrad groups like Students Against Private Police and Hopkins Coalition Against ICE, with the anti-ICE coalition spearheading campus tour disruptions to affect Hopkins’ bottom line. But organizers drew on a wider base than just students, connecting, for instance, with nurses in the process of unionizing at Johns Hopkins Hospital and coordinating closely with the “the West Wednesdays” weekly demos against police violence, which began to protest the police murder of Tyrone West in Baltimore.
Originally, organizers planned a single-day occupation of the lobby of the administration building that houses the university president’s office. Once the action began, though, the occupiers decided to escalate to an indefinite occupation until administrators met their demands: disband the private police force being prepared for Hopkins; end the medical school’s training of ICE agents; and push for justice for Tyrone West.
For most of its duration the occupation was symbolic. The building functioned much as it had before: admininstrators, staff and students could freely enter and leave. Throughout, a key focus of the struggle was an aggressive media campaign against Hopkins, with organizers winning high visibility for their struggle in national media outlets like the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education. The administration, however, refused to budge on the demands. And so on May 8, the sit-in escalated. Occupiers locked the doors and shut down all access to non-protesters.
The administration’s response was swift. That night, 100 armed police forcibly evicted the handful of remaning occupiers. Protesters primarily turned to social media to attack the university while continuing support for West Wednesdays.
Despite the highly publicized eviction, the results of the sit-in have been mixed. Admins only agreed to meet after the eviction — at the end of July, when many of the students had left campus. At the meeting they agreed only to a vague campus event about the private police force and ignored calls to end ICE collaboration and disband the private police force. The meeting ended with admins announcing investigations of students and possible retaliation against occupiers.
Yet at the start of the fall term administrators folded to one key demand: the medical school announced it would not renew its contract with ICE. While the struggle is now on a weaker footing after the eviction and with impending reprisals, there is a possibility of escalation by protesters this academic year — especially if solidarity with the nurses’ unionizing efforts develops into a more coordinated and active struggle.
UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH, PITTSBURGH, PA
On November 14, 2017, a handful of students began a sit-in within Pitt’s “Cathedral of Learning.” The action was an escalation from a wider campus struggle that year around issues like Pitt’s use of armed police and skyrocketing undergraduate tuition. Pitt was no stranger to either occupation or the struggle against police: in 2016, students protesting Trump’s election briefly occupied Litchfield Towers and were attacked by campus cops.
The 2017 occupation lasted about 15 hours. First, students marched into the Chancellor’s office prepared to stay indefinitely. After being evicted shortly after by campus police, they moved to a public space on the second floor of the building for the rest of the day and some of the evening.
The organizers’ primary demands appeared to be disarming campus police and freezing tuition. But while they called for concessions from the administration they also seemed to refuse the logic of demands. The sit-in declared itself autonomous, saying: “We do not need you to notice us: we only need the time and space to join with one another.”
The sit-in ended when the students were evicted around 11 PM. The next day, organizers paired with Food Not Bombs to distribute radical literature and food on campus. Students called for a mass walk-out for a few days later, which developed into a march through campus that disbanded in the early evening.
Few concrete gains were won. The Pitt police are still armed, and in academic year 2018–2019, tuition for out-of-state students increased by 4.75 percent, and increased again for all students the next academic year. But communiques from the sit-in point out the consciousness-raising and potentially radicalizing nature of the action, which helped reveal the repressive and dismissive power of the campus’s ruling class.
SWARTHMORE COLLEGE, SWARTHMORE, PA
TW: white supremacy, attacks on minorities and the LGBTQ community and sexual violence
The 2019 Swarthmore College sit-in was a response to a series of damning leaks of internal documents from the Phi Psi fraternity. Those leaks detailed the frat’s history of sexual assault, misogyny and white supremacy as well as hatred directed at the LBGTQ community.
Beginning on April 27, 2019, students occupied the inside and front lawn of the Phi Psi frat house on campus for five days. The sit-in — at a school with a long history of using the tactic — was an escalation of months-long organizing by the group Organizing 4 Survivors — alongside others — who had been running a social media campaign gathering reports about Phi Psi. Organizers were also gathering signatures of alumni promising to withold donations until demands were met. The demands were for frats to be banned from campus and for fraternity housing to be converted into spaces to be used by minority students and survivors of abuse.
This first phase involved around 100 students — or more than 6 percent of the student body, a large proportion of the student body compared to other recent US campus sit-ins. During this phase, both campus fraternities voluntarily disbanded. The administration began an investigation into the issues raised by organizers, but would not agree to ban fraternities in general or seize their houses. So students escalated into a second phase, occupying the president’s office.
Those who wanted to enter were initially allowed. But police cut them off from their comrades, food and bathrooms, ultimately threatening the students with arrest. After two days in the office the occupiers left.
In the following days, a number of students began a hunger-strike. Organizers prepared a town hall to which they invited administrators and students to discuss the eviction and the wider issues of sexual, gender and racial violence on campus. One dean sent a prepared statement of sympathy; the rest of the college’s bureaucrats ignored the invitation altogether.
In the aftermath, however, the president announced that all fraternities and sororities would be banned on campus starting in 2022, though without acceding to organizer demands about how Greek housing would be used, and without allowing students a concrete say in its allocation.
The administration also began its retaliation. What supposedly began as study of frat misconduct became largely an investigation of protesters. Admins announced coming punishments of unknown severity.
GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY, WASHINGTON, DC
The 2016 occupation of the president’s office at Georgetown is one of the more successful in recent memory.
That sit-in was a flashpoint in the struggle by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and their allies across the world against Nike. In 2015, an independent monitor of Nike factories abroad, the Worker Rights Consortium, issued a report detailing Nike’s abuse of its factory workers in Vietnam. In response, Nike denied wrongdoing and rejected all independent monitoring of its factories.
Founded in 1998, USAS has a long history of effective militant organizing and direct actions against university admins and multinational corporations. Following the WRC’s report, USAS coordinated a national campaign on college campuses in the US, coordinated with worker struggles in Nike factories globally, aimed at winning a commitment from Nike to independent monitoring and humane treatment for its workers.
The sit-in at Georgetown was spearheaded by the USAS local there, the Georgetown Solidarity Committee (GSC), and grew out of many months of organizing against sweatshops on campus. The action lasted about 35 hours. Its demands were that Georgetown require Nike — the school’s athletic sponsor — to adhere to Georgetown’s code of conduct in its treatment of workers and accept independent monitoring of its factories abroad.
At the start of its struggle, the GSC met with Georgetown’s president to present their demands, without result. GSC then began an escalation strategy to develop a broad base of support among faculty and students, starting with low-stakes actions — a three-day barefoot protest against Nike’s sweatshop-made sneakers — and moving to higher-stakes and more aggressive ones — a “party-in” in the president’s office and a phone zap to tie up its phone lines. When the president continued to refuse to meet the demands, the GSC escalated to an occupation of the president’s office at the beginning of December, three weeks before contract renegotiations with Nike.
During the sit-in the president offered to meet in person with the organizers, but the activists refused. They called instead for a binding commitment to the GSC’s demands. At this point, two faculty, allies of GSC, stepped in — helping shift the balance of power in the sit-in’s favor. The two professors declared they were serving as mediators, but also helped convey the occupiers’ resolve to the president. By stepping in, the faculty also underlined the fact that the GSC had built up active solidarity among students and faculty. That solidarity carried with it a threat: further escalation could include other key sectors of the campus too.
The president folded to all of the GSC’s terms. Georgetown would give Nike an ultimatum: sign on to the school’s code of conduct and agree to independent monitoring of its factories or the contract with Nike would end. The university hired a mediator to hammer out the agreement with Nike over the next six months. Interestingly, the national organization, USAS, escalated anyway, keeping the pressure up during the months-long negotiations after the sit-in. In a show of strength, it helped coordinate an international day of action as Nike and Georgetown drew up their new contract. The GSC joined organizers across the country to picket major downtown Nike stores. Workers in 12 countries likewise walked out or demonstrated. By this point, Rutgers University and the entire University of California system had cut ties with Nike after similar USAS campaigns. In August, Nike agreed to Georgetown’s terms in full.
Administrator reprisals against the GSC were fairly limited. For instance, occupying students were put on disciplinary probation and each of the group’s expenditures became subject to administrative approval.
SOME TENTATIVE LESSONS
A risky if sometimes useful tactic
It is extremely difficult to pull off a sit-in that builds bottom-up power on a college campus.
A sit-in can begin as a creative, surprising disruption, but it immediately becomes reactive and defensive. The administration knows where its enemy is at all times, and admins typically control the building (including its bathrooms) and watch and record everything relentlessly, preparing to retaliate.
All of this means that sit-ins can be sinkholes of energy for a movement. If a struggle uses the sit-in tactic too soon, or without properly preparing, or as its primary weapon (see below), it can do much more harm than good — leading to burnout and vicious punishments from admins.
What matters is power for large-scale disruption — especially of a school’s money-flow
Many sit-ins are symbolic moral gestures. They appeal to the conscience of administrators but shy away from seizing the power to stop or disrupt campus life in a major way. But moral appeals often achieve little, even at religious or supposedly “progressive” colleges. (In fact, a school’s moral branding can work like a shield against organizing.) What matters is power to disrupt business as usual — and above all, power to disrupt the flow of money.
The most recent sit-in in Swarthmore won a major demand — the banning of Greek life from campus, a testament to its power of disruption. But it did not threaten to disrupt more basic functions of campus life beyond frat housing and admin offices. This is likely why admins refuse to negotiate on how to repurpose Greek housing and why they are building towards an intense retaliation. Compare this to the nine-day 2018 sit-in at Swarthmore by Organizing 4 Survivors. In that earlier action, though they did not get everything they demanded, organizers ousted a dean — also a major concession from admins — without a strong retaliation. This happened by more directly targeting the college’s ability to receive federal money: it challenged Swarthmore’s Title IX reporting, or its compliance with federally mandated procedures for reporting sex disrimination along with sexual harassment and assault.
In Hopkins and Swarthmore we see the importance of concrete power over campus life and money. Without it, even if demands are won organizations will have to sink huge amounts of time and effort fending off reprisals for survival, likely sidelining alll other organizing projects.
It seems no mistake that the struggle at Hopkins won the single demand it did — an end to the medical school’s ICE contract. That was the demand most closely related to unionizing nurses, who were proving their ability to mobilize in their workplace against management.
By the same token, Georgetown’s success seems rooted in the fact that it could credibly threaten the flow of campus money. Before the sit-in, the GSC had carefully built its base among both students and faculty. Its escalation plan prepared that base for more militant future actions. More than this, the GSC is part of a militant national organization with a well-documented history of student and worker labor organizing. Admins could expect large-scale pickets, walkouts, strikes or other disruptions if they didn’t negotiate. This power seems crucial not only to the group’s victory but also to the less severe punishments visited on GSC than those still hanging over other recent occupiers.
One weapon among many
All of this means that the most successful sit-ins seem to be those planned months or years in advance. And they are not end-points, but mid-points in broader escalation strategies. In other words, they are best seen as one limited tactic among many in a broader fight for campus power — one that must especially target campus cash flow.
BEYOND THE SIT-IN: CLASS POWER OVER THE CAMPUS
If sit-ins are limited, mid-level tactics, what lies beyond them? What can sit-ins teach us about building bottom-up power in more radical ways?
A college campus only functions because of what staff, teachers and students do. Without those education workers, the campus shuts down. Really shifting the balance of class forces would mean helping radicalize and connect the groups on campus who keep it working. And it would require a wide range of tactics, from sit-ins to one-on-ones, marches on bosses, walkouts, sick-outs, flying or stable pickets, and quickie and longer strikes, all as part of a coherent strategy for gradually building bottom-up class power.
The South Sound General Education Union is an interesting experiment in this direction. The SSGEU is building a solidarity union aiming to connect all education workers on a campus — students, faculty, food service workers and beyond. While more time is needed to judge, this model appears to have won some impressive victories: the elimination of a campus police position and the creation of a new full-time faculty position in political economy.
But we should not forget another key piece of campus class power: the radical struggles of surrounding communities. Today’s campus is a neocolonial capitalist force harassing and displacing surrounding communities. Worker-student-community coalitions help show, more clearly than many other campus groups can, that the university is a sight of struggle between rulers and the dominated class.
Here in Philly, for example, the Stadium Stompers — bringing together students, faculty and community members — have been successfully fighting off Temple University’s push for a new football stadium. Their struggle highlights the interconnection of campus resistance to a ruling class: that the racist plan for a disruptive stadium in North Philly comes from an unaccountable bureaucracy wielding the millions paid by indebted students and created by exploited workers.
Sit-ins alone cannot shift the balance of class powers on campus. To do that, we need to build the kind of radical worker-student-community solidarity that alone can seize hold of campus life itself.