Come with me once more, friends, to the JHU Sit-in. It’s 4am on Wednesday, May 8th, 2019. The sounds are those of spirited singing, hushed talk, passionate chanting, and breaking glass.
A refresher: Johns Hopkins University succeeded this year in its bid to pass legislation empowering it to form its own private police force. In reaction to this move, as well as to the fact that Hopkins has millions of dollars of contracts with U.S. Immigrations & Customs Enforcement, students staged a sit-in at the campus’s main administration building in early April.
Their demand was simple – a meeting with university president Ron Daniels to discuss their concerns. He refused. They stayed put.
As the weeks went on, the sit-in movement proved itself. Over 100 faculty members signed a letter supporting them, and other university groups from around the country pledged their solidarity. The students held meditation sessions, dance parties, yoga classes, game nights, workshops, and more. Community members, also angered and concerned by Hopkins’ actions, began to join in.
Notably, the community support for the sit-in included the West Coalition, led by Tawanda Jones in her quest for justice for her brother Tyrone West, who was killed by police during a traffic stop in 2013. One of those involved in his death was a Morgan State University officer. The sit-in added justice for Tyrone to their list of priorities.
On May 1st, the members of the sit-in escalated their protest. Without causing damage to either property or people, they barred the doors, refusing to allow the Hopkins’ administrators back in to their offices without a meeting. Rather than acquiesce, one week later, on the night with which this week’s column is concerned, the administration sent in the Baltimore Police Department, which swarmed the building and arrested the five people who were inside at the time.
One of those arrested was my friend Opal Phoenix. We spoke last month about why she got involved in the sit-in (https://one-baltimore.org/2019/07/05/one-baltimore-9-a-opal/) and two violent attacks on the protesters (https://one-baltimore.org/2019/07/10/one-baltimore-9-b-opal/). She sat down with me again this weekend to finish the story.
The interview below is lightly edited for length and clarity.
Abby: We’re finally going to talk about the subject I originally wanted to interview you about! Thank you again very much for your time. Where we left off is there had been a rumored police raid on the sit-in, a bunch of people had come out, there had been a physical attack on the students by a Hopkins professor and what we believe were homeless people who were paid.
So it’s been a crazy night, and the information was “go ahead and go home, everyone needs to get some sleep, we don’t know if this [the police raid] is happening or when it’s happening,” so I left. But you stayed in the building with the students, what was that like?
Opal: After the attacks, I was so full of emotion and trying to stay calm. We were trying to get the students who didn’t feel safe out of the building. There was a call for less marginalized people, like literally “white men hold the doors.” And I felt like, as someone who has been through intense situations before, that I should stay there regardless of my identity. Also, I was just so overcome with the brutality of what everyone faced that I wanted to make sure this story was told. That we didn’t just get out of there and there’s no call for accountability, no meeting, no nothing.
We are at the table now. Ron Daniels has finally started accepting meetings, there’s going to be open community meetings about this.
Abby: I saw that! Which was a real bone of contention from what I understand – if it’s a student-only situation or if, because they’re also policing the community, the community should have a say.
Opal: If you’re a community member, look into the Hopkins meetings and come to those, we need to hear from you. [The first of these meetings is on Thursday, 8/15: https://www.facebook.com/events/2486769098245718]
Abby: I forget how many blocks out from the campus their policing is going to extend, I know it’s the whole perimeter.
Opal: Yeah so I just felt, as someone who’s an experienced activist, I guess —
Abby: You are.
Opal: — that I should hold it down. It was a long night, hanging out, telling stories, being nervous, hearing rumors about “ooh are the police coming, are they not coming.” I’m grappling with the fact that I’m trans and I’m going to face arrest purposefully. We all kind of sat in Garland Hall, all five of us, singing protest songs.
Abby: Aw! [singing] “Do you hear the people sing”
Opal: [singing] “Solidarity forever, solidarity forever”
Abby: That’s lovely.
Opal: We sang all sorts of songs and chanted the names of victims of police brutality. We were unsure if the police were coming, but then we saw them out there, they put up barricades. Eventually we kind of heard them megaphone’ing at us but we couldn’t hear what they were saying.
Abby: [singing] “You at the barricade listen to this!”
Opal: [Student, name redacted] was livestreaming, it’s public.
Let’s pause the interview now and look to the video (https://www.facebook.com/TheGarlandSitIn/videos/2014914772148503/), which shows the hour before and during the arrest. We watched it together and I took notes, rather than making Opal recount the whole thing herself.
Below is a selection of quotes and moments, timestamped so you can find them yourself if you like. Because Facebook displays the time remaining rather than the time elapsed in their videos, that’s how I’ve done my annotation.
Video opens with Assata Shakur poems. Someone says “I love you all,” multiple voices echo back the sentiment. The students recount why they’re there and what’s happened so far.
1:12:42 Reflecting on the response of the university.
“They are so deeply afraid, the administration, and what are they afraid of? They’re afraid of their own conscience. They’re afraid of their complicity in this violence, they’re afraid of being on the wrong side of history, which they are, which they are proving tonight in their actions.”
“…we’ve been disgusted by the form of democracy that this university thinks it’s taking part in, through lobbying, through large donations that amount to bribery and corruption, throughout this city. This is not what democracy looks like, Johns Hopkins. Your form of democracy, what you claim to be an open conversation and democratic process, that is lies. That is lies. And instead we are here showing you what democracy looks like. Democracy looks like community members showing up for one another. We are all part of this community. We are all residents of Baltimore.”
1:05:03 “These last five weeks of my life have been an honor, y’all, thank you.” “Yeah, thank you.” “There’s no way I’d rather end it.” “Yeah, same.”
“It has been beautiful in this space, not only have we protested these forms of violence, but we’ve created the community we’ve wanted to see. We’ve created this space of mutual learning, protecting one another.”
“What’s going to be important now is for other people to pick this up and continue the struggle. I mean, if this space is closing down and it’s no longer the front line, people are going to need to extend that and carry this forward.”
“Remember what our comrades were saying the other day. In 1986, when this building was occupied in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, they didn’t win their demands until a year after the fact. This is not the end, this is the beginning.”
“We’re standing on the shoulders of other people in the unbroken chain of resistance, not to mix my metaphors.”
59:35 Singing a Spanish revolution song.
57:27 Singing “We Shall Overcome.”
53:52 Singing “Solidarity Forever.”
49:43 “They’re telling everyone outside to evacuate, they’re securing their personal property for quote unquote public safety. We know, of course, that the language of public safety and health has been used since the beginning of the sit-in, and abused and weaponized against the sit-in. And of course, we are also demanding health and public safety. We are demanding health and public safety for the brown and Black community members, on and off campus who will be most affected by this private police force. We are demanding public health and safety concerns to be issued towards the immigrants affected by ICE in this country at its borders, even beyond its borders.”
“We had entered into pre-negotiations, we had entered into discussing what it would take to sit down and have a conversation, and in the midst of that, they broke trust. They were so afraid of speaking to the protesters, of speaking to their own students, that instead they sent in the Baltimore Police Department to arrest them in the middle of the night, when they thought no one was watching, when they thought no one would be here.”
42:28 Showing the list of who opposes the JHU private police force, plus Ron Daniels’ salary information.
41:50 Greeting supporters outside, through the glass doors. “We love our community support, these are students, these are community members, these are staff members and TA’s.”
40:58 Showing off the “Caffeinations & Reparations” sign at the coffee station.
38:10 Looking at signs and art, and at the community library that protesters created with poetry and abolitionist writings. Guitar in the background.
34:37 Talking about the gender neutral signs they placed on the bathrooms. “We’ve faced transphobic violence. We had a counter-protester rip down these very signs and replace them with bible verses. There was a transphobic white supremacist counter protester who punched one of our members.”
32:03 Reviewing the Community Agreements posted on the wall.
25:13 Beating on door outside. Sounds of breaking glass. Singing, “Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?”
The police are cutting through the first set of doors.
“That door’s not locked” “Should we tell them?” “They’re breaking through an unlocked door right now.” “Don’t tell them!” “This is why we don’t need police.” “Who’s destroying property now, guys?” “They could literally walk through that door.” “We should charge them with conspiracy to riot!” “What are y’all doing??”
The singing rises. There is passionate yelling as the second set of doors are cut open — “We have nothing to lose but our chains!”
20:35 The police enter, with a cameraman. Protesters chanting, “No justice, no peace, no private police! No justice, no peace, no ICE in our streets!” One officer is speaking into a loudspeaker, presumably ordering the protesters to disperse, but he’s not particularly audible over the chanting.
19:08 A man in professional clothing – the vice-president of the university? – speaks into the megaphone, but he is also mostly inaudible. Protesters recount their grievances. Chants of “Shame!”
16:00 Protesters read off the names of people killed by police as the police mill around. Chanting can also be heard outside.
13:35 A police officer hands out packets listing the charges against the protesters.
6:20 The last warning to disperse is given by the police. Protesters chant, “No fear, no hate, we’ll leave when they negotiate!”
3:25 Chanting of Black Lives Matter, very loud and emotional. Police officer tells them they have amnesty and that they can just walk away if they want to leave. One leaves, the rest stay.
2:02 An officer says “You all made a statement, you’ve done a great… you made a statement. You made a statement.”
The video ends with the police cuffing the protesters.
This Sunday, the Hopkins Coalition Against ICE, along with many partners, including Never Again Action, are holding an action to #CloseTheCamps on the Jewish day of mourning of Tisha B’Av — https://www.facebook.com/events/463899701075235/
On Monday, we’ll go back to the interview and look at Opal’s experience being held in men’s prison.
Cultural Events of the Week: Can’t believe — OK I can — that the owners of the Eagle are firing all their staff AGAIN. I don’t know many details, but this is no way to treat employees or the community. The staff have organized a blowout series of events this Friday-Sunday with REALLY good drink deals and a raffle to benefit those about to be unemployed.
Oooh, AND it’s AFRAM this weekend! One of the largest African-American festivals on the east coast, in Druid Hill Park, full of entertainers and activities, and it’s FREE!
Green Event of the Week: Have you heard about the Cherry Hill Food Co-op? They’re working for healthy food access in south Baltimore, with the goal of establishing a member-owned and community-controlled grocery store. Tomorrow afternoon, Saturday 8/10, Sache Jones is giving an outdoor cooking session to support the co-op, in partnership with Black Yield Institute and the Cherry Hill Urban Garden. Learn, cook, eat, socialize!
Song of the Week: “Upon These Stones” by Claude-Michel Schönberg (Les Miserables soundtrack)
Now we pledge ourselves to hold this barricade / Let them come in their legions and they will be met / Have faith in yourselves and don’t be afraid / Let’s give ’em a screwing they’ll never forget! / This is where it begins / And if I should die in the fight to be free / Where the fighting is hardest, there will I be / Let them come if they dare, we’ll be there!