Failing to listen to the echoes of protest

Jessica Osorio

As a graduate student who has spent two years learning about human rights, social justice and decolonization, I felt compelled to stand in support of fellow students who are taking action so that UT is not complicit in violating the rights of workers who make Longhorn apparel. These students understand that UT’s decision to affiliate with the Worker Rights Consortium could have an impact on the working conditions of hundreds of factory workers and is a potential game-changer for the collegiate apparel industry.

But what was most appalling to me was how the administration, apparently as per University guidelines, had 18 students arrested for staying in the lobby after 5 p.m.

Under what logic does the University justify arresting students for peaceful actions? Why is it so quick to bring in the police to intimidate students?

The administration has forgotten that the University belongs to the people of the state of Texas — every space on campus is public, and as long as we are responsible, we are allowed to occupy it. But that is exactly the point; students are not allowed in the spaces where the decisions are made.

I wrote a letter requesting that President William Powers Jr. issue a public apology to the students arrested and that the administration engage in active, constructive dialogue with students on all matters that are of interest to us. Monday afternoon, I walked up to the fourth floor of the Tower to deliver my letter. Invoking my First Amendment right, I wanted to read that letter aloud to the office staff. When I arrived, the police officer who guards the entrance refused to allow me to enter and closed the glass doors. I was forced to read my letter to him and to listen to my echo in the hallway, disheartened and in tears at how the people who are supposed to represent our interests would close their doors at my sight and then go so far as to lock them.

At that moment, I understood what the Make UT Sweatshop Free Coalition is up against. Students organizing must try to have their voices heard from an administration that will first shut its doors and then ignore your echo.

The staff realized the absurdity of their actions at the presence of a single student and unlocked the doors. I eventually entered the office to deliver my letter, even though the police officer’s presence did intimidate me. The staff’s words were not welcoming, but they did stamp my letter.

I left reflecting on how scared the administration is of students. They keep a full-time police officer to guard the entrance, lest students visit for any reason. Keeping the officer there sends a clear message: You are not welcome in the president’s office.

I share my personal experience so that we all open our eyes to how decisions are made on campus. The people in the Tower decide, and students listen. Try to have your voice heard, and the door will be slammed shut. The actions of those brave students who were arrested highlights what is at stake at UT right now. First and foremost are the rights and working conditions of people around the world who toil to make us those burnt-orange T-shirts. Also at stake is our First Amendment right to freedom of speech, our rights to information (the coalition has filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the University that have yet to be answered), how the University treats students and the conception of the public university itself. We are called to question how our university is structured and to challenge the administration to meet students at the discussion table, as equal partners, not as authority figures wielding all the power.

Osorio is a Latin American studies graduate student.