COMMENTARY: Barchi continues to silence activist voices on campus

University President Robert L. Barchi barred student activists from delivering an important message at Van Nest Hall’s ribbon cutting ceremony. Student demonstrators from Rutgers United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) hoped to inform gathered alumni of posed criminal charges of 12 student activists following a peaceful protest last December.

Friday evening was the grand opening ceremony for new Alumni House at Van Nest Hall. Before Barchi cut the ribbon, USAS members informed the audience that their donations go toward suppressing free speech on campus and criminalizing student activism. Barchi did not allow much further elaboration from the students, as administrators at the event attempted to escort the organizers away from the podium. The students with criminal charges from the University are facing enormous legal fees and have been met with apathy, condescension and contempt from administration. Legal counsel of the 12 charged has confirmed that the president has the power to drop the charges. Friday night, they hoped to receive a response from Barchi and a promise that he would do just that, asking the president to not just "cut the ribbon" in front of this hall but to cut the rope that binds the hands of student activists on campus. The president did not respond to the request.

Instead, pushing the mic away, Barchi addressed the crowd saying, “I do recognize that I’m at Rutgers because this is Rutgers. This is what we live with all the time. We are passionately committed to First Amendment rights. We are passionately committed to the right to free speech and the right to academic freedom.” This comment, though, does not align with Barchi’s actions, which demonstrated tonight, as well as last December, that the administration is set upon stifling student voices in favor of University profit. Barchi went on to say that he hopes our alumni are “proud enough to be part of Rutgers, proud enough to say ... ‘Do you know what’s happening at the University today? Do you know where the University is going?’” If this were truly the case, alumni would be informed of the University’s strict new protest policy, its criminalization of students and its intolerance of dissent on campus.

Last December, USAS members and supporting students and workers attended a Rutgers University Board of Trustees meeting to demand a University-wide livable wage through peaceful occupation of the meeting space. USAS presented the following demand to the Board of Trustees prior to the aforementioned meeting: instate a $15 minimum wage or forfeit the space to make financial decisions. In an effort to stop the forewarned protest, Barchi enacted a wage raise to $11 on campus just hours before the Board meeting. Undeterred by this attempt to disorganize, USAS still occupied the space as the demand for a livable wage has still not been met. Soon after the successful protest, Rutgers University Police Department (RUPD) started harassing students who attended the protest, repeatedly calling, showing up at their living space and following them around campus under the guise of needing them to come in for questioning. During winter session, 12 randomly selected demonstrators were issued criminal charges for disrupting meetings and processions and obstructing the administration of law or government function. The case is still active, and the longevity of the charges causes continued dread and strain for the 12 activists, who face mounting legal fees to afford representation as well as the looming dread of legal matters amid the stresses of undergraduate and post-grad life.  

USAS, a nationwide labor rights organization, has been running the campaign for a livable wage at Rutgers since November 2016. MIT’s Wage Calculator estimates that the minimum cost of living in Middlesex County is just short of $15. For the well-being of all University employees, USAS demands that Rutgers allocate less than 1 percent of its more than $800,000,000 of unrestricted reserves to the wellness of the students and community it employs. With no compliance from administration, and exhaustive navigation of the channels of formal request, USAS turns to escalated means. Such demonstrations include protests at all public administrative meetings during the academic year, regular campus leafleting and community outreach and a 300-person march that shut down George Street in March 2018.

We encourage any student, University employed worker or New Brunswick community member who believes Rutgers workers deserve better than poverty wages to reach out to us in the fight for justice, power, and $15 an hour.

Rutgers United Students Against Sweatshops is the Rutgers chapter of a national grassroots movement that runs campaigns to build power for working people. 


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