Impressions and Musings: My Tent City Journal of Reflections

It was an unusually warm evening last Tuesday and as I often do, I made my way towards my favorite bench on the green, the one that looks between the Nicholson House and the Waterman Building, over town and across the lake to the Adirondacks. On nights like those the sky erupts into a live action oil painting with shades of pink, blue, red, orange, and purple melting out over the lake, until the sun tucks itself safely behind the mountains. As I headed for the familiar spot though, something caught my ear. Music, Neil Young specifically, emanating through the warm spring air from the other side of the green. I followed the sounds straight to the other side of the green, but as far as I could tell, there was no one there. I made my way through a grove of trees and found myself transported to a mysterious place. I couldn’t help feeling like the Pevensies as they first stumbled into Narnia; I had stumbled upon Tent City. My first encounter was with two girls putting the finishing touches on a 10’x10′ fortress constructed entirely out of empty cardboard boxes. Confused as to what I was seeing I enquired: “What’s going on here exactly?” and in unison the two girls proudly announced, “We’re building a box palace!” They had apparently not understood the question, but I figured I’d play along just the same. “What is it that you plan on doing with this box palace?” “Sleeping in it of course.” The taller of the two, a blonde girl in a flowing halter- top explained, as she ripped a piece of duct tape. Right. But why sleep in the box palace and not one of the fifteen some odd tents, or large blue tarp strung up just beyond the Heady Box Palace? I had to find out more. I strolled around the impromptu camping area and was greeted by Chris Duban who was sitting in front of a tent facing the wall of trees. Maybe he’d be able to answer my question. “What exactly is going on here?” I tried again, Chris looked a little less loopy so I assumed he would field the question in the appropriate manner. “We’re here representing S.L.A.P, the Student Labor Action Project.” Chris then went on to inform me that SLAP was working for laborers rights in Vermont where the minimum wage is $7.25. In addition to the minimum wage, the Vermont Joint Fiscal Office issues a livable wage, $12.42 in the state. This is a number that was agreed upon, as the annual income one needs to achieve basic needs such as: Food, Transportation, Child Care, Health Care, and 5% savings. On the UVM Campus between three and seven hundred Sodexho, Staff, Maintenance, and Service employees are not being paid a livable wage. The goal of S.L.A.P is to attain livable wages for all employees, the freedom for unions to organize, and responsible contractor policies. They’ve been working at their goal for the past two years, and on Friday April 7th they held what they consider to be their most successful rally to date. The following Monday, a group of protesters attempted to shut down the Waterman building, but were stopped at the door of President Fogel’s office by Gary Derr, his chief of staff. At this point, Duban turned the conversation over to Chris Costello. “We had a well devised plan and didn’t know what to expect.” He told me. “We simply wanted to get to the presidents wing and sit down, but unfortunately we got there at the same time as Gary Derr who locked the door. We then resorted to plan B, which was sitting down in front of the office. Security was called and we were forced to leave.” I was then introduced to Brady Fletcher, a Political Science major, spunky with an interesting though confident posture, it appeared that his right leg was just longer than his left. He informed me of an SGA resolution that had been passed, partly because of Sen. Sam Maron’s involvement in SLAP. Since the SGA Committee inception in October, they’ve been trying desperately to arrange a meeting between SLAP and the Presidents office and various Union leaders on campus but to no avail. Finally after “several small meetings,” a group meeting was arranged for April 28th. “We’ve been waiting too long,” Brady started, ” This meeting comes just in time for summer, it feels like the administration is waiting us out. They’ve been trying to placate us by using lofty rhetoric.” He stopped for a minute to give directions to some new residents. When I returned at 9:30 for the first official Tent City Town Meeting, a group of students were sitting on a fork lift skid strumming guitars and playing drums and maracas. The dreadlocked boy to the far right looked up at me with a big smile across his face, and nodded approvingly as I looked on. I picked up a guitar and jammed for a minute until the announcement for town meeting was made. A group gathered around the center of the grounds and a speaker went over some general guidelines to keep things peaceful, and to remind everyone there that they were camping in solidarity for every worker on campus. I left for a while to get my sleeping bag and some other things I’d need to stay that evening. Upon my return, there were three or four people at the far end of Tent City constructing a shanty out of old fencing and blue tarps. “I want to build a patio right here guys,” someone says, “who’s with me?” The shouts start to erupt from the crowd, “Build a spice-rack first!” Then talk starts of stealing materials from the Dudley Davis Center construction site, which is quickly shot down. I decided to drift to the other side of the green where I saw Brady and a group of others talking. Brady and I talked about President Fogel and how he feels that 18 year olds have no place in union negotiations. His feeling is those are professional practices that should be handled by professional people. Also, he feels that 18 and 19 year olds are not mature enough occupy Resident Assistant positions in the dorms. Karen, a nursing major graduating next year then took over the conversation. She had spoken with President Fogel at one of his luncheons regarding a dilemma she had been facing: how she will not have the pleasure of enjoying the new student center that her tuition dollars are paying for. Fogel’s response? Karen is a nursing student, and he pays $350.00 a credit for her to take classes, while his English majors only get $30.00. Isn’t it nice to see that the President cares about some students? I woke up a few times during the night to the sounds and feeling of a strong wind. I curled up in a fetal position and wrapped my spare sweater around my feet, and was able to fall back asleep. I woke up the next morning at around 8:00am to find tent city ravaged by the wind. Brady and a few others were working diligently to string up and reinforce various downed signs and to clean up plastic bags strewn across the green. The roof of the box palace as well as the shanty had also been removed over the course of the night. Some suspected a prankster, mother nature. As I shoved my sleeping bag into its stuff sack, I saw Brady conversing with a police officer over a bagel. “Nice breakfast, where’s the bacon? No pun intended.” The officer asserted. I walked over to make sure everything was alright, which it was and Brady offered me one of the bagels which had been donated by a good Samaritan. Night one successfully completed. After my classes on Wednesday, I called the President’s Office in attempt to get a comment on the situation from inside the Waterman Building. I was informed that the President and his assistant would be out all week, and I should try and get in contact with Gary Derr. I left a message with Gary’s office and he called back about twenty minutes later. Before our conversation got underway, Derr made sure that I was interested in talking to him and didn’t want to call the Provost’s office instead. I assured him that I’d be talking to Provost Bramley as well. I asked Derr how he felt about the protest that was going on, “I support their right to free speech, and I think it’s going well.” He told me. After my unfeigned conversation with Mr. Derr, I called over to Provost Bramley’s office. He was also unavailable, but I left a message for him to call back. His secretary called me a half hour later and asked if I was available to talk, and she patched me through. Provost Bramley addressed me by my first name in his pleasant British accent. I asked him the same question I started off with when talking to Gary Derr, Bramley’s response seemed a little more thought out. “Students expressing opinions about things that they’re passionate about are what universities are all about.” I followed that up with a question concerning the meeting scheduled for April 28th and how members inside the SLAP community saw this as a ploy by the administration to postpone the meeting until it was so late in the year, that people would be planning for summer, and therefore not put enough thought into the Livable Wage argument. “We’ve been in discussions to have a meeting of the minds.” This meeting would include the administration, SLAP members, Unionists, and other key players in the argument he told me, “But as far as a resolution…” His feeling is that too often in the livable wage argument, people are just looking at the numbers. Bramley would rather see a more contextual resolution reached. “This is not an easy issue to be resolved. SGA, SLAP students, and Unions all want to be a part of it. I am optimistic that the meeting will happen [and] I hope that the issues can be resolved.” After my conversations with Derr and Bramley, I headed back to Tent City. A dreadlocked girl was sitting on the grass complaining about the construction of the “Dewey” Center, I assumed she was talking about Dudley H. Davis. “I’m from Vermont, and so is my family and we don’t agree with President Fogel either, its not just students.” She said and then continued to voice her opinions on the large, unsightly building. A boy standing behind me declared, “Nothing at UVM anymore goes along with what UVM is supposed to stand for.” The person sitting next to me then announced, “Have you seen the Hummer ads in the gym? They’re huge! UVM is basically telling you to buy a Hummer, though they profess to be building the environmental university.” I left the Library at approximately 10:00pm to go back to Tent City for the evening. It seemed that there were at least twice as many tents, and a significantly larger number of people than had been there the previous evening. There had been rain, and people were apparently tired because they stayed mostly in their tents. I finally nestled in at around 2:00am after strumming through a number of songs with my friend Phil who had come out for the night to show his support. When I woke up at 8:00am the next morning, once again stuffing my sleeping bag in my half-asleep stupor, I looked up into the cold morning sun and a figure moved toward me on the path leading to the Ira Allen statue. As the shadow moved towards me, the features of a woman came into view. She smiled and asked me how I was doing, then handed me a City Market bag, and thanked me for what was going on. In the bag were croissants, donuts, and apples. I placed the bag under the blue tarp of the shanty, now dubbed the `General Store,’ and walked off toward my class. I didn’t sleep out that night, as a result of entirely too much work that I’d been slacking on a bit, but made sure to check in periodically. On my last check in of the evening, at around 12:45pm Big Dave, told me to be there the next day (Friday) at 4:00 for the Tent Fest Pot Luck and Protest. It was in the works, there would be bands, food, and continued support out on the green in an act of Civil Disobedience. The permit that SLAP had acquired officially expired Thursday evening, but they had stayed on the green regardless and had plans to do so until somebody told them they had to do otherwise. I’ve got to hand it to SLAP, for an impromptu protest they were able to spread the word. As I walked around campus on Friday, I saw flyers posted everywhere. I even had a meeting with Big Dave who was handing out flyers at Cook Commons. Ironically, one of the cashiers waited for him to leave then scurried around picking up all the flyers and cursing Dave’s actions, and irritably threw them in the trash. I arrived at Tent City at 4:30pm and there was quite the rally underway. There was roughly 250 people out on the green soaking up the sun, enjoying the food and music, and chatting about livable wages. I saw Brady in a back corner and walked over to talk to him about the weeks’ successes. The meeting that Provost Bramley so eagerly hoped to move forward, and come to a resolution at had taken place on Thursday. Only one member of SLAP was allowed in, and from what I was told not much was accomplished except the scheduling of a series of other meetings. Brady had just gotten off the phone with Pat Brown, the Director of Student Life, regarding a situation with SLAP member Colin Robinson. Apparently Colin, a member of SLAP had sent out an e-mail urging people to come to the rally. He was contacted by Provost Bramley, and “threatened,” that if he (SLAP) stayed on the green for one more evening he would be prohibited from graduating. The administration incited a violation of Burlington and University policy. Pat Brown was said to be very upset with that and in support of SLAP efforts. I personally found this paradoxical because just two days before, Provost Bramley told me that he supported students right to free speech. `Free Colin Robinson’ became the chant of the afternoon, and a 4th demand was instituted: Stop the threats on Colin Robinson. Later on Brady took center stage, and control of the megaphone. “We’ve called Fogel’s bluff!” He proclaimed, “Nobody needs to leave until we see the po-po moving in. No matter what happens, we’ve had a victory.” As the sun dropped lower in the sky, the final Tent City Town Meeting was held. Talks of protests outside the restaurant in New York where President Fogel would be dining with friends Saturday evening were had. Over all there was a feeling of victory, and people had planned to stay on the green as long as possible, believing that the Police would not bother them, that they were afraid. If they should be forced to respect their permit however, they would protest again on Monday, and for as many days after that as necessary. I received an e-mail late Friday night containing this press release:For more than two years, the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) has been taking up the task of achieving a livable wage for all UVM employees and contracted employees, the right to organize, and Responsible Contractor policies. Several accounts from UVM employees about poverty wages and the general lack of respect for labor rights on campus saddened students but also inspired them to take action. Since Tuesday, students had been camping out in a symbolic act of commitment to end the injustices at the university. On the afternoon of Friday, April 14th, these students held a peaceful protest to culminate their presence in the space, which drew upwards of three-hundred community members. At approximately 8:30 that evening, ten UVM police cruisers arrived at the Tent City on the UVM Green with the intention of removing all remaining students from the space. Eight students, coined “the Tent City Eight,” who were in the process of peacefully removing themselves, were issued trespassing notices stipulating that they may not set foot on the Main Green for six months. All the students vacated the space promptly and were later allowed to return to pack up remaining supplies and tents and to help cleaning crews. The Green was completely vacated and left in perfect condition after students left.