Issues arise for Tent City

A UVM policy regulating the construction of temporary structures on campus grounds caused a demonstration by Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) to be cut short last weekend, creating tension between student activist groups and the University administration. The course of the demonstration known as Tent City, a protest typically consisting of approximately 35 students camping on University grounds from early April until after finals, was impeded by a recently-passed policy regulating the erection and maintenance of temporary structures on campus. The policy, which deals specifically with the overnight occupancy of temporary structures, details that temporary structures are permitted only with prior approval by the University and that permits for overnight occupancy “generally will not exceed three consecutive nights.” Additionally, according to the policy, the placement of temporary structures at one site will not be allowed for more than 10 days. Tent City organizers were aware of the policy, which was passed by the UVM Board of Trustees last summer, but found that they faced unexpected difficulties when attempting to work with the new regulations. SLAP was told nearly two weeks after placing their permit request that, as expected, they would be given only 10 days out of their requested three weeks to hold Tent City, and that, of those 10 days, they would be able to camp out for three nights. The difficulties arose when SLAP and allied student group Students Against War (SAW) attempted to take out another permit for an additional three nights of camping. In a letter addressing the difficulties, SLAP detailed how SAW was told by Conference and Events Services and members of the administration that there needed to be a clear distinction between the two protests, specifically, that there could be no visual reference to livable wages around Tent City. In the letter, which was sent last Tuesday to President Fogel and the Board of Trustees as well as other members of the UVM community, SLAP explained how the vagueness of the policy led to multiple and contradictory interpretations by CES and the administration. The matter was brought to the attention of President Fogel Monday morning by SGA president Kesha Ram. SLAP claimed that “Fogel asserted … that the livable wage subject matter need not be censored from Tent City.” This news came after tents and livable wage messages had already been removed. In a response to SLAP’s comments, President Fogel apologized for the “unclear, contradictory communication on the Temporary Structures Policy,” and expressed regret for “any inconvenience the situation has caused you [SLAP].” Fogel excused the problems in his letter, writing that “the policy, which is relatively new, did not adequately anticipate multiple consecutive reservations by allied student groups.” Ultimately, SAW did receive permission to camp for an additional three nights, Wednesday through Friday, but the 10-day limit remained, meaning the structures at Tent City would have to be dismantled by last Sunday. “Throughout the entirety of the planning for the two Tent Cities, we were given numerous interpretations of the policies,” said SLAP in their letter, “This unconstitutional vagueness… will not be tolerated.” Although the text of the policy reads that its creation was “due to personal safety and regulatory compliance situations,” some members of SLAP have suggested that the policy addition was meant to specifically target Tent City. “The whole thing was to get us to fizzle out,” said junior Elias Whitman, a member of both SLAP and SAW, at a livable wage meeting Tuesday. “Personally, I believe Tent City provided some impetus for the restructuring of the policies,” Ram said, “However, I do not believe members of the Senior Administration had the sinister intentions that some students think they may have had.” In his letter responding to SLAP’s comments, President Fogel maintained the purpose mentioned in the policy, citing student safety and a Burlington ordinance regulating the long-term presence of temporary structures as main concerns. Several SLAP members have pointed to the fact that the policy was passed last summer, with no students around to provide input, as a sign of the administration’s ultimate motivations. Ram said the policy was proposed during last year’s spring semester, but she does not believe students were able to voice enough input. “I am certain this incident will be a catalyst for reviewing the policies with more student involvement and better communication to the student body,” Ram said. Regardless of the motivations behind the policy, many student activists in SLAP and SAW view the new limitations as a violation of their constitutional right to free speech. “Because they were trying to control our messaging, it was a violation of our rights,” said sophomore SLAP member Lindsey Gillies, “This is not about livable wages, it is about free speech.” On Monday, SLAP appealed the policy to Conference and Events Services, but has not received substantial information regarding the future of Tent City after the permit is up on Sunday. In anticipation of a possible eviction by the police Sunday, one member of SLAP commented that they were ready to take measures of civil disobedience in order to protect their rights. At a livable wage meeting last Tuesday, there was talk of filing a complaint with the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), once all means of contesting the policy within the administration had been exhausted. This is the third year that SLAP has held the Tent City protest. They identify it as their “most visible tactic” in fighting for livable wages for all UVM employees. A livable wage is the hourly pay regarded as sufficient for a worker to meet basic needs. The livable wage for urban Vermont has most recently been estimated at $13.94 an hour by the Joint Fiscal Office. It is estimated that at least 250 employees at UVM are not earning that wage; however, President Fogel has maintained that the University is one of the most responsible employers in the state, offering some of the highest floor wages of any university. The two previous Tent City demonstrations, and other actions by SLAP, have resulted in the creation of a livable wage task force by the University administration, as well as moderate wage increases that SLAP felt did not satisfy the livable wage criteria.