The Second Takeover
March 2, 2016
Jagbandhansingh said he was also one of the 22 students who occupied Waterman for a second time in 1991 — this time for 20 days.
Coor had resigned at this point, and was succeeded by George Davis, according to UVM’s history of the presidents.
“The [administration] said okay, the new president is going to sign the document to affirm his intention to uphold the meaning [and] spirit of this document and then he refused to do that,” Jagbandhansingh said. “Then we got upset…You are not going to even say the words? Come on, you’re gonna drag your feet but you aren’t even sign this document that we worked hard to get?”
Until the spring semester of 1991, Davis had pledged he would sign the Waterman Agreement that had been drawn up by Coor and minority students during the 1988 Waterman Takeover, according to a history of the event.
However, at the start of the next semester, Davis changed his mind.
“I came to the conclusion that I was not prepared to sign the agreement because I felt I would not be able to deliver on the promises made,” Davis said.
At that point, 5.8 percent of students and 5.2 percent of faculty members were of a minority, according to data reported in a May 1991 edition of The Vermont Times.
The only other public higher education institution with lower levels of representation in New England was the University of New Hampshire, according to the data.
In December of 1990, Maude Lightburn, an African-American professor at UVM, was fired, according to a January 1991 Cynic article. Lightburn filed charges of racial discrimination against UVM, according to the article.
“It wasn’t just a bunch of crazy students of color,” Jagbandhansingh said. “The way [the protest over Lightburn’s firing] was able to happen was that there were a lot of white supporters who also cared. We want a good education. This is important for us. It’s important for the world, so then we had the takeover in 1991.”
Meghan O’Rourke ‘04 was a student at the time, and said while only 22 students occupied the second floor of the Waterman building, the rest of the building was occupied daily by hundreds of students who were teaching about diversity at UVM.
O’Rourke said that while helping with a video project after the takeover, she remembered students being interviewed and saying they had learned more about racism in those two weeks than their entire time at the University.
Mike Griefendorf ‘90, who graduated a year before, was working as a cook at the Radisson Hotel in Burlington at the time, and said he knew many students on campus.
“I was just a privileged white kid myself,” Griefendorf said, “but because they were my friends, I joined the movement and so did a lot of other white kids.”
A lot of the student activism that ignited the second Waterman takeover was a reaction to actual hate crimes and rape on campus, he said.
“The Asian and black students felt harassed at the time,” Griefendorf said.
The Black Student Union did not participate as much in this takeover compared the one in 1988, he said.
“They were more well off and didn’t want to screw up the opportunity of their education,” Griefendorf said.
“The event attracted all kinds of races of people,” he said. “Gay men would complain that they weren’t getting enough attention, Native Americans from the state of Vermont felt unrepresented and the Irish community of Vermont started to call us out because the Irish were shit on when they first came to the state of Vermont.”
During the first two days of the protest, Davis climbed a ladder to the second floor balcony to meet with the students occupying his own office, according to a Cynic article.
“We have a lot of work to do. Many, if not all, of their concerns are valid,” Davis said in an April 24, 1991 Burlington Free Press article.
After the third day of the takeover, Davis said in an interview that his recent actions had not helped his relations with minority students at the school.
“For me, as a white Vermont student who had grown up with very little contact with people of color outside of my media diet on the ‘70s and ‘80s, my eyes were open to the personal racism that people experienced, both outright hate-racism and sort of side-eyed racism and the institutional racism that people were experiencing with the University,” O’Rourke said.
The institutional racism she referred to included using affirmative action to recruit students of color from mostly white prep schools, she said.
“That was the kind of institutional stuff that was going on and was challenged by the students,” O’Rourke said. “So in that environment, and having my eyes opened I understood that, ‘Fuck you, whitey!’ was talking to history, not to skin color and not to the individual.”
Griefendorf said the “real power hub” in the University at that time was the board of trustees.
“People started protesting them and that got under their skin so they would start to move meetings around,” he said. “So that was very effective, to go right to the decision makers.”
According to a board of trustees resolution that was unanimously adopted May 4, 1991, the board stated their “firm support” of Davis’ decision not to negotiate demands with anyone “unauthorized” to occupying the University’s property.
The board further stated the University “will not develop policies, procedures and programs in an atmosphere of coercion and duress,” according to the 1991 resolution.
After 20 days of occupation, on May 12, 1991, approximately 90 state police officers pulled up outside of the Waterman building, put eight students still occupying Waterman into a bus and took them away, Griefendorf said.
“I don’t think anyone knew what day, people probably assumed that at some point arrests would happen,” O’Rourke said, “but I don’t think people knew it was going to happen at that time or in that manner,”
Most of the original 22 students who had occupied the building left once a police order had been issued, but eight students and a faculty member stayed behind, according to videos of the arrests from the Center for Media and Democracy.
“While I saw one of my friends being arrested, there was another guy petting his head [as a comforting gesture] which still really is emotional to think about for me today,” Griefendorf said.
O’Rourke was protesting outside Waterman while the arrests were taking place, she said.
When the bus filled with the arrested students was about to leave, community members and students sat in front of it, she said, in an attempt to support their friends who had put their University careers on the line.
The majority of those who tried to stop the bus were also arrested, O’Rourke said.
“That feeling as if you’re part of something that is pushing forward a conversation, that you’re finally being heard by a campus, by a community, that you’re finally being possibly heard of people in a position of power, and then to realized how powerless you really are is very emotional,” she said.
Howard Dean, the lieutenant governor of Vermont at the time, sent a letter to Davis after the arrests praising him on handling the situation “in the most outstanding, humane way possible,” according to the letter.
As for getting arrested for his actions in the 1991 Waterman Takeover, Jagbandhansingh said in the 2011 video, “It is what it is.”